Centrists: Which Side Are You On?

The great moving right show was the name of a prescient essay written by Stuart Hall and published in January 1979 by Marxism Today. Hall was amongst the first to realise that ‘Thatcherism,’ a term he coined, represented a radically different threat to the post-war social-democratic consensus that had existed hitherto. From this acorn of insight ultimately many years later sprouted the intellectual origins of New Labour, as Richard Seymour explains in his recent book about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party:-

The intellectual origins of New Labour can be traced, in part, to an assortment of soft-left intellectuals, many of them either residing in the Communist Party or in its orbit, and usually writing for the journal Marxism Today……… Espousing a version of Gramscian Marxism, they tended to argue that the foundations of the old Left –which they derided as economistic, class-reductionist, expecting militant revival at every turn –had been eroded in the post-war world and were now being blown away by global capitalism.…….These changes, they collectively labelled ‘New Times’. And in these ‘New Times’, a Left that stuck to the old remedies could not win ‘hegemony’ in the working class, let alone command across a broad class alliance for socialism. It was on this basis that they led a vitriolic charge against the hard-Left, seeking their exclusion in a realignment of forces for a modernised Left…… What became the intellectual foundation of New Labour, then, was in some respects a dilute rip-off of the most vacuous elements of ‘New Times’ thinking –above all the celebration of designer global capitalism.’

From these germs arose ‘New Labour,’ the Blair/Brown government of 1997-2010, the ‘New Labour-lite‘ of the oppositional years under the leadership of Ed Milliband 2010-2015 and the inevitable far-left backlash lead by the unlikely figure of Jeremy Corbyn once the raison d’etre of the New Labour ‘project’ (winning elections) had been removed.

The rest, as they say, is history…. or is it? For the battle of the soul of the Labour Party rages on. Stuart Hall perceived that, at heart, what Thatcherism represented was a hegemonic project. In layman’s terms this means that you need to dominate the cultural landscape in such a way as to brainwash the masses into believing that there is no alternative. What Hall taught New Labour was that ‘Blairism’ needed to do likewise. This is what the politics of ‘centrism’ represents (not an original insight but one worth re-iterating) it is an attempt to portray your own political stance as free from bias and merely an utterance of ‘common sense’ whilst portraying your political opponents/dissenters/critics as extremists. Centrism is very often merely tendentiousness dressed up as neutrality/impartiality.

    Which brings us to Brexit. The post-Brexit terrain is arguably more politically polarised than at any time in this country since Thatcher left office. What does a polarised political terrain represent for self-styled ‘moderates’ and ‘centrists’? It means that their claim to represent the political centre ground rings increasingly hollow because currently there isnt any centre ground. Gramsci wont save them now. To repeat for emphasis:- in the post-Brexit political terrain there is no centre ground. 

    As a recent post-Brexit study confirms: Respondents more likely to identify as remain or leave … than followers of a particular party.

    http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/new-eu-referendum-british-election-study-data

    The Tories understand this as do the LibDems. Do Labour? it appears they do not. Despite protestations to the contrary the leadership of Corbyn/McDonnell in actual policy terms is increasingly centrist as recent pieces by Stephen Bush and Glen O’Hara attest. This is all very well and good but if the Scottish indyref has any lessons for us it is this: the parties who are most clearly associated with a particular side benefit the most. In Scotland that meant the seperationist SNP and the unionist Tories gained ground and Labour were swept aside.    

    To quote Duncan Hothersall in Progress Online (08/12/16) ‘There are few votes to be won from taking the middle ground in an area of Scottish politics which is so tremendously polarised. The SNP stand for independence above all else, and the Tories stand for the union above all else. Labour finds itself unionist out of a desire to preserve solidarity and prevent harm, but that leaves its case lacking in the passion the others can bring.’

    In the current political climate Labour understandably but erroneously wishes to hedge its bets and try to appeal to both leavers AND remainers, in other words: on the issue of Brexit Labour is trying to occupy the centre ground. This is a massive misjudgement for in times of political polarisation centrism is a liability.

    Keir Starmer is a highly intelligent man but listening to him on Andrew Marr six days ago (04/12/16) one has to wonder regarding the acuity of his political judgement when he derides UKIP and the LibDems for not attempting to ‘unite the country.’ As James Forsyth rightly points out here the lesson to draw from the Scottish indyref is that polarising plebiscites have a tendency to re-draw the political map. As a consequence voters are much more likely to strongly self-identify with one side of the equation or the other – in Scotland as ‘nationalist’ (thus more likely to vote SNP) or ‘unionist’ (thus more likely to vote Tory – if this is replicated in England/Wales this has dire consequences for Labour if they continue to try to occupy the Brexit centre-ground and great news for the Tories and the LibDems. Why? Because there is no centre ground regarding Brexit.

    It does not take a political expert to work out that this does not bode well for Labour at the next general election. It desperately needs to pick a side and to abandon Brexit-centrism, to declare itself to be unequivocally a Brexit party or a Remain party (as Andy Burnham is doing in the Greater Manchester mayoral race) even at the risk of alienating the other side. Its survival depends on it. The risk is that the Tories and the LibDems will do in England to Labour what the SNP and the Tories did in Scotland a year ago. To quote Barry Goldwater:- extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. Or, as Thatcher once remarked: if you stand in the middle of the road you can get knocked over by traffic from either side.

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