The Problem of Centrism

Last time, we established the party’s lack of identity and direction stemming from the overuse of the term “moderate”. With this in mind, we can turn our attention to the problems that the term “centrism” presents. The centre position is one that the party has found itself in since the 1920s, as an inevitability owing to […]

Last time, we established the party’s lack of identity and direction stemming from the overuse of the term “moderate”. With this in mind, we can turn our attention to the problems that the term “centrism” presents.

The centre position is one that the party has found itself in since the 1920s, as an inevitability owing to the rise of Labour, with it being officially recognised in the 1980s during the Alliance as a selling point for possible coalition government. What, then, is wrong with this?

The first problem is similar to that of moderation – the conflation of terms. The term “liberal” has been wedded with the term “centrist” in a similar fashion. This comes from the idea that centrism is, somehow, an ideology unto itself. When it is not. Centrism is a position on the political spectrum but it does not have ideals or a worldview that underpin it.

The Left, collectively, is not an ideology, and neither is the Right. Rather, they are groups of ideologies that run along similar ideas and liberalism, with its myriad and varied schools, is an ideological spectrum unto itself, able to stretch across Left and Right. One would not call a radical a right winger, and an Orange Booker is not leftward. To put it this way – if tomorrow the party dropped all of its liberal trappings and went, instead, toward social democracy and progressivism it would still find itself in the centre. Not because these are “centrist” in scope but simply because the party as an entity is squashed between Labour and the Conservatives.

But this, I acknowledge, can be seen as nothing more than pedantry. A more pressing problem is found in the inherent instability of the centre. Due to the reliance it has upon the Overton Window it is impossible to remain truly in the centre for very long. Indeed, it shifts leftwards and rightwards, or even shatters under the weight of what is considered to be “common sense” and “conventional wisdom”. The Conservatives currently claim the centre as the country occupies a status quo that favours them. Labour, once they win, will, if their plans work out, be able to claim it after the first term. The Liberal Democrats, however, occupy the same space as we did a decade ago, and therefore no longer representative of anyone in wider society, apart from some disconnected special interest groups. In short, during these polarised times, the very term “centrism” becomes meaningless.

The major criticism I will make of centrism, however, is its adherence to the status quo. One can differentiate a liberal from a centrist rather easily – a centrist begins from the presupposition that the status quo is fundamentally sound, that it only requires a little tinkering, a little nudging, to get working again. A liberal is one for whom the status quo is not good enough, that not only is it not working properly but, rather, that it cannot work on the most fundamental level. One only has to look outside, look to their locality, or the news to see that the country is in rapid decline.

So, when faced with the prospect of there being no identity to moderate and being hampered by a meaningless term, what can be done? To speak frankly, and I do not mean to demean anyone, I feel that we the membership need a good dose of courage. The party is afraid of itself. Consistently and consciously it chooses the paths most trodden and the safe options, turning ourselves from being a formidable force to being the Volvo of British politics.

The power to change the party’s direction, to get it out of its existential crisis, to drop completely from our lexicon the term “centrism” and replace it, finally, with “liberalism” lies with us alone. Instead of being a “Movement of Moderates” we ought to push for a “Liberal Union”, a big tent of all liberal thinking and schools, united in our revolutionary reformist cause.

* Edwin Black is a keen Lib Dem activist in Sheffield whose interests include reading, writing, amateur cartooning and research into the history of British politics.

The Problem of Moderation

A question that has plagued the party since inception and has, in recent years, come to the forefront is the question of identity. How do the Liberal Democrats define themselves? It seems to me that when members and supporters speak about the topic the same two words repeat themselves – “moderate” and “centrist”. As a […]

A question that has plagued the party since inception and has, in recent years, come to the forefront is the question of identity. How do the Liberal Democrats define themselves? It seems to me that when members and supporters speak about the topic the same two words repeat themselves – “moderate” and “centrist”. As a result, these words have become synonymous with the term “liberal”. This article, the first of two, will cover the problems I have identified with this synonymity, the first target being the term “moderate”.

The main problem lies in how the term is actually used. For example, when one takes a diet of moderation all things are accounted for and everything is presented on the plate in equal measure. This approach, however, is not one that quite works within internal party political discourse. When we mention, say, Ken Clarke we can quantify him as being a “moderate Tory”, a believer in conservatism with a leash. Owen Smith is a “Labour moderate”, a social democrat rather than a democratic socialist – a Labourite with a leash. They still belong to the Right and to the Left but they do not take their ideologies too far.

Yet when it comes to a Liberal Democrat the same cannot be said. Who can, or could, be described as a “moderate Lib Dem”? This term would be akin to tying a tight leash around a short leash in a mobius strip of stasis.

So, then, one can only be “moderate” relative to the rest of the party or ideological camp that one finds oneself in. Now this is established we can get to the root of the problem, one of the party’s actual ideology, or ideological spectrum. The other parties can have moderates as they have ideological principals that underpin their ideas. Moderates, just like everyone else around them, agree with the means, goals, and ends of the parties they represent.

But the Liberal Democrats have made a fatal error in labelling the entire party as “moderate”. Indeed, what is this moderation relative to? As no ideology is inherently moderate, this leads to a misrepresentation of the nature of liberalism. It is telling that many outside the party cannot tell the difference between a radical, a moderate, classical, or social liberal, and just as troubling. One ought to be able, at a glance, to recognise a liberal of any stripe without mentioning that they are moderate.

When Vince Cable announced that the party ought to become a “Movement of Moderates” I cannot say that I was not disappointed. It cements the idea that the Liberal Democrats are the tinkerers in the great political engine, little more than the audio version of a Haynes manual. Currently, the party exists only in relation to the other two, deciding things depending upon their shifts and turns rather than making our own direction.

We must, then, work toward a new form of liberalism, such as the ideological shifts we made during the fin de siècle and create a space in which radicals and, therefore, moderates may be able to exist.

* Edwin Black is a keen Lib Dem activist in Sheffield whose interests include reading, writing, amateur cartooning and research into the history of British politics.