The political centre ground does not exist
Wednesday 2nd November 2016
The so-called ‘centre ground’ is a vapid term used to normalise austerity and neoliberalism, writes BEN GRANT-FOALE
AMONG the many political buzzwords the “centre ground” is one of the most pervasive. I have never seen a definition of it and I never expect to. This is because it is a meaningless phrase politicians use to slander those they disagree with.
For politicians like Nick Clegg, the centre is the site of rationality and reason and the only form of “sensible” politics. It is also the only position that isn’t infected with the extremist ideologies of left or right. But this view masks the Lib Dems’ lack of substantive policy, as they use the mythical term to define themselves against others instead of providing their own political vision. This is shown by the current plight of the party under Tim Farron, as he resorts to begging for Labour voters and incessantly casting Jeremy Corbyn as a dangerous ideologue for opposing the economic consensus.
It became necessary for Clegg to employ the term after he became leader and entered into coalition with the Conservatives. After moving the party to a more fiscally hawkish position, it was a useful way of concealing the fact that the party had moved to the right and accepted austerity.
Similarly, Tony Blair took up the term after he helped create New Labour. After accepting neoliberalism, he used it to present the party as the “middle way” between socialism and market capitalism.
But this hid the party’s rightward shift after the banks were deregulated and the City ran rampant. Like Clegg, he also used it to conceal his lack of political vision. Instead of offering a genuine alternative, the party became a machine for winning elections, contributing to the present-day belief that the main parties are all the same.
The Conservatives also talked of “colonising the centre ground” as a way of normalising austerity. It also helped them to link their free-market policies to a “sensible” brand of economics. As well as this, they often refuse to engage with issues by using the term to present themselves as the only sensible party whenever Labour mention economic alternatives. In this way anything that opposes right-wing economics is dismissed as extremist and austerity can be portrayed as the only viable economic theory.
Centrists claim that the only way to win elections is to abandon economic radicalism and accept the status quo, however unsuccessful and damaging it has proved to be.
But the idea that the country unfailingly supports the current system is false, as 56 per cent of the public support a 75 per cent top rate of income tax and 58 per cent back nationalisation of the railways.
Centrists also rely on the patronising notion of the “ordinary voter,” as though the public don’t have a plurality of opinions and can be roughly homogenised into a cosy group.
While some may point to the re-election of right-wing parties as evidence of the left’s need to shift to the centre, the current wave of populist sentiment indicates that large sections of the electorate feel left behind by neoliberalism and want substantial economic change.
Some of this anger and disaffection is being channelled into nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment, notably Donald Trump’s hostility to foreigners.
But the left has an opportunity to offer radical change to millions of people and be the positive force that many so desperately need. The rise of left-wing economists such as Thomas Piketty and Paul Mason shows that people recognise the credibility of a different economic system, while Theresa May’s disingenuous promise to help working-class people indicates that politicians are aware of the growing need to address class divisions.
If the left can offer a comprehensive and radical new form of economics that resonates with voters, they can achieve electoral success. What is not required is another lurch to the centre and the acceptance of economic orthodoxy.
People are tired of being patronised and told that anything other than the status quo is madness. Therefore the centre must be abandoned before it does any more damage.