This was Vince Cable’s big chance. The Lib Dem leader’s address to his party’s annual conference this week was the rarest of moments – a genuine opportunity to speak beyond the hall to an attentive audience that had good reason to pay close attention.
For those of us who self-identify as centrists – call us Blairites, moderates, melts, whatever – these are barren times. There is nowhere to go. Most of us are anti-Brexit on the basis that it’s a bloody stupid idea and watch the self-serving pivots and shimmies of Davis/Johnson/Fox etc. with something close to contempt. We cannot vote for this incarnation of the Tory party, even if we found a decent number of policies to praise over the course of the Cameron administration. Labour are still worse: led by a stomach-turning ragbag of Trots and chancers who have mounted a hostile takeover of their party and its machinery and watched gleefully as the internal opposition tossed its weapons away and hit the deck in abject surrender.
That leaves Britain’s Third Party (I’ll leave the SNP out of it, on the basis they’re not great fans of Britain). If you’ve ever been to a Lib Dem conference and spent time among the membership, you’ll understand why this is something of a hard sell. Your inner voice nags away at you: ‘I didn’t avoid the grave for this long just to end up voting Lib Dem’. Still, if not now, when? One girded one’s innards and sought to approach Cable’s speech seriously and with an open mind.
He blew it. Of course he blew it. He’s a Lib Dem. He’s Vince Cable, a lab-grown synergy of Richard Briars and Mr. Spock. There are the obvious and easy complaints. It was a dull speech of bad jokes (Brexit is ‘the product of a fraudulent and frivolous campaign led by two groups of silly public-school boys reliving their dormitory pillow fights’ – sigh) and preposterous boasts he would be the next PM. Within a minute, he was banging on about the ‘illegal’ Iraq war. There were some rather desperate attempts to win back the student vote that fled in the wake of the tuition fees u-turn. In summation: meh.
It all adds up to an unmissably obvious conclusion: Vince and his mob aren’t – can’t be – the answer to what ails us. They lack the credibility to inspire, unite and dictate the terms of a new politics. These are not the centrists we’re looking for. The challenges are too great, the times too combustible, the Lib Dems too smoke-stained and careworn, too pious and limp. No, the only solution is a new party.
Centrism, due to its very nature, is a thing of pragmatism, compromise, a distrust of ideology, an openness to innovation and fact. It all too often lacks the swagger that comes with the quasi-religious certainties of left and right. Nick Clegg and the now distant era of the Orange Book is probably the closest the Lib Dems have come to providing us with a champion and a credo, but even Clegg was a bit, well, Lib Dem.
The arguments against the establishment of a new party are familiar and of course have merit. It would have little chance of winning an election; the sentimental tribalism of our politicians means they would rather stick with what they have; voters anyway seem to be drifting back towards the big two. Creating something new would be hugely risky, enormously expensive and, hey, remember the SDP?
But still. We are living through the most radical transformation of society and of our way of life since the industrial revolution. The existing parties were set up in and for a different world – Labour, especially, even down to its name, is a strange anachronism. They are Heath-Robinson contraptions, held together by sticky tape and moist-eyed emotion, that seem constitutionally unable to cope with the pace of change, to offer sensible, convincing policies that can ease us through the necessary adjustments. They are hamstrung by history, dogma and tradition. They are holding Britain back.
British politics and our public space would benefit from a party formed specifically to deal with the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. Free from the constrictions imposed by history, legacy and special interest loyalties, it could aggressively get to grips with intergenerational unfairness, the rise of AI and its impact on lifestyle and the workplace, devise a sustainable model for funding public services, develop a grown-up conversation about immigration, and the rest. It could do so honestly and in a language that explodes the carefully calculated jargon that so envelops and strangles our debate.
Further, in time we need to move on from a First Past the Post voting system that does not offer the variety of choice and diversity people are used to in practically every other aspect of their lives. The Labour and Conservative vote rose in 2017, but when your choices are so limited there’s nothing surprising about this. The Tory-Lib Dem coalition was largely a good, measured government and stands as a good example of how collaboration can iron out the wrinkles on both sides. We’d be a better nation if this were the norm rather than the exception. A proportional voting system would allow the electorate to slip the chains that currently bind them to just a couple of deeply unsatisfactory options.
A new, modern party of the centre would have its work cut out, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It would give many of us a cause to champion over the long term. It could be something to be proud of – a muscular, liberal centrism that makes its case with all the swagger of its rivals, and that is built – and fit – for the 21st century.