24 March 2017

Who will claim Britain’s centre ground?


Brexit to the Right, Trots to the Left, Britain’s moderate middle is stuck in the middle… but with whom?

Anyone to the Left of Ken Clarke or the Right of Alistair Darling doesn’t have much of a political home right now. Appalled by what they assume will be a Brexit disaster and the hopelessness of a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn, Britain’s moderates – which is to say its overwhelmingly metropolitan, wealthy, liberal, moderates – wonder why the world hates them so much.

One answer, of course, is that they are the people who, on the whole, have benefited from the great era of economic openness that, they correctly fear, may be drawing to a close. They are not the forgotten or the left behind and when Theresa May casts aspersions on “citizens of nowhere”, the metropolitan, liberal, elites know who she has in mind. Who, then, will speak for them?

It is true that “elite” nowadays appears to mean 48 per cent of the population but there is more to it than that. Hence the suggestion that Britain needs a political realignment that allows an outlet for alientated voters. Time to create an alternative. Time, then, for a new party of the centre.

But what is the purpose of this new party to be? What does it believe in? And are those beliefs more than just an expression of distaste for the alternatives to the Right and Left?

There is plainly room for a party devoted to the principle that neither this Labour party nor this iteration of the Conservative party should be trusted to run anything more challenging than a bath. But a party that aspires to really mean something has to offer more than that.

As the Liberal Democrats have discovered, the centre is trickier ground than is commonly appreciated. True, there are options: a policy of equidistance – the political equivalent of a stock-market tracker fund – offers safety but at the expense of commitment. You will never be caught outside the mainstream but you lack the kind of convictions that, in the end, are a necessary part of winning elections. Goldilocks liberalism – neither too right, nor too left, but just about centre – allows for ample amounts of preening self-congratulation but it’s not a formula for gaining power.

The harder alternative is to organise yourself around a defined and fixed set of liberal principles and trust that the positive argument for liberalism will be enough to win the day. This has the advantage of a certain nobility but runs into the awkward reality that a liberal party for actual liberals has to cope with the disagreeable fact there aren’t as many actual liberals out there as liberals like to think. Why, at present, you can’t even fill the Liberal Democrats with actual liberals.

There are other difficulties. A new party has to be something more than a plangent lament that the Labour party might now be irretrievably broken. It can’t just be New Labour Redux. Times change; the world moves on. What worked then will not necessarily work now. Clocks cannot be wound back.

Granted New Labour was only possible because when Tony Blair became leader the Conservative party had been in power for 15 years. It was, in that respect, the product of some despair too. But it was a reformed Labour party capitalising on Tory weakness and feeding on the carcass of a Conservative government whose raison d’être had long since expired. In that respect, the circumstances for a new kind of Labour party were propitious. There was a happy collision between a man and his moment. Other Labour leaders, other Labour parties, could have won in 1997; none would have won like Blair.

Those conditions do not apply at present. Or at least, not yet. Liberal conservatives have, at present, no reason to abandon their Prime Minister even if they fret she is leading the country towards a sub-optimal Brexit. A new party of the centre, however, must include a hefty number of One Nation Tories if it is to be a truly new and truly centrist, moderate, entity. At present, however, there is no reason for a Nicky Morgan or an Anna Soubry to defect.

If you believe Brexit likely to be a disaster, the time for a new alternative is after, not before, that sentiment becomes widely-shared. It is when – or if – the people feel the country is in a mess that they will be prepared to look kindly upon a party promising a new way out of it. “A new way out” is also a more attractive proposition than “we told you so, you fools”.

By that time, of course, it is possible even Jeremy Corbyn will have shuffled off this political coil. I wage no money on that proposition since stubbornness is Corbyn’s defining quality but it must remain possible that a crushing defeat in 2020 will persuade even the current Labour membership that things can’t go on like this. At least, not forever.

At that point, however, the need for a new party as envisaged by depressed Labour moderates right now, melts away. Their attentions will be grabbed by the possibility of saving and then reviving the Labour party. Why bother treating with liberals and moderate Tories when you have your own people to resuscitate first?

Therein lies the rub. Any new party risks being little more than an alliance of convenience triggered by a particularly unusual set of political circumstances. What would hold it together once those circumstances no longer apply or no longer seem exceptional? It is easier to see what it would be against – Kippers and Sparts and all their sympathisers – than what it would be for. Openness? Sure, but what does that mean?

Where, moreover, would this new party win? To ask the question is to be reminded of the central futility behind any new enterprise of this sort. Even if we grant that a new party could fare well in, being generous, 50 seats that still leaves it in permanent opposition and with no more purchase over affairs than the SNP, who are discovering that having numbers isn’t the same as having influence.

And who would lead it? Again, there is no obvious Blairesque talent waiting for the chance to seize the initiative and redefine the field upon which British politics is played. For better or worse, for richer or poorer, we are stuck with the parties we have. Institutional and tribal loyalty remains too strong and crowds out alternatives.

No, I am afraid it will not do. If Britain’s moderates really want a new future for moderate, liberal, politics, a new party seems a particularly unpromising vehicle for such an enterprise.

In a better-ordered world Labour and Tory moderates might each see a future for a renewed liberalism and a revived Liberal party but, as matters stand, the Liberal Democrats seem an insufficient vessel for that kind of project. And if the Lib Dems cannot seize this liberal opportunity, it is hard to see how or why a new party that must inevitably be a rival to the Lib Dems as much as it would be an alternative to the parties of Left and Right, would be in any great position to thrive.

Which means liberals – of whatever type and in whichever party – will have to hunker down and wait. The time is not yet ripe for that liberal revival. Others must fail, and be seen to fail, first.

Alex Massie is a political commentator