3 April 2017

The radical case for the political centre


We live in an age when the ideologues have the upper hand, or at least the microphone.

Political debate is dominated by strident voices on the Right and the Left, each insisting that theirs is the way, that people have tired of politics as usual, tired of compromise and consensus. That the centre is not just shrunken but empty, deserted by voters who instead crave certainty and clarity.

In the echo chambers that increasingly define our online media landscape, the two dominant voices belong to Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn.

We can – and will – debate the causes of this apparent polarisation for years to come. Economically, people who feel let down by traditional politics will inevitably be more receptive to non-traditional politicians.

Technologically, the immediacy and personalisation of online communication and consumption has fundamentally changed the way we understand the world, our place in it and our experience of it.

People who can tailor their news to affirm their worldview, and customise their shopping experience, are less inclined – or even able – to compromise when it comes to politics. They’re also more acutely aware of losses they might have suffered, or of gains they’ve foregone, not least because they’re almost drowning in information about people who have things that they don’t have.

In this new world of extremes, radicalism is a mantle that has generally been claimed by those furthest from the centre: the ideologues on the Right and the Left who insist that the world must be broken and remade according to their particular idea. The centre, by contrast, is sensible, consensual, cautious. A little bit boring.

But when Mary Ann Sieghart, the chair of the Social Market Foundation, coined the phrase “the radical centre”, she probably didn’t realise how prescient she was being.

In an age of anger and extremes, the moderate, sensible centre is actually the place to find the real radicals – because to seek compromise and consensus is to challenge orthodoxy and go against the prevailing mood.

I appreciate that many readers may be sceptical about this, given that for some people, “centrist” has become almost a dirty word. But doesn’t there need to be a space for the people who think taxes should be low enough to reward effort, but high enough to fund a compassionate state and reformed public services? The people who voted Remain even though they could see the flaws of the EU, and the people who voted Leave but now worry that whatever comes next won’t be quite as rosy as the bright-eyed Brexit salesmen made out? The people who are fairly relaxed about immigration, and can even see its benefits, yet who accept that not everyone sees things that way?

For these people, the centre isn’t empty – it’s where they’ve always been. But the politicians stopped listening to them.

So giving a voice to today’s centrists is necessary, but not sufficient. We need not just to defend the centre ground, but to expand it – to persuade more people to see the world in shades of grey, to accept that where things aren’t working, the answer is not to succumb to anger and despair, but to seek sensible, realistic solutions, and support the leaders who offer them.

It doesn’t matter where those ideas come from and it doesn’t matter what party those leaders belong to – or if that party even exists yet. What matters that the ideas are good ones and that the leaders are willing to argue for and implement them.

On economics, the market is and will remain the best mechanism for determining who gets what, for generating and distributing wealth. It needs to be defended – both against those who believe the state can do a better job, and those who ignore the flaws that threaten to make markets politically unacceptable.

Markets, after all, do not exist for their own sake, or as an abstract intellectual concept. They exist in the real world, with all the limitations and flaws of the real world. They exist as a means to an end – and that end is the maximisation of human wealth and happiness.

When people feel markets are rigged against them, and in favour of others, the answer is neither to tell them that they’re right, nor to that they just haven’t understood how the system works. The answer is to give them the tools and information to make markets work more fairly.

People need to feel they have real influence over the markets they work in and purchase in, and the services they consume. The “us and them” division between capital and labour disfigures our national economic life: we need a country where workers are also owners, holding a real stake in the economy and confident their voice will be heard in the workplace and the marketplace.

In the first paper ever published by the Social Market Foundation – which I have just joined from The Daily Telegraph – Robert Skidelsky identified a social market economy as one “embedded in social arrangements regarded as fair”.

Britain is a country that runs on this idea of fairness. No policy or political offer is sustainable if it is seen to be unfair, to reward the undeserving and deny the virtuous and industrious their just deserts.

That doesn’t mean equality of outcome, the contest fixed to ensure that all share the same prizes. It means a fair fight, a game played on a level playing field.

When we talk about fair markets, we don’t mean ones where the outcomes are set by politicians or bureaucrats – not least because both of those groups are bad at working out the best possible outcomes. We mean markets where everyone competes fairly, a contest where talent and effort and courage are the things that determine who gets what. Because competition between people and companies produces better outcomes than any government plan or quota.

Yet too many markets today are not properly competitive, and so not fair.

Sometimes unfairness exists between those competing to supply their labour. The competition for university places and professional careers isn’t fair, because some people start out with advantages they haven’t earned, while others are held back by chains they can’t even see, let alone break.

Sometimes unfairness exists because customers don’t have enough information about the products they’re buying, meaning suppliers have too much power over buyers. Poorer people face a higher rate of inflation than richer ones, perhaps because the markets they buy in aren’t transparent enough. Pension savers are exploited and extorted by an industry that isn’t open enough about its charges.

Sometimes those customers just don’t have enough choice because there isn’t enough competition among the firms supplying them. Monopoly and oligopoly are not abstract concepts from economics textbooks, but accurate descriptions of some of the markets that matter most to our everyday lives, where a few big players find it too easy to dominate and challengers still struggle to enter.

And sometimes unfairness exists because the benefits of competition are not properly shared. A labour market flexible enough to absorb immigration and technology-driven “platform” working has made Britain, in aggregate, better off. But the gains are not obvious enough to all because our over-centralised state fails to localise the economic benefits of immigration, and our tax and benefits system still don’t properly reward the hard work of the low-paid.

As technology and rising lifespans transform our ideas about work and careers, the need to make markets fair is only growing. We must find ways to equip people and communities for those changes, to ensure that they have the skills and education and social capital to compete fully and fairly.

When markets work fairly and freely, everyone wins. Everyone is better off. When they don’t work, people are left poorer, but also angrier, denied the sense of control over their own lives that we all need and deserve. The desire to assert that control defines our politics today.

Yet politics is not, as the ideologues would have it, about one side winning a final, smashing victory over the other. And whatever else the EU referendum did, it encouraged the idea that there is such a thing as an outright win in politics – that the victors should be able to dictate terms while the losers shut up and accept them.

Not only is that a misreading of the way democracy works, it’s a dangerous one. The worst ideas in politics are the ones that go unchallenged, unquestioned. That’s why we have a Parliament, a permanent check on the power of government. Questioning the way ministers implement the referendum result is not, as some would have it, undemocratic. It is democracy in action.

Just as markets should not be dominated by a single supplier, politics should be the fiercest possible competition between ideas. Democracy is a conversation, an argument that never ends, and all voices must be heard in that conversation. Not so that one side can “win” the argument over one form of Brexit or another. But to ensure that whatever decisions are reached, and whatever outcomes are achieved, those decisions and outcomes are those supported by the greatest number of people.

That means rejecting the extremism of the ideologues, of all persuasions. I believe the “hard Brexit” of the true believers must be challenged, because it reflects the wishes of a few on the fringe, not the pragmatic majority in the centre. But I believe the same of argument that Brexit must be stopped in its tracks. The referendum cannot be used to silence those unhappy about the result – but nor can its result be ignored.

And the politics of the radical centre must go beyond the technical details of policy and economics. We need to think again about identity, community, and nation. The politicians and arguments that have made gains in recent years are those who have understood the feelings many people have about their group and its place in a changing world.

Many in the centre have not thought enough about those things – or worse, have not accepted that those feelings are important and valid.

Open markets, open borders and open minds are not things that can simply be imposed on Britain because they are rational and beneficial. Politics is not just a job for calculating machines, intent only on the most rational allocation of resources. we must understand the forces and feelings that drive voters to support those whose politics and policies are not necessarily in their interests.

Fair markets, fair competition and common sense are an indivisible part of what it is to be British. Identifying and building a political centre means understanding and accepting Britain.

And at a time when too many in politics want to identify and magnify the differences between them and between voters and communities, it also means looking for unity and agreement, for people of all parties who want fair and sensible policies that put results above dogma.

Since my move to the SMF was announced, many friends, in politics and beyond, have wished me well. But many have also told me I’m making a brave move, that now is a bad time to be making the case for the centre.

I disagree. For all the talk of a fundamental change in our politics and economies, I believe many of the important things have not changed and will not change – that there has never been a better time to be what I refer to as militantly sensible.

The great majority of people in Britain remain sensible, open-minded and practical, interested less in the philosophical origins of political platforms than in their effects.

They don’t want bureaucratic diktats and they don’t want a free-for-all. They want markets that work, and work for them. They want a country that’s fair, where everyone starts the race from the same line and runs the same course, confident they can compete equally – and that anyone can win, because the results haven’t been fixed either by the state or by previous winners.

In short, they remain in the centre, waiting patiently for leadership, ideas and inspiration.

James Kirkup is the new Director of the Social Market Foundation