Very little in British politics makes much sense right now. Consider the following lines from the BBC report on Frank Field’s resignation of the Labour whip:
“Talk of a new centrist grouping in politics has been rumbling for months. But those dissident MPs have, so far, been deeply reluctant to translate their private dissent into open insurrection.”
All of that is true, but what does it have to do with Frank Field? Or, rather, what does this veteran campaigner for traditional working class values and interests have in common with the liberal elitists linked to the talk of a new centre party? Not enough to share a coherent political platform, that’s for sure. Indeed, on the great issue of the day – Brexit (and everything it signifies) – they are poles apart.
Are centrists a threat to democracy?
This is how Matthew Goodwin, in a must-read piece for Politico, describes the notional new centrist party:
“The idea, inspired by the rise of French President Emmanuel Macron’s successful En Marche movement, is usually pictured as a club of disillusioned social liberals drawn from across the political landscape — think Labour’s Chuka Umunna and David Miliband on stage with the Liberal Democrat Vince Cable and Conservative Remainers like Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry, with a strategy overseen by veterans Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and George Osborne and communications by Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell.”
I certainly don’t see Frank Field fitting into that.
In any case, Goodwin thinks that the wannabe Macronistes have misunderstood the political marketplace:
“But while a gap is indeed opening up in the British political landscape, a look at the latest voter data shows it’s unlikely to give rise to the Macronist party of Remainers’ dreams. To the contrary, Britain looks increasingly ready for a new far-right party, styled after Marine Le Pen’s National Rally.”
Examining a list of “issues that voters both feel concerned about and believe are not currently represented by the main parties”, including “tighter restrictions on immigration” and “tougher regulation of big business”, Goodwin argues that these lend themselves to a party “that offers a combination of authoritarian positions on social issues… and also interventionist positions on the economy”.
Such a party would be “would be more ‘Trumpian’ than ‘Blairite’ — more like Le Pen’s National Rally than Nigel Farage’s U.K. Independence Party”. However, I think we need to apply the same test to this kind of outfit as we should to the new centrist party: Would Frank Field fit in?
The answer, again, is no. Frank Field – and the millions of British voters who sympathise with him – have an instinctive distrust of extremists, fanatics and posturing blowhards: exactly the sort of people that a ‘Le Pen UK’ movement would be led by.
What the Field type of voter wants is for their unresolved concerns to be addressed by a moderate, humane and competent party occupying the common ground of British politics (as it is beyond the bastions of metropolitan privilege).
For an all too brief moment, this is where Theresa May positioned the Conservative Party. And, as Goodwin points out, the people responded:
“This new data also sheds light on why Theresa May, now embroiled in an almost daily battle for survival, was so wildly popular at the outset of her premiership. When May combined support for Brexit, restrictions on immigration and a promise to do more for workers and tackle ‘burning injustices,’ she soared in the polls.”
But then she blew it – a political opportunity that comes once every generation, thrown away in the worst election campaign for decades.
Surveying the wreckage of British politics, there must be Conservative and Labour MPs who realise they have more in common with one another than with their own colleagues. And, here I don’t mean the sort who might find themselves sharing a limo to Davos, but people capable of taking a slogan like “an economy that works for everyone” and making it mean something.