A void at the centre caused populism so a popular centre can oppose it

Hyperventilation can be a symptom of dying or of hysteria. The response of the mainstream commentariat and much of the political class to the alleged rise of populism (read nationalism, anti-political establishment and economic and diplomatic isolationism) is of the latter variety. Collective panic has nonetheless been strangely comforting for many, justifying emotional rather than rational responses, licensing patronising insults as righteousness, obscuring the truth and enabling the deferment of uncomfortable conversations with voters and the necessary policy-making response. The jury is out on whether it’s chicken or egg, whether great populist currents are sweeping the West or alternatively, populist politicians are opportunistically filling a void at the centre. It is more the latter and centrists must look in the mirror, take responsibility for our role and draw the conclusion that as populism grew because of a vacuum we created, it is within our power to rectify the situation.

The first step must be to debunk the received wisdom of Trumpxit that globalisation’s reliance on migration, free trade and economic specialisation has caused an indignant rage against the political and business elites which created and defend this orthodoxy. Sprinkle in social media’s ability to circumvent the filters of traditional journalism, add avowedly non-establishment leaders and “it’s the end of the world as we know it”. (As a side note, I’m not alone in regarding that classic R.E.M. 1987 hit as an anthem for 2016, with its line “Team by team reporters baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped”). We’re told that politicians as diverse as Jeremy Corbyn and Podemos on the left and Trump, UKIP and Le Pen on the right are symptoms of the same trend. This is conventional unwisdom.

In actual elections, the populists have not swept the board. In the EU referendum, the results were 52% to 48%, which Nigel Farage himself said would have meant “unfinished business” had Remain won by that margin. UKIP only have one (former Tory) MP and even under full proportional representation would be nowhere near challenging for power. In the US, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote while Donald Trump won in the electoral college.

Electoral colleges share some of the blame in the UK too, where one enabled Ed Miliband to win the Labour leadership in 2010 despite his brother winning a majority among members and MPs. Were it not for the last-minute nominations of a handful of Labour MPs in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn, a man who lacked the support of the vast majority of his parliamentary party, would not have become leader. Does this capture by the hard left of the once great Labour Party indicate relentless momentum towards a Socialist utopia? Quite the reverse: the polls suggest that Corbyn’s Labour will be trounced in a General Election, resulting in a large majority for the popular but non-populist Theresa May.

We should therefore not see Trump, Corbyn or Brexit as inevitable staging posts towards some brave new world. Instead we can see knife-edge moments on which the hinge of history has turned a little. Yet for moderate progressives, there should be no comfort in the thought that ‘victory’ was fleetingly close. These moments are the hinge but they did not open the door. Here I will take a leaf out of the playbook of the post-truth politicians and will speak from the heart, trust my gut and tell it like it is. It has largely been our fault in the centre-ground. In recent years, particularly on the centre-left, we have made mistakes, taken wrong turns, misdiagnosed problems, failed to either listen to vast swathes of voters or provide solutions to some of their main concerns and have not carried out a sufficiently heart-felt mea culpa which would quench voters’ legitimate misgivings and give us space to speak.

Beyond policy, there is the important issue of popularity. The centre-left has failed to ensure that sufficiently strong, popular and charismatic leaders reached the top positions. In the US post-Obama and in the UK post-Blair, the centre-left appeared to take electoral success for granted. It shouldn’t require a politics degree to understand that victory only came when the leadership possessed both outstanding communication skills and the right policy platform. Had Labour not snubbed the voters’ verdict by moving leftwards in 2010 and 2015, had the Democratic Party chosen a candidate who wasn’t so closely associated with the establishment and had there been more ‘big beasts’ advocating our membership of the EU for the last decade and a better campaign, things could have turned out differently.

These disappointments must not lead to defeatism but instead realism and optimism. Realism, because they show that political outcomes are not inevitable and are not the result of amorphous ‘waves’ of populism, or any other ‘ism’. Weakness at the centre is not the result of populism, it is the primary cause of it, because it feeds voters’ doubts that centrist politicians can improve their lot and makes the populists’ silky-toned, simplistic promise of panacea more attractive. Optimism, because even with the man-made disaster of the vacuum at the centre, moderates have not been defeated.

We have conceded much territory through our own inaction. With the right kind of action, the centre can win again. Despite the manifest problems facing the Labour Party under the control of the hard left and the unrepresentatively small number of Lib Dem MPs, there is a growing sense on the centre-left and even in parts of the Conservative Party, that muscular moderates must work together to rebuild a centre which is credible in the eyes of voters. It is early days yet, but a space must be created and links established where like-minded people within and outside parties can coalesce and organise. I’m confident that in the months and years ahead, this will happen. Let’s not forget that the second half of the title of the R.E.M. song is “and I feel fine”.

John Slinger is a strategic communications consultant. He was a Labour Party activist from 1991 to 2016 and chairs Pragmatic Radicalism, a policy forum on the centre left.