Talking about the political centre is easy, but defining where the ‘centre’ lies is far from being a straightforward task. Looking back at UK politics over the past seventy years, it is obvious that the centre has been more or less continually moving, pulled either to the right or to the left by the political forces of the day. Insofar as ‘centrism’ is a political philosophy at all, it is first and foremost about winning elections rather than about what politicians do after winning them. It’s an oversimplification, but perhaps not much of one, to say that there are times when strong politicians from the left or the right shift politics in one direction (Thatcher comes to mind); the ‘centrists’ (and Blair comes to mind) simply accept the new settlement and attempt to work within it.
So it came as no surprise to see Blair last week stressing anew that ‘Centre-ground voters still hold the key to winning elections’ in a story that appeared in a range of papers. It’s no different from what he’s been saying for years. What was more interesting, though, were the comments later in the piece, where he argued that “…I think if the centre is not muscular then the extremes gain”. This is close to being the opposite position to that with which the article started. Standing things on their head is something else to which he is not a stranger, but he’s more or less gone from arguing that elections can only be won from the centre to arguing that they can be won from the left or right if the centre isn’t strong enough.
The centre has moved from being an essential place for anyone wanting to win an election to a bulwark against those who might otherwise win. It’s an attempt to turn the centre from a pragmatic tactical position into some sort of coherent political philosophy – a version of his infamous ‘third way’, I suppose.
But that bring us right back to where we started. The problem with his third way, and with political centrism in general, is that it can only be defined in terms of what it isn’t – as a rejection of what lies to either side of it. In the immediate aftermath of the second world war, the UK ‘centre’ moved decisively towards the left, led by a strong and committed Labour Party. There was a consensus around the welfare state, for instance, which lasted for decades. There was some toing and froing in the Heath/Wilson years, but the decisive break with that consensus came in the 1980s.The great shame of the Labour Party is that it allowed itself to be taken over by ‘centrist’ careerists who fell into a new consensus with the Tories. It suits those concerned and their successors – largely in the parliamentary Labour Party – to argue that the party’s current internal debate is a diversion from the important business of winning elections, and to close off debate about possible alternatives. But as Blair has effectively admitted – and as UK political history has shown - elections aren’t always won from the centre ground, wherever that may be at the time. It’s just that wining them from elsewhere requires a party to have a strong and clear commitment to an alternative view. The problem is that so many in Labour really don’t want the party to do that – they’re actually happy to allow the Tories to continue moving the ‘centre’ in their own direction.