David Jamieson

David Jamieson

The Centrist Resurgence is Already Dead

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The return of the liberal centre, heralded just a few years ago, has already succumbed to the deepening problems of the western order. Starmer’s short-term victory won’t change that, argues David Jamieson.

Starmer and his media supporters were always eager to present the 2024 General Election as a return of the sensible centre, a banishment of the ‘populist’ beast, a 1997 redux and so on. This theme is all that remains of what The Economist, in 2023, branded the ‘great moderation’. In numerous versions of this argument, political figures as varied as Trump, Corbyn, Liz Truss and Nicola Sturgeon were all giving way to a new breed of pro-market, managerial liberals of the old school. This effort of wishful thinking drew on the election of President Biden in the US, the removal of Liz Truss by the forces of the British state and Conservative party establishment, and the ousting of Corbyn by the leader of Labour’s pro-EU faction, Keir Starmer.

It was only a short step from there to an uncomprehending 90s nostalgia, with Starmer the new Blair. We can still expect to be serenaded by renditions of Things Can Only Get Better in the early hours of 5 July. But when the champagne wears off, a threatening vista confronts the administration.

In the US – the centre of Westminster’s world – President Biden’s incapacity can no longer be hidden by Democratic party minders, and attempts to hobble Trump through legal action have failed. Across Europe, the new right continues its uneven rise. Though once it flourished mainly in the eastern and southern peripheries, it has now arrived in the heart of the European system. Of special concern will be France, where the National Rally are in touching distance of real power, and the left have the ability to relegate the governing centre to third place.

Though the Tories and Labour have entered a pact of silence and ignorance about foreign policy for the duration of the election campaign, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza also loom over the incoming government. If Israel has not already lost its war with Hamas, it is well on its way to losing. The paramilitary group has not been destroyed, and will grow in the ruins and new graveyards of Gaza. Desperate factions in the Israeli government are publicly considering escalation against Hezbollah in Lebanon, threatening an even more disordered region.

Events in eastern Europe are probably even greater cause for anxiety. Russia has the upper hand in Ukraine, and the failure of a rapid Ukrainian victory is exacerbating tensions within the Nato bloc. Here, too, there is a logic of escalation, though at a global level. US and Nato leaders accuse China of propping-up Putin, helping to consolidate an anti-western front.

The evident collapse of the supposed liberal resurgence is one factor dampening the mood of the Starmer camp and its media proxies. Another is the sheer strangeness of the election campaign. What comes across most strongly is a will to punish the Conservatives, who were set for a panelling even before their base began to split to the late-entrant Farage. For all the animus against the Tories, there isn’t even a hint of enthusiasm for Labour. If there were, the centrist press and punditry would have exploited it for all it was worth and more.

This article is written from one of the many knife-edge Labour/SNP marginals in the Scottish central belt. Its author never saw a solitary act of street campaigning, nor a single poster in a window or sticker on a bumper. For the first time in ten years, there is no trace of the energies unleashed in the 2014 independence referendum. Every party has shed activists in recent years. Some, like the SNP, have sought to hide the extent of the collapse in their membership, and their worsening financial situation. Labour, on the other hand, has actively purged members. But no party seems capable of bringing any real machine to bear. Up and down the UK, the campaign is the most subdued in memory. This is an enervated civic sphere, just waiting for another financial crisis, political scandal or social movement to tip it off axis and into another period of volatility.

This tells us much about the enduring nature of so-called ‘populism’. In the aftermath of 2016, attempts to understand the new political instability focused on demagogic personalities, sudden insurgencies and political polarisation. You might imagine from commentary that the public had taken a sudden, meaningless lunge towards an irrational radicalisation. Anxiety focused on ‘fake news’ and ‘disinformation’. Manipulation by populist leaders, foreign states and devious online campaigns became an obsession in media and political bubbles. At this point, populism was analysed in its ‘positive’ dimension: the extent to which it represented new actors and phenomena, new modes and styles of politics, new organisations, and alleged conspiracies by rising powers in the world system.

These preoccupations still exist, but are increasingly untethered from reality and explain less every day. The failure of the liberal-technocratic resurgence around figures like Biden, Sunak (who ended up pandering helplessly to right-wing factions in and outside his party), and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz among others, make the ‘great moderation’ thesis untenable.

So, too, does the continued rise of the new European right. The tendencies now coming to power in France and Italy are decades old. In fact, both can trace their lineage back to wartime fascist dictatorships. But their successful marginalisation of traditional parties of the right and left stems not from this lineage (which they generally seek to conceal or gloss over), as much as from the waning of those once-dominant parties themselves.

These are features of the ‘negative’ dimension of populism – the decline of public life, civic engagement and elite cohesion. The old Social Democratic and Christian Democratic type parties of the post-war decades are declining, and in some cases dying out. In the UK, support for political parties has slumped to just 12%, but they are kept artificially alive by the First Past the Post electoral system. We live in an era where many public institutions suffer a deficit of popular support. But parties suffer the most, perhaps because unlike the police or central banks, the organising conceit of the political party is that it has emerged from civil society – indeed, from the general population of working and middle class elements – as a form of representation against the state and ‘vested interests’. Electorates still have the opportunity to punish these party institutions every few years. Sometimes this is done with the boot of a new electoral force, but anger also manifests as low turnout, disinterest, and general contempt.

The frenetic energy of the middle 2010s has given way to a quieter, slow churning resentment. But no one expects this situation to last, least of all in the UK. Besides being trapped in a matrix of imperial commitments linking the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the South Pacific to a destabilised US, Starmer must also confront a ragged and stagnant British economy. The warnings of pro-business press and think tanks that both major parties are being dishonest about national finances may align with their own agenda, but they are speaking to real problems. Starmer and Sunak are equally disinterested in breaking the British model, so they have simply refused to discuss economic and social policy in front of the electorate. As Martin Wolf of the Financial Times has argued, this approach means the public is underprepared for the painful reality of coming years.

The extreme short-termism of the Starmer project indicates a deeper weakness, and mocks the comparisons to 1997. Disastrous though New Labour’s creed of financial deregulation and messianic foreign policy proved, it was a more substantive project with a real, if steadily depreciating, social base. Starmerism is a grim, desiccated machine politics. What it lacks in depth and vision it seeks to make up in rigid authoritarianism. On the eve of the vote, a YouGov poll found that 48% of prospective Labour voters were chiefly motivated by a desire to remove the Tories, and a further 13% because ‘the country needs a change’. Just 5% said they were voting for Labour’s vague policies. This anti-Tory coalition will disintegrate on contact with the hard reality of the UK’s many stark problems – much as Boris Johnson’s anti-Labour, anti-People’s Vote coalition did.

Starmer has triumphed through brutality. But the world he seeks to represent – of transnational western order, Blairite nostalgia and post-2008 managed decline – is already dying. There are no true masters of the political world now dawning. The European new right – including Farage – should not be glamorised as ingenious revolutionaries representing a historic project. They are nurses to a decrepit, failing European liberal order. They will inherit all the weaknesses of the old parties they depose – swelling class and regional inequality, rising prices and flagging growth, a burgeoning demographic crisis and a world tumbling into war. So will Starmer, and with, perhaps, even less of a plan or popular base. This is a dangerous time, but not one of foreclosure to those who seek something radically different.

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