There was something inevitable about Change UK’s fall from grace. Centrism has reached the end of the line

The idea that centrist politics may help counter the growing polarisation of the political world is not only a false hope, it is a dangerous illusion. What is needed is something far more radical

Lea Ypi
Thursday 06 June 2019 10:56 BST
Change UK: Six MPs quit as Anna Soubry becomes leader

It is tempting to think that there is something that Change UK could have done to avoid the piling up of failure after failure in the last few weeks, from the less than flattering performance in the European elections to the recent splintering worthy of an inexperienced Maoist sect. The Tiggers of Westminster can be less harsh on themselves. The answer to whether it could have all been avoided is: probably no.

It is true that the party was not helped by its initial gaffes, the confused branding and by its failure to strike the right notes during the European electoral campaign. But the problem may have been less with the messenger and more with the message. Change UK is (or was?) a centrist party and this is no time for centrist start-ups.

Critics keen on the revival of centrism will be quick to link the relative misfortune of Change UK to the relative fortune of the Liberal Democrats at the European elections. The success of the latter, they will argue, suggests that more rather than less centrist politics is needed, just of a kind promoted by old hands rather than amateurs.

But to the extent that the Liberal Democrats were rewarded with anything, at least in this instance, they were rewarded for picking one side of a sharp divide and sticking to it. The same goes for the other winners of the European election in the UK: the Brexit Party. Together the results suggested increased polarisation rather than an appetite for compromise.

Centrist politics is the institutional embodiment of compromise. Centrism urges us to avoid the extremes of left and right, and to converge in the reasonable middle, where politics and markets meet each other, and where feasible alternatives are generated in the form of policy offers to a public of consumers.

Change is delivered by professionals: professional politicians, policy experts, market analysts, and media pundits. They all chase the reasonable middle, find the average voter, celebrate the non-ideological citizen. Centrist parties are creations of parliament rather than public squares, premised on valuing moderation rather than protesting injustice.

Yet the centrist myth of balanced institutions breaks down when the compromise it celebrates reveals a failure to cater to the least advantaged. At that point it becomes clear that favouring the centre essentially amounts to favouring the stronger part of an unequal exchange.

The growing polarisation of the last few years is symptomatic of the fact that those who have lost out from the politics of compromise (between left and right, between politics and business) are no longer willing to be relegated to the position of consumers of policy packages fabricated in the corridors of power. They want to have a say on how that power is exercised, by whom and through what means. To articulate that, they need a politics of vision, and political agents willing to engage, rather than avoid, in the battle of opposing ideas.

Centrist politics has had its day. That it may have been electorally successful for a time contributes to the mirage of its persistent attractiveness. But the conditions that enabled that success (the end of the Cold War, the consolidation of liberal hegemony, the rise of supranational organisations) are no longer there. Centrist institutions have failed on their terms: they cannot blame their ideological opponents.

Yet centrists are also unable to take responsibility for these failures. Their dominant currency is one that trades in pragmatic solutions rather than reflecting on the kind of broad narrative that helps locate problems. Centrists simply assume that liberal representation works, they never reflect on who has a voice and whether they are equally heard. They assume that markets have their role to play; they never challenge the game they force us upon us.

The idea that centrist politics may help counter the growing polarisation of the political world is not only a false hope, it is a dangerous illusion. Centrism embodies the opposition to radicalism. Yet radicalism as Marx once said, is grasping the matter at the root. When centrism opposes radicalism, it also renounces, by definition, grasping at the root the problems it tries to solve.

The growing polarisation of the political world reflects the need for citizens to engage with problems at a fundamental, systemic level, and to channel their beliefs, convictions and ideas for political change at that level too. If progressive parties fail to see how this requires embracing principled opposition rather than burying it, there is a risk that institutions will continue to reify a problematic common sense while the political alienation of citizens will grow.

Citizens will seek elsewhere the involvement in shaping radical alternatives that politics will have ceased to offer. The ideal of democracy will be replaced by the reality of tyranny. That is not a prospect anyone should wish for.

Lea Ypi is a professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics

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