13 April 2018

There’s a role for a new centrist party, but it’s not opposing Brexit

By Alan Lockey

For something the collective “wisdom” of political Twitter finds so patently ludicrous, the idea of a new “centre” party doesn’t half seem resilient. Just what is it about the SDP, our electoral system and “one per centrist” memes, these people don’t understand? 

Well, for a start, a little about Britain’s more recent political history. Indeed, as Nick Clegg – an apparent advocate – and the unfortunates of Scottish Labour know only too well, the political fortunes of mainstream parties can change quickly. This, as former Labour adviser Theo Bertram has painstakingly set out, is not a passing phase of British politics either – its the new normal.

For all the hyper-partisan behaviour of political activists, the best evidence shows more and more British people are open to changing political allegiances. This explains the rapid, spectacular and largely unheralded rise, not just of the SNP, but of Brexit and Corbyn too. It also explains how the two main parties can increase their vote share even as 46 per cent of participants in one election poll felt a new centre party was needed. 

Furthermore, right across Europe new political parties are enjoying all manner of electoral success. President Macron is the most famous “centrist” example but there are also parties of the Left, Right and just about any ideological hue you could imagine too. Alongside the insurgent turn in British politics, this should show that irrespective of contingent factors, something fundamental (technology, obviously) has lowered the political contest’s barriers to entry.

The debate about a new centre party’s viability should therefore focus less on whether the old practical hurdles can be surmounted – they can. The more important question is whether there is an intellectual case for this new party. And if so, what is it? 

This is where the decisions facing Simon Franks, the former Labour donor said to be funding a new centrist party, and others, such as “Renew”, which launched in February, start to become more difficult. Because in truth there are two impulses driving the new party clamour, and they do not sit easily with one another. The first is a view that with but a cigarette paper between the Labour and Tory positions on Brexit, soft Brexiteers – let alone Remain refuseniks – are insufficiently represented in the current ecosystem. The second is that the job of “centrist” politics is to reconcile competing vested interests towards a unified national mission. In other words, to place the job of healing social divisions above and beyond other partisan considerations. 

This second argument is not, as sometimes characterised, a vacuous or principle-free position: an instinct, not an ideology. In fact, it is a rather straightforward expression of modern political liberalism, which, in the work of John Rawls and others, grants a primacy to pluralism and tolerance of the other. And in Britain, where such liberalism has long been content to act through its Labour and Tory surrogates, it also plays a constitutionally critical function.

Unlike America, with its various institutional protections, only mainstream party restraint protects electoral losers from the tyranny of the majority. In fact, this is why a hatred for Margaret Thatcher still burns so brightly in parts of Britain to this day. For the Iron Lady provides arguably the only post-war example of when an electorally successful project proceeded with its ideological fervour untempered by thoughts of national unity. 

Of course, the Thatcherite response – as indeed the Corbynite response might be now – is that such consensual liberalism is of little use when vested interests need a judge, not a referee. The problem for would-be new parties is that this is exactly the demand currently being made by the anti-Brexit forces. It is all very well saying you want to form a pragmatic, anti-tribal, unifying political movement. But that simply cannot be sustained if you take the most socially divisive line on the biggest political question of the day. 

That isn’t to say Britain couldn’t use such a new party. Tolerance is in short supply (including from so-called liberals) and at least one, if not both, our major parties are supremely uninterested in healing social divisions. The challenge then becomes finding something other than Brexit to propel a new movement through its early stages. Or, more importantly, to provide a source of party unity around which naturally diverse views on economics and public services can coalesce. 

Personally, I would explore the political frustration (at least in England and Wales – in Scotland it has already found its lightning rod) with Britain’s extraordinary over-centralisation. Not least because the local seems a much more appropriate level for negotiating political compromise than the national. However, whatever they eventually decide, it is this question that the new party enthusiasts must now busy themselves with. Opposing Brexit is not an intellectually credible option. 

Alan Lockey is head of the Modern Economy Programme at Demos.