Sunday, 16 July 2017

Holding Out for a (Liberal) Hero

























Where have all the good men gone, and where are all the gods? Alongside Bonnie Tyler, a small coterie of liberals and self-defined centrists are asking the same thing. Yet there might be succour on the horizon. A rumour presently doing the rounds suggests Chuka Umunna had something more than a leadership campaign on the launch pad post-general election. That 'something' was the plan for a new centre party. Surely not! He has, after all, protested aplenty to the contrary. True or not, he is probably the Labour politician best placed to lead such an outfit. Consider the qualities needed. If one is going to take off it pays to have someone slick heading up the operation. He or she must also possess qualities one would expect a liberal hero to have: youth, dynamism, eloquence and, yes, a certain vacuity to suck in all those projected hopes. When you line the pantheon of the "radical centre" up - Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau, Tony Blair ('97 vintage), Nick Clegg, the Clintons, and Barack Obama - what qualitative difference separates them and the political persona of the honourable member for Streatham? None. Same cookie cutter. Same flaky old dough.

This however is not another post on Chuka (we went there recently) but about the possibility of new middle-of-the-road force firing the fancies of people like Anna Soubry, Peter Mandelson, George Osborne, assorted Labour MPs and worthies, and getting something going. After all, His Blairness decrees that the centre ground is there, is squeezed, but is totally vital for the future of politics. Likewise, his former speech writer and now paid-for Corbyn sceptic Philip Collins reckons there is a "yawning chasm" in the middle of British politics. Yet the more we hear tell of such a thing, the harder it is to spot. The latest aggregate poll tracker from Britain Elects puts the Liberal Democrats, the archetypal centre party on a smidgen over six per cent. Such is the groundswell for liberalism in the Labour Party that the Progress candidate in 2015 received 4.5% of the vote, while itself boasting of around 2,500 members and is staring ruin in the face. And on the Tory side, Theresa May is in an awful spot but still preferred to bring back Michael Gove than offer an olive branch to the Cameroons. Centrism, if it ever was anything, is entirely a spent force. There is just no call for it. I repeat, there is just no call for it.

What's driving the fever dreams for a new party? Partly, it's despair. The battle for the Labour Party isn't over yet, but the election result has ensured the struggle is tilting the left's way. Matters aren't helped much by the fact Blairism destroyed its base in the Labour Party while they ran the show. How then can politics of the Liz Kendall or Yvette Cooper sort come back now the ranks of Corbyn supporters in the PLP have grown, most of the trade unions are on board, and the huge bulk of the members are sold on the left's strategy? Short of a catastrophe for Corbyn, they cannot. Or at least can't for a long bloody time. Therefore we are left with an elite caste of politicians without a party to lord over. How awful for them. If that wasn't bad enough, the election result has confounded everything they know about politics. Blair has finally acknowledged the weight of evidence and conceded that Jeremy Corbyn could be Prime Minister, but critical reflection about how and why they got everything wrong remains absent. When a political trend or movement hits an impasse like the one soggy Blairist/Cameroon/liberal centrism is stuck in, two outcomes are possible. A rethink and reorientation, or a doubling down and retreat into fantasy.

Self-described centrism has chosen the latter, and are clutching to their chests the comfort blanket of centrist triumphs past. In the dim and distant, the SDP split from Labour came at a time when the party was to the left and gripped by factional intrigue versus a right wing Tory party. Aren't those stars aligning again? Might history repeat itself? As omens go, it just so happens Anna Soubry, currently the Conservative MP for Broxtowe and noted Cameroon was a founding member of the SDP. Fancy that. Upon splitting, they won a respectable number of defections from the Labour benches, briefly polled very strongly and, in terms of votes cast, won just shy of eight million votes in 1983 in alliance with the Liberals. It's worth noting before the SDP the Liberals were hardly tearing up the track so in effect, the new party made its own political space. Never mind what happened in the end and forget how it split the anti-Tory vote and ensured two large majorities for Thatcher, the SDP experience shows it can be done. When things are in flux anything is possible.

Bolstering this analysis hope is the election of the Jupiterian God-king across the Channel. Consider how his rise to power appears. If you ignore a career spent in elite departments of the civil service, years wine and cheesing as a city slicker, then acquiring a position on Francois Hollande's staff before graduating to finance minister and resigning from the government in a blaze of publicity, it looks like Macron suddenly rose from nowhere to the top job. It doesn't take much to tweak the subsequent story either. The two-thirds vote won facing off against Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidentials was driven by enthusiasm, not the repugnance of and fear toward a fascist candidate. Likewise, the clean sweep in June's Parliamentary contest was the third way driving all before it and nothing to do with the historically low turn out. If that can happen in France, why can't it happen in Britain?

The problem with this so-called analysis is that we don't have a British Macron in waiting. He is in fact the French Blair. By that I'm suggesting the liberal hero moment in British politics lies in its past. Blairism was only possible because the labour movement was weak, and it rode roughshod over a damaged and despised Tory opposition. It could get away with promising little while undermining its own constituency because there wasn't an alternative. In 2017 any politician from any party presenting a vacuous platform backed by vacuous sloganeering is on track for a hard dose of electoral reality. The votes won't stack up, and even if they did the electoral system will do a good job of derailing their translation into seats.

Those are the hard realities for "centrist" politics. Yet we find accompanying political turbulence a great deal of political stupidity, as the Tories have recently reminded us. With everything against them, by cherry picking history it is possible for hardcore Blairists, liberals, and Cameroons to fool themselves into thinking a new project is a go-er simply because their clique groupthink tells them it's a good idea. I hope and look forward to them decamping or, if you will, making a "centre parting" and setting up a SDP mark II. After all, we know history tends toward farce the more one tries to repeat it.

9 comments:

SimonB said...

They'll get more media exposure than ukip, which worries me. For people uninterested in politics they'll be attractive, possibly enough to mess things up completely (again).

James Semple said...

"I hope and look forward to them decamping or, if you will, making a "centre parting" and setting up a SDP mark 2. "

But earlier you pointed out that SDP mark 1 split the anti-tory votes and liberated Thatcher. Where's the logic in doing it again?

Anonymous said...

Good article and it appears Blair has reached the conclusion that now is not 1983.

Back then, the collapse of working class support for Labour following the winter of discontent drove working class members left and the class in general away from the Party. The more middle class type of member became concerned about the direction the Party was heading. Egged on by a media worried about the direction of travel, financed by Sainsbury and led by a prominent gang of four the SDP was able to do its job, split the Labour vote, open the door for Thatcher and allow our enemies to discredit the left for close to 35 years.

In 2017 there are obvious similarities, but significant differences. The biggest being the waning power of the media following the rise of the organising power of social media and citizen journalists, the rising confidence of the working class as we bury Blairism and New Labour and what is now a popular left leadership, give us an "Oh Jeremy Corbyn".

So Phil and Blair are correct in my view, a centrist party is a fantasy. Though it would be nice to get shot of a few MP's, it's deselection or manage them.

James Semple said...

Anonymous (whoever she is) advises deselection or management of the unreconstructed Blairite MPs. This is an important point neglected by our host above; but how to do it?

Either route involves Corbynista control of constituency machinery. Any advice?

Makhno said...

There are some MPs I would happily deselect at the click of a finger, but I'm not sure that approach is at all wise, or doable without causing a complete party meltdown.

The major problem with and for the centre is that due to their lack of ideology and complete dearth of policy ideas since 2010, they have no political programme or standpoint at all other than "we're not them". This was fine when the only options were Conservative and two shades of centrism, but the resurgent left has left them high and dry.

All they have left is mealy-mouthed concern-trolling and tone policing, back-slapping with wet Tories whilst punching left with all their might.

This is (as usual) a leaf out of the book of the Clintonite Democrats in the US. I suspect they will continue to follow in their footsteps by attempting to co-opt identity politics whilst continuing to do naff all of substance for women and ethnic and sexual minorities.

James Semple said...

Makhno speaks sense. Some Blairite MPs are well-liked in their constituencies. Even Ben Bradshaw - Health Minister in the Blair regime and arch-Corbyn-sceptic - increased his majority in a university city.

Martin said...

I'm not saying that Blairite MPs are not well liked, however saying that Bradshaw increased his majority and that this is evidence of how popular HE is doesn't make sense. A General Election is far more about parties and leaders at a national level than a local one.

Deselection based on ideology would be dangerous, not least because it would undoubtedly be portrayed as an authoritarian stance (which I'm not sure wouldn't be the case). Introduction of mandatory reselection at elections, and right to recall during term, could possibly work. I won't hold my breath that either will be brought in, anyway.

Robert said...

Suppose Ed Balls hadn't lost his seat the right might have a more credible leader with sound economics

Lidl_Janus said...

"that this is evidence of how popular HE is doesn't make sense. A General Election is far more about parties and leaders at a national level than a local one."

Maybe, but getting a Corbynite MP elected in Exeter would probably be like getting Bernie Sanders elected in Mississippi. Individual constituencies still have their own particular circumstances, otherwise Sheffield Hallam (for example) would never have flipped.