In a recent Backbench article it was argued that centrism would return once populists’ empty promises had been exposed. However, this is a dangerously complacent attitude to take. Simply because one populist or extreme viewpoint becomes discredited does not automatically mean people will embrace centrist politics once again. Centrist politics will not be trusted again until they have learnt from their mistakes over the last 20 years. Why would voters, who have seen centrist governments cut public services to the bone and real wages fall, readily vote for those same politicians and parties again?
The various anti-establishment shocks across the world lead us to the conclusion that people are unhappy with the way society works for them. All the populists have done is provide an engaging narrative to explain the cause of societies issues, and more importantly someone to blame for those issues. The populists’ narrative and scapegoating have led them to a series of solutions, which, however impractical in reality, appear the right course of action because they tie in with their worldview. Ultimately the failure of centrist politics in recent years has not only been because of the appeal of populists, but also because centrist parties have either pandered to populist policies or continued with the same policies regardless of the political landscape around them changing almost beyond recognition.
Neither of these methods have worked for centrists so far because they have simply surrendered the initiative and become locked into a reactionary cycle. This means centrist parties have become viewed as copying the populists and looking like parties devoid of purpose. This is the fate of many centre-left parties across Europe who have alienated their base because of their association with austerity. This pushed their working-class bases towards populists, as the working class have been the most harshly affected by austerity measures. Centrism has failed in recent years because it has not reacted effectively to the challenge laid down by populists; it has been the architect of its own destruction.
However, amidst the doom and gloom there are examples of how centrists can still win elections and get the better of the populist agenda. The most well-known example of course is Emmanuel Macron in France, who came from a standing start to win the presidency, gaining a majority in the French parliament. The most interesting feature of Macron’s campaign in 2017 was that while being centrist (“neither of the left nor the right”), he was able to articulate a positive vision with the drive to change how France worked as a nation. Whether or not you agree with Macron’s policies, it is clear that unlike so many centrists he was willing to come up with radical policies to change the status quo. The success of his campaign came from convincing people that his transformative, yet still centrist, agenda was the right move for France. Here he already had an advantage over many centrist parties: he actually had an agenda of change – a strong message – to persuade people to vote for.
The lesson for centrist parties here is that waiting passively for the populists to expose their own promises as misleading or unattainable will not work unless the centrist parties regain their initiative. Centrists need to set the tone and look to actively redress the problems in society. If populists blame immigrants for high unemployment, centrists should not come up with stricter immigration measures and pander to their rivals. Instead they should make the positive case for how migration helps the economy – in the UK immigrants make a net fiscal contribution. That is, centrism should provide a real alternative to existing agendas. They should also be looking at schemes to help ease unemployment, for example cutting business rates and replacing them with a land value tax to help small businesses (an idea suggested by Vince Cable recently).
It is the duty of centrist parties to call out false populist claims and promises and to promote new, creative solutions to the issues populists claim to be tackling. It won’t be easy for centrists to do this, but it will be far harder to make already failed ideas appealing once more.