Britain takes great pride in its reputation as the land of sensible people. If the national character was a person, they’d only ever order lemon and herb Nando’s and avoid caffeine after seven o’clock. Their favourite album would be Queen’s Greatest Hits, and their favourite evening would be falling asleep during the third act of The Shawshank Redemption.
But we aren’t really that sensible at all, are we? We’re the people who voted Brexit through without a clear idea of what it would look like; we’ve had two prime ministers resign in the past five years; and we made Mrs Brown’s Boys one of the most popular shows on television. We’re a mess.
And yet the fiction of Sensible Island continues, not just in how we view ourselves, but in our politics. There is nothing we love more than being told that there’s a middle ground; a compromise between two extremes, no matter what those extremes are. Centrism – an ideology that should have been crushed under the weight of its own ineptitude during the disastrous coalition years – is back with a fresh coat of paint and the same do-nothing attitude that made it the darling of people who don’t want to admit to being right wing.
Maybe that’s a little harsh, but in practice that’s where Centrism has led us. On its best day, Centrism is a lazy reinforcement of whatever the current status quo happens to be. On its worst, it is a destructive force that wreaks havoc on communities through its sheer ambivalence towards them. Because the centre, by its very nature, is a constantly moving target, which shifts along with the political extremes of the day. Today, the mainstream political discourse has moved so far towards Conservatism that today’s centre is yesterday’s right. And that’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing down.
Of course, there are plenty of people who will happily argue that the left has also become more extreme. The difference is that the phantom “far left”, which the right wing political class holds up as some violent, threatening spectre, currently has no real mainstream purchase. Keir Starmer’s Labour has made no secret of the fact that it is more invested in purging some abstract “radical fringe” of its own party than it is holding the Conservative government to account for the tens of thousands of deaths caused by its response to the pandemic.
And where exactly have the sensible politics of Keir Starmer’s Labour got them? A minor, ephemeral lead in the polls. One that comes after 18 months of constant avoidable tragedy, one that owes more to yet another scandal from their opponents than it does their own electoral appeal, and one that will likely be a distant memory by 2024 when it actually matters.
The real problem with Centrism as an ideology isn’t just in its practical ineffectiveness, but in its real-world impact on those communities that are crying out for change. The mainstream conversation around politics in Britain is so frustratingly abstract because it tends to take place between people who can afford to treat it as an abstraction. We are told over and over again to debate, to strive for the middle ground, and we end up paralysed in a cycle of constant conversation with no outcome. That suits many of us just fine, because we know that the centre will ultimately hold and that our lives will not change in any meaningful way regardless of who holds power.
For the working class, that isn’t the case. I grew up on council estates that felt – and still feel – cuts and austerity in real-time. To us, a stagnating minimum wage isn’t just a check mark in the opposition’s column, it’s a factor that you have to consider when buying groceries to feed your kids. A rise in national insurance doesn’t just mean the “other side” won; it means that you might not be able to run your car anymore. The real evil of so-called moderation is that the working class is suffering now, and has been for a long time; it can’t wait much longer for positive change.
Of course that change is difficult to go in to bat for. Because at the end of the day, everything left of “let’s do nothing” has, for the past half-decade or so, been successfully demonised as a Bolshevik plot. The left is an impossible position to argue from, and that’s a shame because in many cases, left-wing solutions would objectively improve the lot of most working class people, whether they realise it or not. Privatisation of public transport has trapped us in our communities; rising tuition fees are robbing us of generations of working class talent; the misadventure associated with right-wing vanity projects like Brexit hit the working class before anybody else.
Underneath the identity politics and sneering intellectualism, the left is, at its core, about taking away those hurdles, even if in practice it just means rolling back some of the damaging policies inflicted on us in the past decade. This isn’t some unobtainable Communist fantasy, no matter what the pundits tell you; this is observable fact, from somebody who has been there to observe it. Call it far left or call it common sense, but radical change is needed.
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But that is the central thesis of Centrism: that change should never be too radical, or too upsetting. It tries to find a middle ground between ideas, no matter how contradictory or unbalanced those ideas may be. There is no middle ground between the dignity of a living wage and the humiliation of not being able to feed your children. Some policies are simply more morally correct, more noble than others. But the working class is told, implicitly, that change is never going to come, and so they begin to feel disengaged from the political process as a whole. After all, what’s the point in keeping up to speed with politics when “the news” is just a TV show about rich people arguing with each other?
People like to argue that the “far left” is fundamentally at odds with the working class, as if “working class” is an identity defined by football and reruns of Strictly. But it isn’t, not really. Being working class is a condition; a set of circumstances that mean you are on the precipice of a black chasm of poverty, where one missed pay cheque could start a domino effect that finally pushes you over the edge.
The left has a major image problem, this is true. It isn’t hard to see why telling somebody on benefits that they have “white privilege” might not be the best way to win hearts and minds. But most of that discourse isn’t even coming from a source with any real authority in the first place. Even Jeremy Corbyn was treated as some lunatic fringe voice by the media class, and he was leader of the opposition for five years. Who is the face of the terrible far-left spectre now? Ash Sarkar? Owen Jones? The guy who tricked Nigel Farage into saying “up the RA” on Cameo? Surely the powerful people telling us that we can never have it better than we have it right now are a greater threat than a bunch of over-enthusiastic students who don’t know how to tactfully present their arguments?
The idea that there is a middle-ground solution for most of our social ills is tempting. But it just isn’t realistic. Centrism is a placebo that requires nothing of us, and for which we receive nothing in return. Change, on the other hand, is difficult, but also rewarding – and, ultimately, necessary.