Tim Farron said this week that “there is a hole in the centre of British politics right now.” This is true, if not in the sense he intends.
What I mean is that several big political developments of recent years are a backlash against centrist politics: the rise of Corbyn; Brexit; the collapse in the LibDems vote in 2015; growing distrust of experts; and increasing hostility to immigration. The hole in centre exists because voters have deserted it. Such trends, of course, have counterparts in the US and much of Europe.
There’s a reason for this. Centrism requires a healthy capitalism. Support for a mixed economy rests upon the ability of capitalism to raise living standards and generate the taxes that pay for public services. And the centre ground requires that people have a stake in the system (so they don’t want radical change) but also have trust in the Establishment and goodwill towards others, so they support mildly progressive policies. This too depends upon capitalism being healthy – because as Ben Friedman has shown, good economic growth creates tolerance, trust and open-mindedness whist stagnation breed intolerance and extremism.
But this economic base for centrism has greatly weakened. As the IFS says, real median earnings are still lower now than they were before the crisis. As a result, older workers’ incomes haven’t changed since then whilst younger ones’ have fallen significantly.
On top of this, unaffordable housing means that younger people have less stake in the economy than they used to have, whilst job polarization and the degradation of formerly middle-class jobs have undermined the sense of content with the system which has often been the bedrock of centrism.
We saw in the 1930s and 70s that economic crises weaken the political centre. We’re seeing that again.
However, centrists haven’t just been hurt by the economic crisis. They are also in intellectual disarray, which might in part be the result of their failure to adapt to the stagnation of capitalism. Yesterday, thehistorian said that Labour’s centrists “don't have enough alternative ideas”. Bang on cue, David Miliband’s piece in the New Statesman vindicates him. Whilst David is absolutely right to say that secular stagnation and turbocapitalism pose new challenges for the centre left, he is sadly silent on what policies might meet these challenges.
Anti-centrists do have answers here. Nativists say closed borders; the libertarian right says freer markets; and the Left says higher corporate taxes, nationalization and printing money. Such answers might be inadequate or worse. But something beats nothing. And nothing is what the centrists seem to have.
This, however, need not be the case. Support for tax credits, infrastructure spending, more choice and voice in public services, the softest of Brexits (if any) and better early years education are good coherent policies which the centre could offer*.
And there’s one big cognitive bias which centrists could exploit. This is the compromise effect – the tendency of people to choose middling options when faced with extremes. Voters have often backed centrist parties for the same reason they buy the second-cheapest bottle of wine rather than the cheapest or middlingly-priced TVs rather than high-end ones. If the centre could find a viable proposition, and sell it by exploiting the contrast to the extremes, it might have a future.
Or would it? Whilst the intellectual crisis of centrism is resolvable, the economic stagnation that has caused a revulsion with the centre might not be.
* Personally, I doubt that they’d be adequate – but they’re better than nothing.