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.

Do the Liberal Democrats need a radical centre?

I’ve been thinking for a while that a lot of debate about the Liberal Democrats – especially in the media – seems to assume or apply a dichotomy that members of the party are either socially liberal or economically liberal. A lot of the time the biggest debate doesn’t seem to be on whether these factions/wings of the party exist, but what to call them, with both being described as either ‘Liberal’ or ‘SDP’, depending on the author’s history and biases.

Of course, there’s been a lot of talk about this in the threads, post and comment sections of many sites and blogs, and while I do think that many, perhaps a majority of, party members, wouldn’t want to see themselves as part of either ‘faction’, I think a strong and distinct tendency within the party is being ignored and sidelined by these supposed battles.

I think that there’s a strong radical tendency within the party that’s currently only poking its head above the parapet on infrequent occasions and particular issues. Of course, there are many people who proclaim themselves to be radical – and by conventional definitions they are, wanting to drag the party well off to the left or right – but I’m thinking more of a form of radical centrism, wanting to take the best bits of the economic liberals and social liberals and combine them into a establishing a new way forward for the party. Back in the 1960s, Steel and Jenkins pushed forward legislation that dramatically liberalized British society and I think we as a party need to be identifying how to emulate that work in our modern society. This isn’t about finding soggy compromise between the two supposed wings of the party, but instead using a synthesis of the two forces to carve out a new direction that looks to the future.

(Can you tell I’m desperately trying to avoid using the formulation ‘neither left or right but’ in an attempt to not sound like either the Spitting Image version of Paddy Ashdown or various extremist nutjobs?)

There are already sizeable groups within the party in favour of issues like real marriage equality, a secular state, liberalization of the drug laws and abandoning Trident. I suspect that there’s probably a strong overlap between the supporters of those causes and several others that aren’t seen as mainstream. Many of them will be those that have some sympathy for the libertarian position, but shy away from the vulgar market-fundamentalist selfishness expressed by some of its supporters. As Robert Anton Wilson put it: ‘I suppose I should have voted for the Libertarian Party, but I’m not that kind of libertarian – I don’t hate the poor.’

There’s an interesting phenomenon noticed amongst advocates for reforming the drug laws whereby even when a majority of people support reform – as has been shown in some polls – the societal ‘mood music’ is such that they believe themselves to be part of a minority. I think that might be the same with the supporters of what you might call the ‘radical centre’ – we tend to believe we’re a small minority within a party dominated by others, but what if we’re not? What if there are a lot of people thinking that way – both in the party and outside of it – who don’t want to stick their heads above the parapet for fearing of being shouted down because the media coverage tells them their views are a minority?

So, the question is this – do we need to do something to organise people like this, like me, within the party? Or are we just a small minority that should hide away from those doing the proper politics that can only be expressed on a two-dimensional axis? Is there a need for something – a website, an organisation, a pub crawl – to give focus? And what name is best? Radical centre? Modern radicals? Liberaltarians? New Radicals?

The Parliamentary Radicals were one of the groups who founded the original Liberal Party all those years ago, so maybe it’s time to reclaim their energy.