In this article I explain what centrism is, why it means different things to different people, how its meaning has changed across time and why people are still promoting an idea which has failed on its own terms.

What is Centrism?

In March 2017, Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change published a poll of people’s views about centrism. The poll found that support for centrist policies remained “strong.” Just three months later at the 2017 general election, 82% of voters voted for either Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing Labour party or Theresa May’s right-wing Tory party. The Liberal Democrats, the only centrist party in the election, saw its vote share fall and won just 12 seats despite voter turnout increasing to 68.8%, the highest turnout of any general election this century. The centre in British politics had spectacularly collapsed. 

There are several definitions of the term centrism. A popular culture term for voters who describe themselves as centrists is “centrist dad.” By that they probably mean they consider themselves to be reasonable people and middle of the road politically. The Oxford dictionary of the Social Sciences defines centrism as “A political tendency that involves finding a middle ground between political forces on the left and the right, either as a matter of principle or as a means of maximizing electoral appeal. Within a particular party, centrism usually involves downplaying ideological appeals in favour of a moderate, pragmatic, or managerial approach.”

As that definition suggests, centrism is an interchangeable term. Centrist politicians often describe themselves as moderates and pragmatists and claim they are not ideologically driven and are only interested in “what works”. The media contributes to the reinforcement of that definition, and by describing centrist politicians as centrists and moderates subliminally implies that politicians they do not label as centrists are not moderate and should be avoided by voters. If that is intentional then it is a very elegant and insidious form of propaganda.

The question is whether it is true that centrists are not ideologically driven. Ideology provides a map and compass for politicians to navigate the political landscape. How is it possible to travel in the right direction without a map and compass, and how is it possible to sustain an idea without the foundation that ideology provides?

The history of centrism

An excellent account of the history of centrism can be found in Thomas Frank’s book ‘Listen Liberal’. The origin for the idea of centrism can be traced to a 1972 book called ‘Changing Sources of Power’ by the lobbyist and Democratic strategist Lewis Powell. Powell argued that class was an obsolete concept and that young professionals should replace the working class as the target constituency for the Democratic party.

Skip forward a decade and this idea was taken up in 1985 by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which believed the reason the party had lost the previous three presidential elections was because it was too liberal and not right wing enough. Its recommendation was that the Democrats should shift right and march towards the centre. This analysis ignored the fact that the party had already tried the strategy of shifting right but still lost.

It is important to note that some of the most enthusiastic supporters of this new idea were neoliberals and that neoliberalism has been an integral part of centrism since its inception. While embracing the neoliberal principle of globalisation and its economic policies of deregulation, austerity and privatisation, the Democrats simultaneously turned their backs on the unions and the working class. It was a recipe for short term electoral success but ultimately for disaster.

Centrist case study: Bill Clinton 

It is at this point that our main centrist protagonist enters the story, the former chairman of the DLC, Bill Clinton. Clinton was the president of the United States from 1993-2001. As soon as he became president he started implementing centrist policy. By this time the Democrats had done a complete volte-face on their attitude to liberals. They had decided that liberals would now be the constituency they were going to relentlessly target. Not just any liberals, but liberals who were more affluent, educated and self-reliant than other liberals, liberals who worked in Silicon Valley and other successful industries.

The Democrats believed in a meritocracy based on academic and professional qualifications. They believed those people deserved their success and had earned it through education and through pulling themselves up by their boot straps. They began operating in a vacuum from the real world, ignoring the inequality that caused a lack of opportunity which prevented others from achieving the same outcomes as them.

Clinton was president during a benign economic period. After eight years in office what did the centrist president actually achieve for the benefit of American citizens? The answer is, not much. He did achieve a lot for corporations and rich people though. He deregulated derivatives and weakened banking regulation (making the 2008 economic crisis more likely), deregulated telecoms (causing a monopoly), passed NAFTA (losing millions of American jobs to other countries), reformed welfare (increasing poverty and inequality) and engaged in a policy of mass incarceration, which disproportionately impacted black Americans.

Under the cover of being a centrist Democrat, Clinton achieved things a hard-right Republican could only have dreamed of and would never have been allowed to do. One of his final acts was to export centrism from the US to the UK to Tony Blair’s New Labour party. He also handed the centrist baton over to Barack Obama, who candidly described himself as politically being a “moderate Republican.”

There was nothing moderate about Obama’s presidency. He deported a record number of people and allowed 5.2m families to be evicted after the 2008 economic crisis whilst jailing just one of the bankers who caused it. During his presidency the US dropped 26,171 bombs in one year alone (3 bombs an hour, every hour, 24 hours a day) and in 2016 US forces were operating in 70% of the world’s countries, a 130% increase on Bush’s presidency. There is nothing moderate whatsoever about that record. 

Centrist case study: Tony Blair and New Labour

As described in another of my articles, Labour won a landslide in 1997 thanks largely to voter fatigue towards the Tories and John Smith gaining a commanding lead for Labour and turning the party into a government in waiting. Smith produced a socialist programme of government by setting up the Social Justice Commission in 1992, which included the minimum wage, a headline policy for Blair's government. Tom Watson, the former deputy Labour leader, described the policies resulting from the Commission’s report as the “bedrock” for Labour’s radical first term in government. Blair then fell on centrism to fill the political void in New Labour after exhausting the policies provided by Smith’s Social Justice Commission. 

Like Bill Clinton’s presidency, Blair’s government operated in a benign economy, which was described by Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, as a “golden period” for the British economy. The centrist theory that votes coalesced around the centre and centrism was the only path to electoral victory was tested in the most favourable of conditions. What were the results? Between 1997-2010 Tony Blair and his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, engaged the UK in a war of aggression against Iraq and an occupation of Afghanistan, lost Labour 5 million votes and left the party with just 8.6 million votes, 29% vote share, insolvent and with the lowest number of party members in a hundred years.

Blair’s supporters constantly cite the three general elections the party won but studiously ignore the high cost of those victories and the missed opportunity of making Labour the natural party of government and transforming the UK. Blair was like a racing driver who was given a fast car by the previous owner, won three races but crashed the car so badly it was virtually undrivable, then spent the next 15 year boasting about what a great driver he was. To continue the sporting analogy in football terms, you are only as good as your last match.

Common themes of centrism

A common denominator of centrist politicians is their alignment with US economic and foreign policy and their support for US hegemony around the globe. Centrists use identity politics to offset accusations of inequality caused by their neoliberal economic policies. They are also anti-socialist, which probably relates to their support for US hegemony, which in turn is connected to their globalisation worldview.

An example of their virulent anti-socialism was the coup organised by centrists in the Labour Party to topple the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and prevent the election of a socialist Labour government. Corbyn came within 2,227 votes across 7 constituencies of being invited by the Queen to form a government. It is beyond any reasonable doubt that if Labour centrists had not campaigned against their own party Jeremy Corbyn would be prime minister today. Centrists appear to be aware that their electoral theory is flawed and viciously attack opponents in order to maintain control over parties they are in, even if it damages their own party and prevents it winning power.

The toppling of Jeremy Corbyn is an example of just how far centrists will go to maintain control of the parties they occupy. Centrists were also key players in engendering the moral panic around anti-Semitism and the Labour party. They were not concerned about smearing their own party and, even more disturbingly, persisted with their campaign despite knowing that the moral panic they caused was scaremongering Jewish communities throughout the UK. Indeed, they sought to blame those they traduced for the severe anxiety and distress they themselves had caused to Jewish people.

These actions are the sign of a political minority which is fighting for its political life and has cast all sense of morality and decency aside. They must, at all costs, dominate the parties they are in because they would not be able to gain access to power if they were to stand on their own centrist platform.

Conclusion

It is my view that centrism is a word which has been misappropriated by politicians whose actions and policies are, de facto, right wing. Centrists have cleverly blended aspects of identity politics with centrism to mask and provide protection from the charge that their neoliberal economic policies cause and increase both inequality and poverty domestically and internationally.

I believe their misappropriation of the term is intentional and is designed to deceive the many voters who, for various reasons, do not pay close attention to politics. It is essentially a marketing campaign with easily digestible and speciously credible propaganda designed to misinform the public and appeal to people who consider themselves moderate and reasonable. When the actions of centrists are scrutinised, as they have been in this article, it is clear that they cannot accurately be described as moderates, they hold extreme positions and are falsely posing as moderates to trick voters into voting for them.

I find it deeply troubling that, through their subterfuge, centrists are pushing the Overton window relentlessly right, edging the countries they operate in, inch by inch, ever closer to the far right. Their attacks on socialists accelerate this shift to the right, as socialism is one of the few ideologies capable of challenging the right wing and far right. This is a highly dangerous direction of travel which if not reversed can only inevitably lead to one destination.