Wednesday 20 June 2018

Worse than Conservative

Chris Leslie has a new pamphlet out on 'the centrism', you say? It has the snappy title Centre Ground does it? Sounds like a must read. Except, you and I both know it isn't. The centre ground in politics is dead. Or, to put it another way, there are two centre grounds. The common sense of one, more or less, ranges from scepticism to hostility to immigration, wants Brexit delivered, takes pride in the police and armed forces, accepts nukes, would like pensioners (often themselves) protected, and is happy to see the poor demonised as benefit scroungers deserving of the bitterest medicine. The other centre ground barely registers in the mainstream. There is a consensus around the housing crisis, precarity and wages, on social liberalism and inclusive identity forms, an annoyance Brexit will hit them the heaviest, a scepticism toward a social security system that finds excuses not to assist them, and little time for the militarism and flag waving of the others. There are two centres of British politics because it is polarised. Corresponding to each, more or less, is support for the Tories and Labour respectively, with the Liberal Democrats and UKIP severely squeezed.

Serious politics has to have an inkling about this situation, and have proposals for responding to it. Labour has and, within their own terms, the Tories do too. Centrism? Well, almost three years on from Jeremy Corbyn's election and a year after the general election confounded Blairist forecasts we still await an explanation of how we got here and why they got it so badly wrong. Does this pamphlet fill the void? Does it 'eck as like. There's a little bit of foregrounding, of populist forces surging because "The global financial crisis fuelled cynicism about government and politicians" but that's as far as it goes. The situation we have now is no one's fault, and certainly, definitely nothing to do with how the centre left performed in power of late.

We then come to a section that is potentially interesting: Chris Leslie's definition of centrism. He can't get its recent history right, but can he at least grasp the contours of the movement, such as it is, he identifies with? Noting most people place themselves in the centre of the left-right axis of politics (a consistent, long-term finding almost entirely devoid of meaning), he has a stab at defining it around balance. It's worth quoting this word salad in full:

Balance: mixed, regulated economy; equal opportunities supporting personal responsibility; aligning personal interests with best interests for community and country; evidence-based policy making recognising social patterns and data; international humanitarianism and willingness to act judging each case on merits; collective service provision but safeguarding taxpayer and service user interests. (p.12)

Arrayed around this are diametrically opposed spokes highlighting concepts one would normally associate with leftist and rightist politics, at least as far as the centrist imagination is concerned. Among these are self-interest, pacifism, high tax-and-spend, producer interests, stateism [sic], and so on. For Chris, centrism sits inside these extremes, has some affinity to them, and pragmatically relates to problems and policy challenges. I suppose this definition has the virtue of staking out what centrism is for as opposed to what it is against, though whether these banalities demand "to be championed with the same fervour of any radical Marxist or free-marketeer" because "it is grounded in the real world" and "has the added advantage of being right" is something I'll leave readers to determine.

The pamphlet then moves into the terrain, some might say comfort zone, of the centrists - free-floating policy making. Anchored to six values, of which more shortly, Chris proposes a number of policies which, in and of themselves, are utterly unobjectionable. A legal right to time off from work to attend hospital appointments, for instance, isn't a bad idea. I mean, set against widening inequality, precarity, flat-lining wages, a dearth of opportunities beyond drudge work, a housing crisis, and all the rest it's welcome but hardly going to address deep-rooted problems. Indeed, thinking about the key issues that not only underpin public debate but are driving the polarisation of politics merits nary a mention. Though later in the pamphlet there is room enough for bad faith criticisms of nationalisation, as if simply letting the state take over key utilities and infrastructure is the actual game in town. And a broadside is loosened against activists taking over local parties and forcing honourable members to choose between constituency parties and constituents. Given the careful, Delphic language employed here I am at a total loss as to whom Chris is critiquing.

Looking at Chris's "values", his centrism is based around six formulae. 'Fair play, not playing the system' comprise wafflesome words against corporate abuses and tax avoidance, while advocating the 'contributory principle' and 'respect', which includes mandatory advice services for those at the sharp end of "multiple disadvantages". 'Responsibility' talks up reciprocity, responsible public finances, and "neighbourliness" at home and abroad. Hilariously, 'Evidence not ideology' cautions against "outside dogmatism" and demands "an evidence-based rather than ideologically-driven approach to the world. You mean like this? 'Representative democracy' toys with the idea of forcing voters to the polls, while revisiting the same old Parliamentary cretinism. 'Opportunities not pre-determinism' emphasises equality of opportunity, self-reliance, and trots out again a cross-party approach to health and social care. As if Labour's stance of rolling back the market in the NHS and the Tories' determination to deepen it can ever be reconciled. And I was tickled that Chris calls his final set of values 'Focusing on 21st century challenges – not 20th century nostalgia' when his entire project is a retread of the Third Way, minus the thin layer of substance lent by Anthony Giddens's social theory. Definitely not a case of 'forward, not back' as His Blairness would have it.

Why backwards? What we see here is a recapitulation of the neoliberal settlement presided over by New Labour. Thatcher, if you like, brusquely cleared the ground and hastily threw up some jerry rigged constructs. Blair took the blueprints and perfected them, until the 2008 shocks revealed the fault lines their efforts were erected on. While Corbynism is suggesting we build afresh on the solid foundations of a rising class, Chris would have us back on the shaky terrain, this time facing the chill winds of globalisation and prone to the rising waters of the populist right, which he'd choose to appease rather than face down. Not only do we frequently see the boring and facile repetition of 'what works', which was and remains code for more markets and more privatisation, running through Chris's argument is the dogmatic attachment to the virtue of atomised individuals, or neoliberal subjects at the moment its obsolescence is setting in. Moving forward and building a better society requires the junking of this old crap. It is antithetical to the new leftism and its stress on the social commons.

The other problem of Chris's centrism is who is it for? Who does it appeal to? Blair-era centrism had the fortuity of taking over a Labour Party reeling from four election defeats and the shock death of a recognisably Labourist leader. In power Blairism did what similar programmes have since done to the centre left in Europe: it eviscerated itself, a thorough self-pwning centrism to this day is yet to acknowledge, let alone reckon with. Unlike the Tories who at least have a base, as a movement out there in real society Chris's centrism barely registers outside of think tanks, op-eds, and the Parliamentary Labour Party. His coterie are leaders without a led, and they know this otherwise they'd have decamped and formed their own centre party ages ago.

In their latest book, Assembly, our old muckers Michael Hardt and Toni Negri argue that contemporary right wing movements are less conservative and more reactionary, because they hark back to an old imagined order and given the chance would (and do) cause a great deal of misery and suffering in their quest to mould the social after this fashion. By this reckoning, Chris's centrism isn't conservative either. His programme would do nothing to address pressing social problems, and politically it would destroy the Labour Party as a going concern. No, Centre Ground isn't conservative. It's worse than that.


TowerBridge said...


I always find your blog pieces illuminating. On this occasion I want to question your concluding paragraph.

Specifically you state that conservatism is not reactionary. I think it is. I think that reacting is the very core of right wing thinking. It is a reaction to progression and maintenance of a (or some) hierarchy. Indeed, this is why the most prominent thinkers have to grapple with some profoundly awkward truths. For example, to defend something so manifestly unjust like the monarchy once god wasn't in the picture takes some extraordinary intellectual manoeuvring.

This idea is not mine and so would point you towards Corey Robin's book, "The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin".

Of course what I am implying means that the conservative party will not die or fade as you have predicted in a number of posts now, for as long as there is progress there will be those who try to stop it out of a fear of loss of power and/or status. I am also implying too, as you'll have gathered, that the centrist above is very much playing a conservative hand.

Phil said...

Yes, reacting is core to Conservatism, but Hardt and Negri in my view do make a useful distinction between conservative and reactionary. Reactionaries actively seek to wind the clock back to some imagined social order. So yes, people like Palin and Jacob Rees-Mogg, as well as the kippers and the populist right fit into this bracket. Theresa May and leading figures of her government? I think you'd be hard pressed to so classify them. They, like conservatism everywhere, are concerned with the maintenance of class privilege but are oriented on doing so on an episodic, day-to-day basis. There are affinities with reaction but ultimately their politics differ in key aspects.

Nick Matthews said...

Good piece of analysis. This strikes me as the final iteration of third wayism. The bullshit that Tony Giddens now a Lord of course prostituted himself as a sociologist on. An invented ideological position that tried to take class out of politics. You can have social justice and economic efficiency. According to the Guardian he “advised new labour not to be afraid of being called conservative”. It’s worth remembering most of new labours decent policies, minimum wage, tu recognition, devolution, regional development, social chapter where John Smiths old Labour policies. The first thing Blair did was attack single mothers. Hard to and Negri’s observation is that new liberal economics and new conservative politics cross party boundaries. There are still a few (admittedly a very few) genuine conservatives on the Tory benches as well as some died in the wool reactionaries. The Labour benches too are also full of neo liberals and neo cons with a few labour and a sprinkling of genuine socialists.

Phil said...

I'm amazed that Leslie uses the words "mixed economy" - we haven't had one of those in years. "Mixed" doesn't mean the private sector has a role in health and education, it means the state has a role in the productive economy. This was SDP policy, back in the day - they had no plans to privatise coal or steel, let alone the utilities - but it's way-out-Left beyond-Corbynite la-la land in 2018.

Tom Mapfumo said...

What underwhelming, pseudo-technocratic nonsense - will really inspire the youth of today with its dull averageness. It is uninspiring Neolib-Dem nerd land for computer buffs and the boringly directionless. No wonder the phrase "Tory - Lite" was so popular back in the day just after Neoliberalism had semi-officially died.