Originally published in Feburay 2019 on No Man’s Land.
Rumours of a new centrist party are regular news whenever the fervour of Brexit dies down. That is all well and good, but any genuine new movement needs a lot more that to wring its hands against the state of Brexit Britain. We’ve heard very little about what such a thing could stand for. So with that in mind, here are five ideas that could give a centrist or centre left party some meaning outside of opposing Brexit:
1. Blow open crony capitalism. The left will look to constrain capitalism and nationalise industry, the right are unlikely to do much to change it. Any centrist movement needs its own approach. It is often said that what people object to is not capitalism per se, but the idea that they are being stitched up by crony capitalism or a rigged system. One part of a centrist answer might be a radical transparency approach which speaks directly to the idea that vested interests are profiting at our expense behind the scenes, that is, ‘blow it open’. Since 2014 we’ve been requiring firms to report on gender pay gaps, but what about the living wage, tax compliance, carbon footprint and so on. It would be interesting to see how big business would behave if they or a watchdog had to make this kind of information widely and very publicly available.
2. Create an ‘entrepreneurial state’. Borrowing the term from Mariana Mazzucato who’s work is currently big news in economics and was influential in the Government’s industrial strategy. In short embracing the entrepreneurial state means recognising the role the state plays not just in correcting markets, but also in shaping and creating them. Principally state investment in research and development for new technologies can later create huge markets such as for smartphones and many pharmaceuticals. The political centre should be championing state R&D investment to take advantage of the opportunities such as the coming green energy and artificial intelligence revolutions. It should also be making the case for the state to get a greater share of the rewards when the private sector makes huge profits based off earlier state investments (and then avoids paying tax on them). Mazzucato suggests governments keep a stake in companies it invests in.
3. Drive a skills revolution. One of the most talked about policies of the 2017 general election campaign was Labour’s pledge to abolish tuition fees. It has set the agenda for the debate on the issue since then, and set the Conservatives scampering for a response. The problem with the policy is that it spends a huge amount of money (circa £8bn per year) helping the better off. A new centrist movement should expose this with a proposal our economy actually needs — a major package of investment in skills targeted at the 50% who don’t go to university or those who need to transition later in their career to new roles or sectors. A lot of work would be needed to make flesh out such a plan, but the initial point is the political contrast.
4. Back a Green New Deal. This idea is gaining traction with Progressive Democrats in the US . In broad strokes it is a plan to decarbonise the economy with large public investments that simultaneously look to create well paid jobs for the ‘left behind’, particularly those who’s jobs are displaced by decarbonisation. The polling for it looks positive in the States and such a ‘green-blue bargain’, that is an agreement between blue-collar workers and environmentalists, could prove popular here as well. Labour has perhaps got in ahead on this one with its plan for a ‘Green jobs revolution’ announced back in September, however the left don’t dominate this space yet and this is an area which centrists should also be looking to own.
5. Champion Liberal Patriotism. Patriotism has a bad reputation, being often associated with nationalism and racism. The right seem to be doubling down on nationalism and the left on miserablism about Britishness. This leaves a gap for some in the centre, as Nick Clegg has argued ,to champion a liberal patriotism, celebrating British values of democracy, rule of law, tolerance and so on at the same time as being prouder of our role on the world stage. This approach could allow centrists or progressives to reach out to many in the public who feel pride in the country, its flag and traditions at a time when many feel sneered at by so called liberal elites.
These are not a polished manifesto, but I hope they give a sense that there are things centrists could be talking about which speak to the pressing problems we have, and which are not about Brexit. There are also no doubt many others. Such as taxing wealth instead of income, a Universal Basic Income (of which I’m less of a fan) or ideas to transform politics. But those can wait for a later blog.
Five more ideas for centrists here.