The death of the Liberal Democrats could create a more dangerous centrist party

The Observer recently revealed that, for the past year, business leaders and philanthropists have been developing a new centrist political party, in an effort to help “Break the mould of Westminster”. Led by LoveFilm CEO Simon Franks, the Project One movement – though it is safe to assume this is a working title whilst the party structure is formed – aims to break ground in the coming year, with significant financial backing and rumoured links to key centrist figures, potentially including Tony Blair.

Perhaps the least surprising aspect of the story, however, has been the response from the left and commentators from that political position. Quick to denounce the proposed party as irrelevant and simply the Liberal Democrats in a new format, it is a striking consensus amongst the left that the Project One movement is, from the very offset, doomed to fail before it starts. As Matthew Cole entitled his somewhat scathing dismissal of the proposed movement, “A new centrist party for Britain? Good luck with that.”

However, such willingness, and apparently joy, to leap to conclusions that the Project One Movement will have no impact are somewhat naïve. By no means do I suggest that, instead, the Project One movement will be in Downing Street in the blink of an eye – far from it. The direction of the movement is yet to be established, but it is widely reported that the party will focus primarily on local elections and activism before moving towards national elections.  It is almost certain that, at least for the remainder of the decade, the political landscape in Britain will remain largely unchanged; as we are begrudgingly dragged by the Conservatives towards the inevitable hard Brexit very few signed up for.  The current British political climate, however, seems poised for some form of revival and revitalisation as we approach the new decade – and, if the Left is not careful, such revitalisation may just come from the often-neglected centre ground.

Opinion polls serve as the perfect example of why Centrism has been overlooked for providing this revitalisation. As of March 18th, YouGov polling put the increasingly right-wing Conservatives at 44%, with Corbyn’s Labour second at 41%. The Liberal Democrats, apparently perceived as the indicator of Centrism in Britain, polled at merely 8%. From this data alone, it is an easy conclusion to assume that centrism is losing its footing in the increasingly polarised political landscape of Britain. There are, however, several reasons why this is wrong -and why the Left should be conscious of the attempted Centrist resurgence of Project One.

Primarily, the assumed failure of Centrism in Britain is down to the polarisation of British politics. With the Conservatives increasingly leaning further to the right, and Corbyn’s consolidation of Labour making the party move closer towards its socialist roots, the previous conditions of the mainstream parties as near carbon copies of each other are gone. By no means, however, does the polarisation of the traditional parties equate to the full polarisation of the electorate. Centrist tendencies do largely remain in Britain; many who voted Labour or Conservative in the last general election were, in fact, centrists, aligning themselves with the political party they deemed most appealing.

Therefore, the apparent continuation of this national programme of radicalisation, of both Labour and the Conservatives, has led to the increasing alienation of these ‘swing centrists’ of the 2017 election. The fortification of socialism in Labour rhetoric increasingly alienates the moderate aspects of the party, in the same way that conservative incompetence and hard-line policy choices have begun to alienate moderates on the right. Similarly, it was only in recent history that a Blairite Labour party won three consecutive general elections, on a platform of centrist political ideas and liberal capitalist governance. Unless the Mandelson propaganda machine was the most effective political influencer ever to exist, it is not an inconceivable concept that the British electorate is open to the ideas of centrism.

Indeed, large proportions of the British electorate are themselves sceptical of the increasing radicalism of the traditional parties. On the right, the incompetence of many senior ministers (notably a certain Mr Boris Johnson) have led to increasing questions about the ability of the May administration to break the mould of national stagnation in Britain, brought about as a product of severe austerity. Similarly, the whirlwind rise of ‘Corbyn fever’ has gradually begun to slow down. Though the true extent of the issue with Labour remains contested. With the combination of ineffectiveness and scandal miring the traditional parties, and in turn gradually increasing the public perception of current politics as ‘out of touch’, a new and fresh political approach from the centre may lead to widespread support, from both the disillusioned moderates and the often-forgotten swing centrists.

There is, however, one key question that attributes to the oversight of the traditional parties towards British centrism – if centrism is still popular in Britain, why have the Liberal Democrats not capitalised upon it? Put simply, it is because they are incapable of doing so. In a previous article for The Peoples News, I discussed the possible ways in which the Liberal Democrats could begin their potential resurgence; breaking the old and stagnant image of the party and its unwavering Europhilia, in order to appeal to swing voters and British moderates. The Liberal Democrats have done none of these things. The party clings to the old guard under the stewardship of Vince Cable; though an exceptionally capable politician, he is a leader out of touch with the current state of British politics, and one who continues the impossible fight against the inevitability of Brexit. Perhaps the only thing that the Liberal Democrats have done to ‘revitalise’ themselves is half-heartedly try and appeal to what they believe are the political interests of the youth vote; attempting to poach votes from the unwavering Labour youth support, with half-hearted promises of legalisation of Marijuana. It is, rather sadly, evidence of the continued slow death for the party.

The decline of the Liberal Democrats, however, is precisely the reason why the left should be worried by the Project One movement. With the fall of the previously incapable centrist party comes the possibility of a new, more effective centrist opposition. Indeed, if the rumoured affiliation with Blair and other senior figures are to believed, then the party should have potentially significant understanding of how to portray political competency, attractive policy and to appeal to the greater electorate. Neither should the movement be ignored simply due to its infancy. The AfD in Germany was formed as recently as 2013 – and in 2017 has gained 12.6% of the overall vote share. The Movimento 5-Stelle in Italy, formed in 2009, now holds the largest proportion of votes in the Italian parliament. If a political movement has a well-defined strategy, an understanding of how to appeal to the electorate, and what can be described as an increasingly Liberal Democrat-shaped hole in the political landscape to capitalise upon, it is not a wild assumption that they may find significant success when thrown into an increasingly polarised and restless political landscape.

Speculation surrounding Project One movement suggests they will not look to national elections until 2022 – meaning the party should not pose any significant political threat until roughly the time at which Britain formally withdraws from the European Union. If, however, the party can establish a foothold as a rising political alternative over the next couple of years, emerging at the most uncertain time in modern Britain, then it is not an outlandish idea that the Left, if wanting to maintain the success they have found under Corbyn, should be wary of Project One. If not, Corbyn and all those within the socialist Labour party may find themselves facing a revitalised brand of centrism and political opposition; one which may appeal more to the post-Brexit political landscape of Britain as it moves into the 2020’s.

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