Centrism as political vapourware

Across many fields there’s a regular occurrence of people announcing that they’re soon going to be launching something that’s Big and New and Different and Will Definitely Change Everything. “Soon” never gets officially quantified to anything more specific than “in a few months” but it’s always really close, honest, so just hold on in there and, oh, if you happen to be an investor we might just need a little bit more funding to get over the line, but the payoffs will be huge.

In politics, this type of vapourware has normally applied to individual policies in various forms, be they the think tank trailing a really challenging paper, the party telling journalists to just wait until they see the manifesto or the government promising that there’s definitely going to be a White Paper on that issue sometime in this Parliament. Now, though, we appear to have someone creating a whole political party on the principles of vapourware.

Since the collapse of the Liberal Democrats at the 2015 election and the election of Jeremy Corbyn soon after, many people have declared that what British politics really needs right now is a brand new centrist party, a chorus given additional voices after the Brexit referendum. Various people have tried to set one up (or proposed turning an existing party into a “movement for moderates”) and there have also been various rumblings that some Very Important (And/Or Rich) People have been working on putting together their very own Brand New Centrist Thing which is always about to be launched Really Really Soon.

Which brings us to the Times and a couple of puff-pieces it’s recently published on United For Change, the proposed new centrist party that appears to exist in order to take the politics out of politics. As one of its founders says: “We won’t look like, we won’t sound like, we won’t behave like the existing political parties. We will act and sound like real people, who just want to do something good for their country.” And if that doesn’t sound vacuous enough, just wait until you hear about their policies.

No, I mean you’ll just have to wait until you hear about their policies because they don’t have any. Let’s look at social care, for instance:

Policy will be set by using technology to canvas the opinions of experts and workers. “We’ve got a real problem in social care. I would love to find a way for people working in social care to actually give us their ideas on how to solve it. I’ve not heard any great ideas from Westminster. Let’s hear it from the people. Technology allows you to do that.”

Or maybe on education, that perennial issue that’s consumed entire careers and vexed politicians and experts around the world:

He plans to convene a panel of education experts from around the world: “They will be challenged with this: make our state schools better than our private schools. Full stop. Go away and do it.”

Ah, you say, but maybe I’m misrepresenting them because as a party that’s coming into being at a time of great national crisis over a single issue, they’re going to focus on that first, so they must have something strong and distinctive to say about Brexit, haven’t they?

No, they haven’t.

Franks says the new party will include remainers and leavers and is not being set up to fight Brexit battles. “We are all concerned with dealing with the why Brexit’s happening rather than dealing with Brexit itself.”

So, it will be politics, just with all that stuff about being political somehow removed from it, replaced by Nice People who only want to ensure that everyone gets Nice Things. It’s the politics of “everything would be easy if people just agreed I’m right about everything”. Even the United for Change website doesn’t tell you anything about what the party might stand for just a message that “Britain is great, its politics should be too” and it will be “a party proudly born outside Westminster”. (Note that the latter appears to be true in as much as their office address is in Fitrovia which puts them in Camden rather than Westminster)

So how will this policy- and politics-free political party sweep the nation? Well, they’re going to be “the second biggest political party by membership within months” by running a “high-profile campaign” and then win the next General Election. If only other political parties, all so stuck in their old ways of doing things, had thought of the idea of running campaigns, recruiting members, and winning elections! There’s no information given on how they’re going to campaign or recruit (or even if they’re aware that there are elections outside of General Elections) but somehow they’re going to find an army of non-politicians (who’ll all be standing for election for a political party) and then from one of them, someone with the skills to lead a modern political party will magically emerge.

“Our dream is that the person who leads United for Change has done brilliant things at a local level, ideally someone from outside politics.”

It’s weird that people who’ve managed to make millions in business suddenly throw all their rational thought processes out of the window when it comes to politics. You never hear any corporate CEOs declaring that their job could be done just as well by someone who “has done brilliant things on the local level” or advocate sacking all their boards and replacing them with people like the “police officer from the Lake District” who’s expressed interest in becoming a United For Change candidate, yet somehow they reckon pretty much anyone with just about no experience could be Prime Minister or a member of the Cabinet. And yes, I know the current Government don’t engender much confidence in the political class to run things, but I’m not sure what we’re looking for when seeking people to run the country is someone with more self-confidence and less experience than Matt Hancock or Liz Truss.

That’s why all these ideas for Bold New Centrist Movements To Change Politics are political vapourware — when you look at any of them in depth, there’s no there there. Unlike existing and successful political parties there’s no unifying idea or principle there to bring people in and then hold them together. “Things would be great if everyone agreed with me” is all well and good until you find out that not only are you now in a party with people who all think that, they don’t all agree with you and they even have disagreements on what things being great looks like. What these plans for centrist revivals miss is that centrism is not an ideology, but a form of political practice, a way of doing things that emphasises building consensus rather than conflict as a way to achieve your goals, but successful centrists are those that tie it to specific, and often ideological, political goals, not those who see it as an end in itself.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Former politician. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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