Stuck in the Middle with EU? Centrism in the UK and Beyond

When the writer Paul Mason was booked to appear at the annual conference of Progress earlier this year, he was more or less assured a rough reception. Progress, after all, is a Blairite “ginger group” within the British Labour Party – formed in 1996, one year before their boy won power – and Mason the quasi-Marxist author of the excellent Postcapitalism and a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. But I doubt he was prepared for just how bitter and self-pitying the right wing of the party has become since Corbyn set about transforming Labour into a genuinely social democratic movement with broad appeal amongst the young and the poor. Referring to anti-Blairite tweets Mason had sent in the wake of the May election, one audience member complained how “intimidated” she now felt at Labour Party meetings. Another demanded Mason apologise. (He didn’t.) But things got really interesting when the panel chair suggested that Mason had “entered the Labour Party behind Jeremy Corbyn” – a not-so-veiled reference to the Trotskyist tactic of “entryism” whereby radical groups affix themselves to larger mainstream organisations in order to influence policy. Mason reminded the assembled comrades that he’d joined the Labour Party at nineteen years of age, and that his grandfather was of the generation who’d founded the party in 1900. He then invited the Progress faithful to consider whether they wanted to remain in Corbyn’s Labour Party at all. As he put it, to boos and jeers from the floor:

In case you’re misunderstanding me, just listen. If you want a centrist party, this is not going to be it for the next ten years. If it’s really important to you to have a pro-Remain party that is in favour of illegal war, in favour of privatisation, form your own party and get on with it!

There weren’t many takers for that last proposition, and to an outsider Mason’s peroration might sound like a triumphalist taunt. But the notion that a new party could emerge in the wake of the Brexit referendum is not entirely fanciful. Inspired by the example of Emmanuel Macron, Tony Blair himself has established an entity called the Institute for Global Change, a “policy platform” that aims to refill “the wide-open space in the middle of politics”, while Paddy Ashdown, one-time leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats, has helped establish More United, a “political start-up” that raises funds for politicians of a centrist, pro-EU persuasion, regardless of party affiliation. Furthermore, in August, former Tory aide and political editor of the Daily Mail, James Chapman, suggested that a number of Conservative MPs had responded warmly to his idea for a new centrist party called The Democrats. “They are not saying they are going to quit their parties,” Chapman told the BBC; “but they are saying they understand that there is an enormous gap in the centre now of British politics.” [More here.]