Labour’s victory in the 1997 General Election was the greatest achieved in the party’s history and ushered in thirteen years of unbroken Labour rule. Tony Blair, the then Labour leader, secured victory by running on a centrist platform.
Progressive centrism has sustained a full body-blow in Anglo-Saxon politics: Brexit and Trump were a resounding rejection of the brand of politics once called “third way” by Blair. Corbyn has disavowed the New Labour legacy and his inner-circle more closely resembles the ill-fated shadow cabinet of Michael Foot and will probably earn itself a similar result.
Progressive centrists can despair, but beyond the borders of the English-speaking world, hope lies. In every prediction, the centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron is set to trounce the far-right Marine Le Pen in France’s Presidential elections. In Italy, Renzi, who resigned as Prime Minister last December following the defeat of his constitutional reforms, has just been re- elected leader of the governing Democratic Party and is cautiously poised to mount a comeback. Both men are unashamedly third-way centrists in the mould of Blair.
Their popularity counters the despairing belief currently prevalent amongst many liberals that right-wing populism will everywhere prove triumphant. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: Nobert Hofer failed to win the Austrian presidency, Geert Wilders lost the General Election in the Netherlands and Angela Merkel seems to have headed off opposition and set for a fourth-term as Chancellor.
It is in France that the hope of the progressive centre finds its brightest beacon. With Brexit and Trump, Le Pen was widely predicted to complete the hat-trick of populist insurgencies.
Now that looks unlikely. Refusing to be dragged either to the left or the right, and achieving extraordinary success in the process, Emmanuel Macron lives as a lesson: that a centrist platform is still a winnable formula. It does not mean inevitable defeat. One need not shift to the far-right to counter it, or pander to the far-left to placate it. If presented with courage and vision, if the centre is the agent of change rather than the guardian of a new conservatism, it not only still resonates but can still bring victory. The Centre is still the future, not the past.
Twenty years on from New Labour’s victory, surveying the political landscape might seem grim to many, but look closer and hope can clearly be seen shining through. In an interview in the Observer, Tony Blair said: ‘If my brand of politics ever comes back into fashion, the Tories are going to be where they were - flat on their backs with their feet in the air.’
Blair’s own party might currently be engaged in stubbornly unlearning the lessons he taught them, and the Conservatives tacking more towards their pre-Blair days than the ‘compassionate Conservatism’ of Cameron, but that does not mean that the Centre is a spent force. It means that it is ripe for the retaking.
The voter coalition which sustained Blair through three consecutive elections has not disappeared, it is now simply being left politically homeless. As the parties diverge to the extremes on either end, the centre-ground is vacated. The principles of New Labour point the way to its retaking and, on the Continent, Macron blazes a trail.
The progressives of Britain must take heart. The spirit of the future is still more 1997 than Brexit. The Centre may be bruised but it is not beaten, it is, as in the name of Macron’s En Marche! movement, once again on the march, once again moving Forwards! The fightback has now begun.