How can something like the possibility of a new centrist party in Britain, something which we are told again and again would be a doomed and counterproductive project, capture the political imagination (and perhaps the hope) of a segment of our MPs, and of the country at large? It is easy to rule out the formation of a new party; the lack of a commanding centrist leader remains a particularly vexing problem, and rumour-mongering newspaper headlines detailing the imminent Second Coming of centrism create deceptively high expectations. If a centrist party is to be formed, momentum, above all else, is needed; politicians need to take action, specifically Labour MPs.
Brexit has undoubtedly fractured our political system, weakening party bonds and blurring the lines of division. But Brexit is surely not the only motivation many Labour MPs have for considering splitting from their party.
They may not look it, but the Conservatives are a great deal more unified than Labour. Take at random almost any given Brexiteer and Remainer Tory and set aside Brexit. They will both advocate low taxation, a small state, and a pragmatic foreign policy centred around NATO and America. They would also find themselves largely supportive of the domestic agenda of any given Conservative leader. They are disunited on Brexit, but they continue to share many core values of conservatism, and only in the event of a no-deal Brexit would any contemplate resigning the whip.
“If this is their main concern, one should question what their electoral significance is in their current party.”
The same cannot be said for Labour; most centrist MPs favour a balanced economy, small tax rises, membership of the EU and alignment with NATO and the US. By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters favour public ownership of economic assets, steep tax rises, and are sceptical of British foreign policy, particularly when it comes to America. That Corbyn, a lifelong critic of the European Union, campaigned halfheartedly and unsuccessfully in the 2016 EU referendum further exacerbated divisions.
When the 2017 General Election came, many Labour MPs openly admitted they had no wish for Corbyn to become prime minister; they only wanted to limit the scale of Theresa May’s seemingly inevitable victory.
Labour’s antisemitism troubles have also given many reason to question their membership. Jennie Formby, the Labour Party’s General Secretary, allegedly told Labour MPs that it was impossible to “completely eradicate” anti-Semitic incidents. Her comments came after she rejected a one-week deadline set by MPs to return and report on how complaints have been handled. For how long can the likes of Luciana Berger, a prominent Jewish Labour MP, remain within a party with this kind of attitude?
“If centrists believe they are in the right, they ought to fight for their ideas and not take the electorate for granted”
Angela Smith, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker and Chuka Umunna are among others contemplating splitting from the party. If Corbyn’s wish for an early election comes true, there will become a pressing moral and political imperative for them to decide whether they have a future in the party. The UK’s top civil servant, Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, is said to be lobbying Theresa May to call a general election in June to seal her authority if she secures a final Brexit deal. It is entirely possible that there will be a general election in June and that Corbyn will win it. It is incumbent on centrist Labour MPs, therefore, to consider their place in the Labour Party.
They would not necessarily be consigning themselves to electoral insignificance by forming a new party. If this is their main concern, one should question what their electoral significance is in their current party.
Populist movements across the political spectrum have tripled their vote share in Europe over the past two decades; one in four Europeans now vote for a populist party. Their ideas have gradually made gains as people grew dissatisfied with the status quo, allowing new parties to win them over. If centrists believe they are in the right, they ought to fight for their ideas and not take the electorate for granted. So far, populists have not turned the world upside down, and people’s material lives have hardly changed. The West’s populist experiment may well go awry soon, and when that opportunity presents itself, Labour centrists will want to be able to show how they fought for their values and policies.
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