Stumbling and Mumbling: On centrist decline

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One of the BBC’s most successful comedy shows of recent years is Radio 5’s 6-0-6, wherein actors pretending to be football fans phone in to spout gibberish about the game. A recurring trope is the need for “passion”: managers are expected to be passionate, and teams lose because they “didn’t want it enough.”
I was reminded of this by a tweet from Andrew Adonis, that Labour must “get real about winning” – as if the party would win elections if only they wanted it more.
This is yet another example of one of the great political changes of my lifetime – the utter intellectual collapse of the Labour right.
Think back to the mid-90s. Blairism – lest we forget – was at the time a genuine intellectual project, an attempt to accommodate (mild) social democracy to the economic realities of the time. So, for example, tax credits were intended to help the low-paid and boost work incentives in the face of weak demand for unskilled work: the minimum wage was in part a way of limiting the fiscal cost of such credits. Expanding universities was a way of meeting the increased demand for educated workers (as signalled by the rising graduate pay premium) whilst also capping inequality. Fiscal rules were an attempt to reassure bond markets: real long-term yields were then over 4%. And such rules, along with central bank independence were intended to reduce policy uncertainty, thereby encouraging investment.
This programme had its flaws but it was intellectually serious.
Today, though, the economy has greatly changed and poses different questions. What should we do now the inequality which matters is not so much the 90-10 ratio as it was in the 90s but the high incomes of the 1% or 0.1%? Is inequality really only a matter of income but also of ownership and power, and if so what should be done about this? What (if any) adverse effects does inequality have and how might we mitigate them? What should macroeconomic policy be when real interest rates are sharply negative? What should we do about unaffordable housing? How can we restart productivity growth? How can we ensure macroeconomic stability given that we learned in 2008 that stable macroeconomic policy alone is insufficient?
To questions such as these centrist politicians and pundits (most of the latter having not lost their jobs) have no answer. They have learned nothing since 2007. Neither Chris Leslie’s “manifesto” nor CUK’s launch document contained any meaningful economics at all. As Phil says, they offer “not one scintilla of policy, or rumour of an alternative to Corbynism.”
Labour’s election defeat might have been the ideal opportunity for centrists to reassess Corbynomics and to question its critique of capitalism. But for the most part they have not done so. Far more of the reaction to that defeat has been to ask how Labour might better do retail politics, or how it might accommodate itself to socially conservative voters. What discussion of Labour’s economic policies there has been has focused upon its lack of appeal to voters rather than upon any intellectual defects in it. Of a centrist alternative to Corbynomics there is little sign.
This is not entirely for want of resources. You could put together a reasonable economic platform from the work of folks like the Bennett Institute, Radix or Sam Bowman and Stian Westlake. Instead, all we get is vague talk of electability and endless amounts of punching left.
Of course, we should not see politics merely as a matter of technocratic policies – and still less, in postmodern capitalism – as delivering real solutions to real problems. Centrists, for all their talk of being evidence-based rationalists, are as tribal as the rest of us. Hatred of the left is the premise of their thinking, not the conclusion.
Politics is also, of course, about class. And herein lies a problem for centrists: what is their class base supposed to be? Blair succeeded by forming an alliance of the low-paid; businessmen alienated by the Tories economic incompetence; and public sector workers.
But where is the equivalent today? Labour have captured workers alienated by high house prices and the neoliberal managerialism which New Labour accelerated. And the Tories have retirees and rentiers scared of redistribution. I suppose centrists could, if they tried, find a platform that appeals to the more progressive elements of capital and those workers who identify with them. But one lesson of Brexit is that such elements are insufficient.
Perhaps, then, the intellectual decline of centrism is a symptom of a decline in its client base. If so, then we have less to learn from Blair’s electoral successes than centrists pretend.

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