A radical future for Labour’s centre

In Progress magazine, Conor says that Labour moderates have no ideas left:

While another candidate with Corbyn’s politics may not have struck the chord he did, the Labour leader undeniably values ideas, even if he is strictly wedded to a certain few. By interrogating why those ideas are suddenly more popular than they ever have been before, we might be able to work out some of our own.

Chris Dillow agrees, and gives them a clue as to where they might look for those ideas

What centrists are missing is that elites have too much power and too little competence…..Corbynites at least see that there’s an issue here. Until centrists catch up, they’ll deserve to remain a marginal force both politically and intellectually.

At first sight, the centrist/moderate crisis of ideas seems odd; less than two years ago, leadership candidate Liz Kendall made the best speech of her campaign, focusing squarely on power inequalities:

For too long now politicians and the media have lamented the public’s increasing detachment from those they represent.
We need a new approach….We must embrace new ways through which these voices can be heard. The old hierarchies don’t fit today’s social networks and a culture of deference and uniformity too often stifles innovation. New technology and social expression must be harnessed to feed into local decision making and campaigning…..
When we trust people and involve them, they rise to the occasion — and we restore a little trust in politics at the same time.

Stirring stuff. Stirring enough to have made Liz my second choice for Labour leader, behind Corbyn (and Stella Creasy, with a PhD focused on the lifeworld of social exclusion, my first choice for deputy).

So why did this radical commitment to change in power structures get dumped so quickly, to the extent that moderates now seem to think they have to start again?

I think the brutal truth is that most Labour moderates have been inducted to quietly favour the status quo, and only talk about inequality of power and opportunity when it suits tactically. Commitment to equality is just not as deeply embedded as loyalty to structures of managerialist control which developed under New Labour.

We’ve been here before. Back in 2009, as the New Labour star faded fast, James Purnell, Liam Byrne and others started referencing Amartya Sen as their inspiration, because they thought he gave good intellectual cover for plans to retrench the welfare state — this was the start of the moderate wing’s infatuation with fiscal credibility.

The fact that they got Sen entirely wrong (and I suspect had never read him) was of little consequence. He was a good name to drop, and intellectual bankruptcy was a price worth paying if it meant keeping alive the Blair legacy.

Labour’s centrists are in a bad place now because they’ve allowed themselves to be institutionalized. This is very sad, because a properly developed centrist politics can and should have a crucial role in what come next. I say this as someone who now self-defines as a (European) centrist.

I have written previously of what a useful centrist politics looks like.

It is a politics which takes liberalism at its highest, and consciously puts procedure before policy. In so doing, it takes seriously — more seriously than Liz Kendall did — Liz Kendall’s view that, if we involve people properly, “they will rise to the occasion”.

It is a politics devoted to what Habermas calls the “ritualized competition for the better arguments.” (p. 26), and thus one that helps centrist themselves avoid the trap of devotion to policy which worked well enough for one decade, but do not work now.

It is a radical politics which distinguishes itself, with philosophical validity, from the overbearing, even intolerant, politics of the left, but also from that of the centre-right, which is afraid of genuine participation, and falls back easily on the power structures of tradition and “community”.

But a renewed sincerity of politics can only, I suspect, be achieved by breaking free of the current institutional malaise.

Progress, for the good of its own politics, need to disband (so does Momentum, but that’s another matter), and its erstwhile members need to get on with what moderates should be good at — the moderation of political debate and participation, such that everyone really does get a voice.

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