by Jonathan Todd
We are now too cynical to entertain the idea of a leader who defeats all, reconciles all and ultimately encompasses all, Janan Ganesh concluded following Tony Blair’s Progress speech. We won’t see his like again. And in their absence, Ganesh observes, Labour seeks a squeaked victory on a left-wing platform, while the Tories devote all campaign resources to 40 seats that they are trying to retain and 40 more that they aspire to gain.
Given the seeming lack of traction for a Blair-like big tent, the two largest parties battle a war of attrition, both closer to their voting and ideological citadels than Blair preferred.
Is the centre ground, which Blair dominated, so drained of potency that neither of the largest parties is best served by squarely holding it?
We might attach personnel or structural explanations for neither Labour nor Tory rushing to do so.
“Tony Blair,” according to a Labour strategist quoted by George Eaton, “was doing an impression of Bill Clinton, and David Cameron was doing an awful impression of Tony Blair. Ed has no interest in doing an impression of David Cameron.” If we conclude that Cameron and Miliband lack the capacities of Blair and Clinton, we might explain their non-centrist strategies in terms of personnel.
There is, however, a British leader seeking to command the same terrain as held by Blair, Nick Clegg, which has led John Rentoul to diagnose the paradox of centrist politics. This is that elections are supposed to be won in the centre ground, but the one party that occupies precisely that territory is facing damnation – meaning to be cut by about half – in next year’s election.
Rentoul resolves this paradox by attributing Blair’s success to his consistent centrism, while Clegg is less successful because he is in the centre trying to hold together a party that stands for different things in different parts of the country. This might suggest that Clegg, perhaps like Cameron and Miliband, lacks the qualities to command the centre. Or equally, that the Liberal Democrats, at least so long as they display such variability over time and place, are a vehicle incapable of enabling any leader to prosper from such centrist positioning.
Beyond the structural weaknesses of the Liberal Democrats, there are structural factors that may constrain the capacity of party leaders to do what Blair succeeded in doing and what Clegg now struggles to do, prospering from the centre. These are involved with the forces that Moises Naím has identified to proclaim the end of power.
The cynicism that Ganesh notes is part of the fuel to what Naím calls the political centrifuge, erasing old political patterns and habits. Naím argues that the barriers to political participation are falling, undermining the power of established political parties, processes and office holders. In a better educated world, where the cost of establishing new political parties and running single issue campaigns has never been lower, maybe political careers are more durable in well-defined niches, not in the centre, as a target for all.
It seems plausible as a structural explanation for why both the largest parties now eschew Blair’s centrist pitch. Naím’s political centrifuge threatens authoritarian regimes but doesn’t see democracy as an end point, which points to a future of hung parliaments and coalitions – governments formed by a patchwork of single issues and interests, as oppose to all-encompassing ideology.
But maybe this isn’t the end of history or power. Perhaps the UK is in is a transition, somewhat like the 1920s and 30s. Today the Tories are the largest party with 307 seats. At the 1929 general election, Labour was the largest party with 287 seats. This means we can’t dismiss the possibility that Cameron or Miliband could be prime minister after May 2015 with even fewer MPs than Cameron now has. But equally, 1929 wasn’t the end of power, as Naím claims we now face. It was, though, part of a political realignment that played out over several decades. If Cameron or Miliband were to be prime minister with less than 307 MPs, this might be part of another realignment, as oppose to affirmation of the Naím thesis.
This isn’t to dismiss the Naím analysis. But the possibility remains that we could be in a realignment that may result in the centre reasserting itself and a Blair-like prime minister being more plausible. Whether or not a centrist will have to wait for this realignment to complete before they become prime minister, they will need to pursue this status more constantly and authentically than Clegg’s Liberal Democrats have the centre.
As Clegg is unconvincing, so is Cameron’s “Blair impression”. He thinks Blair’s ascendency was all about presentation. Instead, it was about commitment both to traditional values and the contemporary renewing of them. This route map remains to be reapplied by any leader that wishes. This desire, rather than the completion of any political realignment, may be the essential precondition of another Blair-like prime minister and may also be sufficiently robust to withstand Naím’s political centrifuge.
Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut