It’s the failure of centrist politics that fuels the rise of the populist right, but the centrists just don’t get it, argues John Rees
Centrist is a relatively new political term. It didn’t exist in popular usage two years ago, let alone five years ago. So to who and to what does it refer?
Let’s answer the easy part of the question first, the who? Easy to answer because there’s so many of them. In parliament, in the media, in think tanks, the middle England sensibilities and received pronunciation are still the dominant tone of mainstream politics.
There is the king of the centrists, Tony Blair, and his Archbishop, Alistair Campbell, always welcome in the mainstream media. When they arrive in the studios they will be hailed by the media courtiers of centrism, perhaps John Humphries or Fiona Bruce, suddenly elevated from the Antiques Road Show to BBC Question Time, where equally threadbare political heirlooms are on display.
Then there is the long trail of centrist minor aristocracy: Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry, Wes Streeting and Tom Watson, Stella Creasy and Jess Phillips.
This entire corps is supported by a mass of Spads and think tankers, pundits, opinion formers, scribblers, op-ed writers and magazine feature editors. All taking home in excess of twice the London average wage.
And with this comes an absolute sense of self-entitlement and self-certainty. No popular vote is big enough, no protest big enough, no political reverse complete enough, for the centrists to contemplate that they might be wrong or their policies mistaken or damaging.
In fact, the more out of touch they become more scornful and dismissive they are of ordinary people.
Kier Starmer tweets that Nigel Farage’s lies are typical of all who voted Leave; that is of 17 million of his fellow citizens. This stuffed-shirt lawyer, praised by his acolytes for his forensic mind, cannot distinguish between the majority which voted Leave and a politician who claims to represent them but does not.
Wes Streeting, who constantly demands that those who voted Leave face up to the facts, abuses Jeremy Corbyn as a vote-loser when Labour has opened up its biggest lead in the polls for months.
To understand this level of arrogance one has to turn to the more difficult question of what centrism represents.
It’s not so long ago that the conventional political spectrum ran from right-wing conservatism through to left-wing Labourism. Beyond the mainstream, on the right, were small far right parties with a more or less direct lineage back to pre-war fascism, and, on the left, Communist and revolutionary socialist groups.
The centre ground was held by ideologically virtually indistinguishable one-nation Tories and right-wing Social Democrats.
Thatcherism began to change that. She set out to, and did, defeat the one-nation Tories in her own party. She succeeded in moving the centre of politics to where the right of the Tory party had previously stood. Tony Blair, in accepting much of what Thatcher had achieved, re-composed the centre ground further to the right than it had been during the period of the post-war boom and the welfare state consensus of the late 1940s to mid-1970s.
The new centrists, Tony Blair in the UK and Bill Clinton in the US, for instance, dominated the landscape completely. The Tories did not depart from the model. David Cameron was simply the Tory party’s version of Tony Blair.
What is new in recent years is that even this Thatcher-Blair spectrum of mainstream politics has broken down. The centre ground has fractured and diminished as challenges both from the populist right and the left undermine its credibility.
In America, Hillary Clinton, the inheritor of the centrist crown, had to resort to gerrymandering to defeat Bernie Sanders, and was in turn deserted by Democrat voters in the presidential election.
In the UK, Nigel Farage on the outside and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s ERG on the inside of the Tory party have reduced the most successful Conservative party in any parliamentary democracy to a state of ruin. Jeremy Corbyn’s success in two leadership contests has driven some high-profile centrists, like Chuka Umunna, to leave the Labour Party while others, like Tom Watson, have formed a party of their own within the Labour party.
So what is it that has caused this disintegration of the centre ground?
Although you would scarcely believe it from listening to the centrists, they’re actually responsible for two of the greatest political and economic catastrophes of the post-Second World War period.
In foreign affairs, the Afghan and Iraq wars and occupations, and the intervention in Libya, are disasters unequalled since the policy of appeasement in the 1930s. In domestic affairs the crash of 2008 and the subsequent policy of austerity has visited hardship on working people for which, again, it would be necessary to go back to the 1930s to find an adequate parallel.
And neither of these events are yet over. The policies that produce them are still in place. The “mistakes” are still being repeated. The horror and hardship are still a daily experience for millions of people.
And millions of people have made up their minds on these issues. They hold the rich and the powerful, they hold those in government, they hold the political establishment, responsible for these disasters. They do not forget and have not forgiven.
Yet the centrists carry on as if this were all some minor embarrassment from which rational people should long ago have moved on.
This is what happens when the tectonic plates of politics shift. Bob Dylan caught one such moment in the 1960s when he wrote Ballad of a Thin Man:
Ah, you've been with the professors and they've all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks
You've been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books
You're very well-read, it's well-known
But something is happening here and you don't know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
When asked about the song, Dylan said “there were lots of Mr Jones around at the time”. They are back now, in force.
They cannot acknowledge the damage that their free-market economics/humanitarian imperialism has wrecked at home and abroad. And therefore they can’t acknowledge the critical causal relationship between neoliberal economics, so-called humanitarian intervention, and the rise of the populist right.
Any left project which seeks to defeat the populist right must not shrink from explaining that the centrists created the misery from which the populist right draws its strength. The left must be as radical as the right, but genuinely anti-establishment where the populist right only fakes an anti-establishment stance. It must genuinely mobilise and empower working people in a mass movement, where the populist right only wants voting fodder.
And if such a mass movement enrages the Mr Joneses, that’s just too bad.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.