How “centrists” became everything they loathed and ridiculed about the left
How so-called “centrists”* became everything they loathed and ridiculed about the left is nothing short of remarkable. Here was their standard critique of the left. The left was stuck in the past, mostly the 1970s. It was defined by what it was against rather than what it was, lacking any coherent ideas, mostly relying on slogans instead. It was a protest party, obsessed with principle and purity over power. It was prone to conspiracy theories. It believed in a crude form of “false consciousness”: that is, the masses were easily manipulated sheep who were brainwashed by right-wing propaganda. It looked for traitors not converts, showing intolerance, sometimes abusively so, towards opponents. It was a cranky social media bubble. It was obsessed with a narrative of betrayal on the part of the Labour leadership.
Today, it’s “centrists” obsessively stuck in the past, either the New Labour period, or simply treating ‘before Brexit’ as a decent, reasonable time before everyone and everything went mad. They are defined by what they’re against — Brexit and Corbynism — but lack any coherent ideas of their own. The 2015 Labour leadership contest brutally exposed their lack of ideas or vision, as has the near-total collapse of centrist-led social democratic parties on the European Continent. A brutal review of a new book by Philip Collins — former Blair speechwriter who is plotting to create a new “centrist” party — underlines this lack of any original ideas, in contrast to a left which is in intellectual ferment.
Now it’s the turn of those who once criticised Corbyn for turning Labour into a “protest party” to rely on organising mass protests, even denouncing a man they once decried as a lifetime protester for not turning up to their protests. They even fall into some of the habits we on the left have: angrily denouncing the media for not reporting their demonstrations and making claims over the number who turned up as evidence that their demands must be adopted. It’s them denouncing the Labour leadership for abandoning principle in favour of power over the issue of Brexit.
As for conspiracy theories: just to make this clear, yes, I am sure that there was wrongdoing on the Leave side that needs to be investigated. But many so-called “centrists” believe Brexit (and Trump’s victory for that matter) can be almost entirely explained by grand conspiracies stretching to Moscow, that years of austerity, stagnating living standards, migrant-scapegoating and disillusionment with the political establishment can be swept away as explainers for the referendum result in favour of Twitter bots. It is striking that, in the “centrist” explainer of what’s happened to modern politics, the financial crash and years of austerity do not strongly feature: instead disliked political phenomena is reduced to manipulation, cheating, and mass hysteria.
As for “false consciousness”: well, if the left sometimes fell into a defeatist trap of blaming the mainstream media for programming the electorate as though they were robots, some “centrists” treat the Brexit result the same way, though in their case generally emphasising Facebook advertising. Does Facebook advertising play a role? Yes, otherwise all that money wouldn’t be spent on it. And as I’ve said both during and after the referendum campaign, the Leave campaigns promoted bigotry and lies. But treating the entire referendum result as having being dishonestly bought by social media messaging, and speaking of Leave voters as ignorant dupes is as simplistic and insulting as claiming the 2015 general election was won by the Tory press brainwashing the electorate.
As for looking for traitors not converts: well, where to start? So-called “centrists” frequently treat supporters of the leadership of the main opposition party as morally disgraceful, the end. Whilst online abuse is generally framed as a left-wing phenomenon, a preposterous but cynically effective attempt to portray the left as an abusive intolerant rabble, a “centrist” online ecosystem obsessively pours abuse on the left. Here’s some recent fruity examples.
It was the left generally dismissed as a cranky social media phenomenon (and yes, there are cranky left-wingers on twitter). But there is almost no discussion of what have been described as online “aggro-centrists”, particularly those with the #FBPE hashtag (and no, not everyone using that hashtag is abusive), who are just as cranky, intolerant and often abusive as the most aggressive so-called “cybernats” or “cyber-Corbynistas”.
And finally, the left was always pilloried for a narrative of betrayal by the Labour leadership. This narrative is a linchpin of modern “centrism”, that even though Labour has no majority (they see no contradiction in constantly emphasising that Labour didn’t win in 2017), and even though it has repeatedly and relentlessly voted against the Tories’ Brexit proposals (with the government generally saved by so-called Tory ‘rebels’ who don’t rebel), the Labour leadership is blamed for its “betrayal” over Brexit and held somehow responsible for the government’s own decisions.
There is one key difference. “Centrists” have a sense of entitlement the left never had, that they somehow represented the natural order of things before being absurdly displaced by political madness; that they have been displaced by some sort of administrative error which just needs to be corrected so their “sanity” can reign again. They also enjoy substantial influence and patronage within the media and the Parliamentary Labour Party, in a way the left did not in its dog days. But nonetheless it is striking how so-called “centrists” have become all of the things they loathed, and yes ridiculed the left for.
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*The reason I say “so-called ‘centrists’” is because there is no agreed term for this political faction. For most people outside of the political bubble, “left” and “right” are abstract terms which make no sense. Most like to see their own beliefs as “moderate” and “commonsense”, which is what “centrist” means to many, but what they actually believe isn’t in any way the same as what politicos calling themselves “centrists” believe (this article explains in detail why). Most are broadly in the “Blairite” tradition, but regard “Blairite” as intended to be insulting.