Last week Tony Blair sat down for an extended interview with Politico’s Glenn Thrush for the consistently excellent Off Message podcast, a series of long-form interviews with political figures. Thrush gained the kind of access UK journalists can only dream of in the post-Chilcot world. Titled ‘Is centrism dead?’ the podcast explored Blair’s views on the current state of US and global politics and his hopes that Hillary Clinton would rescue centrism in America. Blair genuinely hesitated when asked if his kind of politics was dead or just suffering a setback, although inevitably leaned towards the latter.
It’s a theme that keeps on coming back in the 2010s – is centrism in permanent peril or are we merely witnessing the collapse of the centre-left? Almost everywhere one looks the so-called third way of politics, the centre left that embraced elements of capitalism and individualism is under siege from its left flank. The travails of the British Labour Party don’t need revisiting, the German SDP seem in permanent slump, in Spain the Socialists have just suffered their worst election results in modern political history. There are always exceptions, in Off Message, Blair himself cited the avowedly centrist Renzi, but Renzi has never won an election and has suffered a number of electoral reverses this year.
To support the argument that both sides of the centre ground are being squeezed the most obvious cited example is the takeover of the Republican Party by Trump, although elsewhere the centre right in the UK and Germany are enjoying periods of considerable success. What is certainly true is that Liberal parties across Europe have suffered historic reverses in all forms of national elections, the ALDE group of the European Parliament is at its lowest ebb since its creation. Liberal parties also collapsed in the 1930s in the wake of the great depression and time and again the challenge to the centre of politics today is given a one line explanation by commentators – the impact of the 2008 financial crisis. This argument is persuasive and the parallels between politics today and politics eighty years ago are easily demonstrated, but this explanation ignores the epoch changing forces also at work in the 21st century that pose particular challenges for the centre-left. How does the financial crisis explain the resurrection of the left of the Australian Labor Party in a ‘lucky country’ that has largely avoided the impact of the post-2008 crash. What the land down under does have in common with Europe and America is the effects of globalisation and the internet revolution.
Globalisation and the unprecedented levels of immigration in the western world pose particular problems for the centre-left which has generally espoused the liberal international orthodoxy that there is no such thing as too much immigration, placing them directly at odds with their traditional working class base. As Blair discusses in Off Message, there are legitimate reasons many people have concerns about high levels of immigration and the pressure it places on services and to community cohesion. Yet the Corbynista (and previously Miliband) wing of the Labour party is even less sceptical of mass immigration than the Blair government was, perhaps one reason for the surge of UKIP into traditional Labour heartlands.
The internet revolution and globalisation go hand-in-hand, and the empowerment of individual workers and consumers the sharing economy is providing whilst undermining traditional power structures pose a significant challenge to believers in a larger state. New Labour, for all its embrace of the Thatcher financial reforms, was never anything less than a big state party, the author of the ‘nanny state’. It hugely expanded the public sector whilst giving the state considerably more powers over individual citizens’ lives and freedom in the War on Terror. Now, the sharing economy is posing huge challenges to traditional forms of regulation over citizens’ lives that the centre-left have progressively implemented over the last 100 years. Younger people simply don’t understand why so many human choices and transactions between individuals need the involvement of a third ‘higher’ party. For those who refuse to acknowledge that the power of the state must alter and that old forms of regulation and control are no longer appropriate the advocates of an even bigger state such as Corbyn will remain more attractive than the Blairite approach. Meanwhile, until the centre-left comes up with an approach to government that acknowledges the empowerment of individuals the internet represents it will continue to struggle to attract support from the vast swathes of the middle ground. The famously computer-phobic Blair might appreciate the irony that for his brand of politics the internet really has changed everything.