Centrism has been overtaken by populism in recent years. Populist campaigns have promised to take on the establishment and provide radical and fast-acting change. But these promises rarely materialise, and voters soon return their faith to the middle-ground. The centrist culture of compromise will always be vital for ‘getting things done’ and will be crucial for dealing with issues like Brexit.
Former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, “standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides”, echoing virtually word for word the rhetoric of Labour Party Socialist Aneurin Bevan. While the two political giants supported sharply contrasting ideologies, they shared the view that centrism was ‘a mug’s game’.
In recent years British politics have become increasingly polarised and ever-more radical.
The Labour Party has moved far away from the broad church centrism of Tony Blair. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour released a staunchly left-leaning manifesto that provided voters with what they called a “stark choice”. More recently backbench Labour MP Chuka Umunna urged the Labour leadership to “call off the dogs” – those who are trying to force centrist MPs out of the party.
Meanwhile, the Conservative Party has taken a significant shift towards the right. The hard-line Brexiteer faction, led by such figures as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, holds ever-increasing power. Johnson is now a serious contender to be the next PM, a scenario thought impossible in previous years.
Traditional centre-ground politics in Britain is struggling. The Liberal Democrats have failed to take advantage of the radical polarisation of British politics, despite severe rifts in the two main parties. Furthermore, a meeting between possible members of a potential new centrist party reportedly broke down after disagreements over strategy.
Centrism is fairing no better on the continent, with right-wing nationalism surging.
A right-wing coalition has shot to power in Italy following elections in March, with policies centred upon radical nationalism. The government has promised to review Italy’s relationship with the EU and to take a much harder line on immigration. Meanwhile, under Viktor Orban’s leadership Hungary has taken a similar stance. The EU recently voted to ‘punish’ Hungary for breaching the union’s rules and values. This follows Hungary’s crackdown on the so-called “stop Soros” law that makes it harder for NGOs to help undocumented immigrants.
Right-wing governments also hold power in other EU nations like Poland and Austria, and have even threatened the political establishment in larger countries such as France, Holland and Germany.
And let’s not forget America, where a populist campaign accused of collusion with Russia and headed by a leader who boasted about using his power and fame to manipulate women, successfully defeated a centre-left opponent against all odds.
Why has centrism declined?
One explanation is the obvious power of populist politics. Both the hard left and hard right promise voters the prospect of fast, radical change. This often involves the over-simplification of complex issues and the use of scapegoats.
Take the rise of European right-wing politics.
Countless political campaigners like Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Penne and Viktor Orban have presented tightening immigration laws as a solution to voters’ woes. Far-right organisations have also launched campaigns to ‘liberate’ their respective nations from the injustices of the political establishment – that is, the European Union. The finger has also been pointed at other factors, ranging from globalisation to Islam.
A similar ‘populism blueprint’ was followed by Donald Trump’s successful campaign. Where European right-wingers bemoaned illegal immigrants who had crossed the Mediterranean, Trump set his sights on ‘illegal aliens’ from Mexico. Similarly Salvini, Le Pen and others blamed the EU establishment for their economic troubles; Donald Trump promised the electorate that he would ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington.
In Britain, aspects of the Conservative and Labour electoral campaigns have also become increasingly populist.
Conservative Brexiteers have preached about the benefits of a ‘hard Brexit’ and distancing the nation from the EU establishment. A tough stance on immigration is also a key government policy. In the run up to the EU referendum, both the Leave and Remain camps used a fair share of sensationalism.
For Jeremy Corbyn’s left-leaning Labour party, austerity represents the establishment that must be defeated. The party has pledged to stand up for ‘the many’ and radically change the established system which is ‘rigged against’ them by ‘the few’.
Populist campaigns are highly successful at capturing the votes of disgruntled citizens. The immediacy of the change promised by populists is far more enticing than the slow and sensible polices of centrists. Radical policies capture the headlines and grasp the attention of voters.
Populist campaigns must ultimately be underpinned by widespread discontent. Usually related to economic downturn, voters lose patience with the established centrism and put their faith in the promise of often charismatic leaders and rapid solutions.
Centrism will return
Populist support is reactionary and thus unsustainable. Major social issues can rarely be addressed quickly or without a complex approach. Long-term sustainable strategies take time. The empty promises and misleading scapegoating of radical populist leaders will inevitably be exposed, and voters will return their faith to “middle of the road” politics.
Former US Senator Joe Lieberman’s definition of a centrist politician is someone who is “willing to compromise.… and meet with people of opposite points of view so that [they] can get something done." People with these qualities will always be needed in politics.
The future of Britain’s relationship with the EU has already split the nation, and now debate over the ‘type of Brexit’ the UK should follow is causing further division. Nothing will get done without an agreed strategy, in which centrist politics can and should lead the way. Compromise must be found.