I chaired an event at Lib Dem spring conference in York last weekend. It was about 2017 and the challenges ahead. During the Q&A, one chap from the audience asked me “who is the main figure that centrists can unite around?” – the fact that even he, a Lib Dem activist, didn’t think it was Farron probably tells a tale of its own. He either consciously or unconsciously highlighted the major problem for centrists at present: the field is scattered, with all of the major players in separate camps, sure that their camp is the one that will eventually be the winner.
First off, there are the Labour centrists. Despite evidence to the contrary, they feel certain that Labour can be saved. Until they are proven right or wrong for certain – and I think they’ll be proven wrong after the next general election, when Labour loses badly and then Corbyn refuses to stand down as leader – this potentially powerful group within the centrist sphere will be kept in a holding pattern.
Even those who are from this tradition but have more leeway in terms of being a free agent, such as Tony Blair, act in strange ways that are not entirely helpful. Blair announces that he is going to launch an initiative to help save centrism in the UK. Great, I thought at the time – next we hear about it, it has morphed into the Institute for Global Change. Now, I realise centrism faces global challenges, but suddenly the focus of Blair’s initiative has moved away from the UK, just like that – and I still don’t really understand what it is setting out to do.
Then we have the Lib Dems. Despite the national polling figures not really moving in their direction, the Lib Dems are certain that they will profit from Labour’s decline, becoming the main party of the Remainers, whose ranks will swell as the Brexit process starts in earnest. Perhaps they are right – perhaps as the only party left standing, all of the centrists will eventually come on board. But there are a lot of reasons to think that won’t be the case – not least the fact that those polling numbers are where they are. Many Labourites will never be able to join forces with the Lib Dems, and that is a major problem if the Lib Dems intend to become the major centrist force in British politics. And that brings us to the biggest problem here: I don’t think that’s really, in their heart of hearts, what the Lib Dems want to be. They want to be the Lib Dems, same as ever. The moves that would turn them into the national centrist force in the making, capable of winning a general election outright, would not be ones the activists would be comfortable with, never mind proactively putting in motion.
Finally, Remainer Tories. George Osborne may be taking up the editorship of a major newspaper in order to pressure the May government on Brexit, but I’m sure he’s not thinking at all about what would really cause her nightmares: creating a sort of Tory SDP. And he won’t do that for the same reasons the Labour Right are flying in a holding pattern for the moment: starting new parties usually ends in disaster in this country. Better to hang on and hope the current cabal in charge of the big parties slip up and allow the liberals to take charge again. Only this time, I don’t think that’s the way it will go down.
Someday, the centrists will probably have to start a new political party. But it will need a figure everyone can unite around to make it viable. Who would that individual be? I haven’t the faintest, which is the problem right there.