The New Centrism: Labour’s struggle for authenticity in the age of populism

A central preoccupation of the Corbyn project has been a rejection of centrism. However, on Brexit Labour maybe be succumbing to it, and in the process allowing Liberals to be reborn as the authentic voice in opposition to the populist right. In this long read, Sam Pallis questions whether viewing spin as an intrinsic product of ideological centrism is blinding us to a problem closer to home.

In the last four years, the prevalent narrative for the Labour Party has revolved around the negation of centrism. Though centrism is often seen as a by-word for “liberalism”, in fact the label of centrism has taken on a wider meaning of the political culture of triangulation, double-speak, and spin. Thus, centrism has taken on a twofold meaning: one ascribed to an ideology of moderation (i.e. liberalism) and one related to a political culture antithetical to authenticity. Triangulation is far from the exclusive property of liberalism, neither does liberalism have to be articulated through triangulation. Within our current context, many liberals have been described as militants and extremists. Rather than being seen as a pragmatist, a figure such as President Macron is often perceived as an uncompromising globalist neo-liberal who is determined to bring about a federalist Europe.

In this age of populism, many liberals have been reborn as authentic ideological voices rather than just career politicians following the “moderate” line. One of the side effects of the populist age is to relegate those who follow an ‘ideology of moderation’ to the periphery of the centre ground of the populist political moment. Macron may just be following a reheated variant of the third way but in our epoch, in the battle of cultures that is emerging, many see his stance as offering an authentic alternative to the populist right. Just take a look at the French European Election results where the Macron- endorsed L’Alternative was just 1% behind Le Pen’s National Rally. To put this in perspective, at the last French Election in 2014 Le Pen was on 25%, nearly 4% ahead of her competitor, and the centrist group The Democratic Movement was on 10%.

This is far from saying that Labour should adopt an ideology of moderation, but in the settlement that is emerging there can be no middle ground when it comes to taking on the populist right. The Remain/Leave divide is where this fissure has developed in our country. The results of the European Election have proved that if we do not take a definitive stand on this issue, it will be liberals, not socialists who will come to be seen as the authentic voice in opposition to the populist right in our country.

Labour’s position is emblematic of the dilemma instigated by the advent of the populist age. It is tied to the idea that economics will win out and that if only Brexit can be dealt with then there will be a return to business as usual. But the age of populism is just the beginning of the left’s travails.  The climate emergency that we face will deepen these fissures on an unprecedented scale whether that be through climate refugees or disputes over resources. Nativists on the right will draw upon all their powers to defend capital and to denigrate the ‘other’ for the failure of free markets. Labour has to confront this battle now or allow our settlement to be defined by this kind of nativism.

The spectre of triangulation looms large over Labour electoral prospects. Peterborough revealed the ideal scenario for the Labour Party in Leave seats. It manages to hold onto enough votes whilst the Conservative vote just about manages to garner enough votes to deprive the Brexit Party of winning a seat. Peterborough demonstrates that the Brexit Party may split the Right. But a centrist position, where Labour neither advocates for Brexit nor rejects it bears many risks. Labour’s vote share in Peterborough was down from 48% at the 2017 election to 30.9%, with 8.6% swing to the Brexit Party. As polling expert John Curtice has stated Labour’s result is the lowest share of the vote to win in a by-election. That does not bode well for achieving a Labour majority government in the current climate. Neither can the impact of the Liberal Democrats be written off. In 2005 and 2010 the Liberal Democrat vote went up by around 3% in Peterborough, helping to deprive Labour of the seat. In the current by-election, their vote share went up by 8.9% and if the Conservative vote had gone below 20%, as Polls indicated it might, that could have been a crucial factor in deciding whether Labour retained the seat. Remain votes could be as just as crucial in Leave seats as in Remain areas if there really is a Conservative implosion.

The Purist or the expedient

Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas More offer two opposing perspectives on triangulation: the expedient or purist. Niccolo Machiavelli in his notion of virtu, exhibited in The Prince, inverted Aristotelian ethics to redefine virtue as the maintenance of power at any cost, rather than the upholding of beneficence and concord. Machiavelli by no stretch of the imagination can be called a liberal. Though his writings may have contributed to the European Enlightenment, they relied on early modern notions of politics and philosophy. His familiar understanding of political rule shows us that the notion of triangulation or doing what it takes to maintain power is hardly a new phenomenon that somehow emerged through the advent of mass media, political parties or the ideology of moderation. Nor is it exclusive to one side of the political spectrum.

The promise of the Corbyn project is not just the repudiation of an ideology but also a political culture. Thomas More’s Utopia occupies the other side of the binary. More’s aspirations can be seen to coincide with many ideological elements of the Corbyn project e.g. radical forms of redistribution. But it is in More’s notion of the statesman as philosopher rather than fixer that we can see the crux of what the Corbyn project longs to show: that expediency represents the corruption rather than the foundation of decision making. However, the difficulty is that on the defining issue of our times, Brexit, the position of the Labour Party is unclear. This has made many left-leaning Labour voters question their commitment to the project of anti-triangulation.

The 2017 election signified the bind between these two modes of governance.  Our manifesto promised to end freedom of movement but to negotiate our deal based on six tests. The second of these tests stated that we would have exactly the same benefit of the single market. But the only way to ensure this is to maintain freedom of movement. You may say the tests were designed to be undeliverable but it was the basis upon which people voted. When I was out on the doorstop during the general election I met people who identified Labour as a proxy for remain and leave. Labour policy was purposefully designed to bring about the ability to face both ways. Thus when people say that a vote for Labour in 2017 was a vote for leaving this is far from the case.

The Strength of Pluralism

Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson upheld what was a mainstay amongst thinkers of the New Left when they argued that Labour had been stymied by the fact it was not established by a coherent intellectual and ideological tradition. In their view, the Labour party’s syndicalist leaning towards action and its seemingly doctrineless morass of a political heritage were deep obstacles to it becoming a genuinely socialist party. But the Labour party, in fact, personified so much of what the New Left was striving to achieve, namely a marriage between pluralism and socialism that could move beyond the shadow of Stalinism. Rather than looking beyond the Labour party, which many in the New Left did for a time, the infrastructure for this synthesis already existed within the Labour party’s own tradition.

The Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle spoke rightly at a recent Another Europe event when he paid homage to the heterogeneous ideological origins of the Labour Party from liberalism to Marxism. While many have compared George Lansbury the leader of the Labour Party (1932-35) to Jeremy Corbyn for his rejection of expediency, Lansbury in fact started his life as a radical liberal. In many respects the Labour Party was borne out of the fact that liberals did not form a hegemonic alliance with the trade unions. The tradition of Liberal-Lab politicians, trade unionists who took the liberal whip, started to diminish after Labour became a full fledged electoral force due to a lib-pact in 1903; the pact ushered in the Labour breakthrough in the 1906 general election. Unlike the Social Democratic Party in Germany which was borne out of Marxist doctrine, the Labour Party derives from many ideological currents. To acknowledge one such tradition does not negate any other. Keynesian economic thought was utilised to deliver the economic basis for the NHS. Only by utilising the pluralistic heritage of our movement can we overcome the constitutional crisis that is Brexit. You can uphold liberal values and achieve socialist ends. That is not an act of triangulation, it is the bedrock of the Labour Party. Rather than seeing pluralism as a weakness within the Labour movement we should view it as a strength that has allowed the party to renew itself.

When the Labour party has strived to maintain a sense of pluralism is when it has flourished. This is exemplified in Clements Atlee’s ability to maintain a coalition between Stafford Cripps and Ernest Bevin in government. There surely were failures, but the equation that is often made that pluralism leads to a dilution of principles does not hold up. In the Labour party’s most recent history the rise and fall of the Labour Co-ordinating Committee can be seen as a cautionary tale about the suppression of pluralism.  First set up as a think tank for Bennism in 1978 it was then effectively disbanded by Blair with his takeover of the Tribune Group in 1993. Outstep with both, groups such as the LCC represented a radical pluralist socialism that captured the founding principles of the Labour party.

Overcoming the Paradox: Remain and Reform

Brexit shows that Labour can’t win without honouring its pluralist past. Ed Miliband embraced the idea that Labour only needed to gain 35% of the vote to win and that a Liberal Democrat collapse could usher in a minority Labour Government or a Labour Government with a small majority. When the Lib-Dems did implode, however, its votes went to the Conservatives as much as to Labour in 2015. If the Conservative vote does implode because they pursue a no-deal Brexit then Tory remainers, who are often overlooked, are as crucial as the Tory leavers. Ian Warren, election data expert, estimates that there are 3.5 million Tory remainers. In Labour seats which they won in 2017 such as Kensington and Chelsea, Stroud, Leeds North West, and Canterbury, if Tory remainers defect to the Lib Dems they could be very difficult to retain.  Likewise, if the Conservatives do embrace no-deal and become a Boris Johnson rump, this could mop up the Brexit Party/UKIP vote and sweep through many Leave seats. In this scenario holding a ‘neither here nor there’ position could be terminal for Labour, and could usher in a very bleak terrain.

This could be exacerbated if Labour promises a second referendum and then campaign on their Brexit deal rather than on remain. Or if Labour were to propose, like Harold Wilson did, a free vote (though Harold Wilson did campaign to join the European Economic Community). This would not be tenable. Many in Labour may hope for a referendum to take place after a form of the withdrawal agreement has been passed and then it’s just about condoning a future deal. However, this would please no one. This is because the middle ground on Brexit is imploding. The Brexit Party has successfully defined “leaving” to leave voters as no-deal. Would Labour keep no-deal off the ballot? What would the options on the ballot paper be? A permanent customs union versus a Canada-style free trade deal is one option. But what would Labour’s position be on freedom of movement? Maintaining freedom of movement is the only way to secure a comprehensive agreement on services and goods that will get anywhere near to securing the relationship we currently have with the EU. This would be unlikely to resolve the Brexit quandary and Brexit would in all likelihood continue to be the albatross that the Labour Party would have to carry into government if it were able to win a general election.

This is why Labour should clearly come out for remain and reform for any electoral event.

In a general election, a preference for Labour should emerge from a manifesto which advocates revoking article 50 (which is going back to the people) and placing that policy within a wider anti-austerity message about transforming the nature of the post-1979 settlement. This is the best chance of achieving a Labour government. It is not just the right decision on Machiavellian terms, electorally. But it the right decision on Moreian terms as it would challenge the increasingly confused modes of triangulation currently holding sway over our political culture






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