Of centrists, radicals and liberals

As the Liberal Democrat leadership election now appears likely to consist of just two stages – closing nominations, and announcing Vince Cable is the winner – attention now turns to what direction the party will head in under its new leader, with some declaring that the only way forward is for the party to become the herald of the ‘radical centre’. This is often linked to claims that what Britain needs is a new centre party and that Macron and Trudeau are examples the party should follow (click on the links to see what I wrote about those ideas before to save me from writing them out again).

The problem with the ‘radical centre’ is that it’s a phrase that’s effectively meaningless, a political buzzword that you invoke to get the nodding approval of your audience without any of you actually agreeing on what it means. Some hear ‘radical’ and think back to the radical reformers of the nineteenth century, imagining it invokes the spirit of the Chartists and others to overturn the structures of power, or they see the unfinished business of the early twentieth century to tax land and wealth, while others imagine it as a call to the spirit of Hayek and Thatcher to radically cut back the state and taxes. Meanwhile some see the centre as a nice safe place to be, just picking what they like from left and right, while others see it as merely a location of necessity on a scale they have no interest in. And all of them hear ‘radical centre’ and see something different from their neighbour whilst imagining everyone is thinking the same as them. (And I will admit to having used this empty signifier myself in the past)

And when you come down to it and ask for an explanation of what the ‘radical centre’ is you get something like this from The Economist. The exact policy detail may change between different ‘radical centrists’ but the intention is the same, wanting a centrism that “reconciles the left’s impatience at an unsatisfactory status quo with the right’s scepticism about grandiose redistributive schemes.” Or in other words, recognising that things are bad or very bad for some people, but there’s not much that can be done about it beyond a few tweaks. Despite the Economist’s claim to liberalism, there’s a strong element of small-c conservatism behind this position as it’s a belief that everything’s essentially all right and any changes that are needed to make things better are purely administrative rather than structural. Quite where the ‘radical’ applies in this centrism is anyone’s guess, and the liberalism it invokes is very much a conservative liberalism that often likes to ignore that left-liberalism exists.

One of the problems of discussing centrism in British politics is that the concept has become strongly linked with liberalism, but I think this is more by a historic quirk of the British party system rather than any ideological similarity between liberalism and centrism. British liberalism has always been a broad church movement, trying to bring together the various different strands of liberalism into one party which, in order to accommodate all these different beliefs has tended to split the difference between them and oscillate around the ideological centre. When we look to other countries we can see liberal parties that don’t anchor themselves in the centre, and we also see centre parties (especially those from the Christian Democrat tradition) that don’t define themselves as liberal but do see themselves as a bridge between left and right. While I doubt any of these parties would define themselves as radical, they do exist as centrist parties of varying levels of political success.

One train of thought I’m developing in my work on centre parties – and this is still quite nascent, so comments and thoughts on it welcome – is the concept of a political system having what I’m calling for now a ‘centrist moment’. That is to say, there’s a period of time where there’s tacit agreement of parties and electorate to agree upon a consensus politics of the centre which can either take the form of a centrist party being in power or an alternation between left and right that’s effectively about managerial differences rather than ideological ones. Systems move between a centrist moment and a polarized one (where differences are accentuated and ideology becomes more important) independently of any left-right ideological movement as they choose to accept or reject a consensus. In this view, Britain is actually exiting a two-decade long centrist moment, while France is entering one. We can’t have a British Macron, because we’ve already have one.

If we continue to conflate liberalism and centrism – whether it’s ‘radical’ or not – then we’re heading up a blind alley towards a liberalism that doesn’t challenge anything but is content to be brought out in defence of the status quo. It’s liberalism with the sharp edges filed off to make it safe and unthreatening to anyone with any actual power and of no hope to anyone without power looking in on the gilded centre from the outside. Just saying you’re radical doesn’t mean you are, no matter how many times people might say it.

9 thoughts on “Of centrists, radicals and liberals”

  1. Train of thought makes sense to me. Third Way was something that didn’t really happen in France up to now (vs. e.g. Blair, Schröder).

    I’d like to hear more on where you think the LibDems should go. As an outsider it seems to me that if they want to do more than hibernate through this current moment of polarisation they are going to have to pick some paths out of all the options (classical? left-liberal? etc) that the various strands of thought provide.

    1. The problem when I think about the future of the LDs is trying to separate my belief of where I want the party to go with what’s actually best for the party. I’m clear on the first, not so much on the second, and I think that was the issue with the post-Kennedy leadership that they had an ideological idea of where they wanted the party to be, but that didn’t match up with the structural position of where the party was. My preference is to go full left-liberal and be the party that act as a liberal outrider on issues like Remain, cannabis legalisation, LVT, UBI etc and pushing into that overlap with the Greens. Objectively, however, the best course of action might be to morph/rebrand into a much more explicitly centrist party, tone down the envelope-pushing liberalism (socially and economically) and stake out a claim to the centre ground so that when the centrist moment comes around again the party’s best equipped to take advantage of it.

      1. I’d argue that your personal preference (or the inverse of it, a nasty FDP party but pro-Europe etc.) is the realistic option.

        a) No reason to believe there’s a centre moment coming in the UK any time soon, if we’re looking at cycles, probably not for another 20 years.

        b) The “position for the centrist moment” strategy seems to me to feed the delusion that “one day we’ll be a majority government again.” While that’s not impossible, it’s not likely in the first place and if it does come, it would be 25-30 years down the road, not sure positioning for it now is worth it.

        c) If you believe in voting system reform (as oppose to liking it for tactical reasons) one oddity about this moment of polarisation is that it’s not at all beyond belief that we could have 2 more elections that end up in hung parliaments. Picking out a clear strategy that works in the current environment is the best ticket to holding the balance of power such that you could force a reform like that. (Hey, it’s cheaper than the cost of the DUP, get your STV system now!)

        1. I tend towards that position, but I’m just trying to check my biases aren’t working too much (plus, there is a detached political scientist part of me that wants someone to try and set up a British centre party that fails miserably to give me a good comparative case study with En Marche). The other option is getting both types of party through a split, though I don’t think that’s likely, not least because suddenly creating two strongly ideologically positioned parties is going to leave a lot of the more unideological Lib Dems without a home.

      2. I tend to agree with what you want. I also think that being centrist might have been the best strategy if the party (I won’t say “we” because I wouldn’t be in that party) had fifty MPs, but with a dozen and a long period of polarisation ahead we need to pick a side.

  2. Thought experiment – what you might call a ‘what-if’… The Lib Dems’ ‘decapitation strategy’ in 2005 is better organised and perhaps more tightly focused; they only win a few more seats than in OTL, but make net gains from the Tories including some relatively high-profile MPs (let’s say David Davis and Theresa May). The threat to Kennedy’s leadership subsides. Buoyed up by the surprisingly and unprecedently positive atmosphere in the party (think Labour 2017), Kennedy goes into therapy for his drink problem and eventually comes out clean. He’s still the unchallenged leader of the party in 2010. What then? And, more to the point, by 2017 would it still look as if split-the-difference centrism was the vote-winner and left-liberalism the vote-loser?

    The big problem with split-the-difference centrism, in any case, is who you can find who actually believes in it. I don’t believe Cable and Clegg are ‘centrists’ in this sense – I think they’re way over on the Right of the Lib Dem spectrum, standing in relation to the Tory Party very much as Kennedy’s Lib Dems did in relation to Labour. Which is to say, supporting some key policy areas (economic liberalism for Clegg & the Tories, social liberalism for Kennedy and Labour) and being the awkward squad in others (the EU and civil liberties in both cases). Perhaps this is why fantasy-centrism so often involves splits from the big parties – you won’t find a firmer believer in centrism than an anti-Corbyn Labour back bencher (“what do we want? well, that, obviously, but not so much of it and not *yet*”). Some of them are already advocating what are basically Conservative policies in the guise of ‘working-class concerns’ – pure centrism.

    1. PS

      As for the ‘centrist moment’, I thought this from the president of the British Sociological Association was interesting:

      Some political commentators are already describing the outcome of the election as a sign of political ‘polarisation’ and argue for a rebuilding of the consensual ‘centre’. There is, however, another way of looking at this. It may be a case of half-full/half-empty, but ‘polarisation’ can also be seen as a renewal of powerful ideological differences that reflect social inequalities and social divisions. The real task, surely, is not to promote centrist policies but to address the inequalities and divisions that are driving politics: this is exactly what Corbyn’s Labour Party proposed.

    2. I think some of your what-if links in with the arguments I’ve made before about the party’s pre and post-2005 positioning. Certainly, the party got distracted by the 2005 gains from Labour and thought that meant equidistance/centrism was now the best strategy, which was one of the reasons for pushing Kennedy out. Hard to project too much forward because a sober and focused Kennedy makes a lot of the post-2007 politics quite different (would Cameron have risked debates with him there?) but it does open up the possibility of the old Jenkinsite SDP goal of replacing Labour as the main party to the left.

      On Cable, I don’t think he’s ‘way over to the right’, but I think he lurches between left and right depending on the issue like you’d expect from someone who used to be in the Labour Party.

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