Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Rebuilding the popular centre

In the wake of Rochester, the rise of United Kingdom Independence party and the appeal of populism across Europe, it is crucial for believers in reformism to understand and tackle populism. The hard part is how. I propose one way forward in a pamphlet from Policy Network published today called ‘The popular centre’.

I argue the populism of the right and left prospers in moments like ours because it recognises the disquiet and distrust people feel about a politics which does not seem to work in delivering what voters need. Populists offer straightforward, apparently simple solutions attacking those at fault for the failure of politics.

For centrists to chase after this approach is self-defeating, because we can only offer a pale imitation of populist reform, are compromised with the existing system, so do not have superior credibility on being able to deliver change. Worse, the policies that chasing after populists involves alienates our own supporters by appearing extreme or unworkable.

However, the traditional approach of gradual reformism has stopped working as a political argument. The centre can neither claim the credit for gradual forward progress, nor speak with greater authority about making the system better.

By aping populism without populisms comfortable certainties, we manage to appear both timid and risky, boastful and craven.

So what can you do?

I argue the key is to use populisms own strongest insight against it. Politics has failed, but instead of using this as an argument for pursuing radical, risky change, this is a case for recognising the real, significant limits of political power.

Ultimately, politics is a secondary, not a primary force. The real changes around us, whether economic, technological, social, are happening elsewhere, and politics is not able to simple halt or remake those changes by sheer force of will.

Put it this way: if Gordon Brown struggled to see emerging risks outwith his control, how likely is it that Nigel Farage’s desire to call a halt to social change or Podemos’s desire to radically extend the economic presence of the state in people’s lives is going to work smoothly?

Are these people of strong beliefs really able to manage the pressures of a fast changing, technologically and economically complex world when they, and other politicians, barely seem to understand what those future shifts might be?

Of course not. It might be tough for those of us who love politics to face, but politics is primarily a secondary function in society.

Real change is being created and developed elsewhere, and politics seeks to manage, regulate, anticipate and ameliorate those changes in the interests of the people.

This does not mean politics is insignificant, or irrelevant, but it does mean that it is weak and needs to recognise this weakness, especially in times of crisis.

This insight helps the centrist beat the populist in two important ways:

First, recognising the weakness of politics highlights the need to focus on those steps that can credibly be achieved.

Given the low esteem in which politics is held, it is likely that the change you can believe in, to borrow a phrase, will be limited, rather than extensive.

Think of a politician as an unfaithful spouse trying to convince their partner they have changed. What is more likely to convince: the grandiose gesture and a promise of total fidelity, or the simple act of being where you are supposed to be, doing what you are supposed to do?

Seen in this light, what the populist is offering the electorate is simply ‘more politics’ in a world where such politics is unlikely to function well.

Second, this understanding of the failure of politics makes the case for a reform of the state and democratic processes itself.

Here, the popular centre can put the blame on politics itself for not functioning.

This cannot be merely a disguised wrestling for party advantage, as political reform programmes often are. It has to offer every party and actor a recognition that they have legitimate concerns. This is because the popular centre needs to show that politics can work. Only by delivering broadly agreed change can it do so.

The populist answer to crisis is more politics, more boldly asserted. Given the view of politics as having failed, this is their crucial weakness, a weakness that can be used against them.

The reformists’ path to the popular centre is to recognise the weakness of politics, operate with that insight and both offer believable, practical improvements and significant, meaningful, non-partisan reform of democracy itself. The key to rebuilding the popular centre is to rebuild trust, trust that we can do what we say, and trust that politics can work.


Hopi Sen is a contributing editor to Progress


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Hopi Sen

is a contributing editor to Progress


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  • So basically, your solution to an unprecedented political crisis is….a double dose more of the same politics that has created the mess. Telling poor people essentially that they just have to live with the status quo they hate so much, and instead just giving all this esoteric wonkspeak about “reformism” which no-one outside the Westminster bubble will be able to understand. Brilliant.

  • Have you read “The Spirit Level” which deals with the increasing gap between what the top 5% of the population take as earnings and what remains for the other 95% of us. This difference has been growing all the time since the 1980’s, possible as a result of the fall of communism (according to a lot of analysts). We need to reverse that trend and get a more even distribution of national output for ordinary people. The only way to do this is to tax the excessive earnings of those who can determine their own earnings. Accepting that average pay at £25,000 a year (it is about the average, despite the millions on minimum wage) and start increasing the tax rate on all multiples of £25k, i.e. 20% tax up to £25k (of taxable earnings as we all get the personal allowance); then 30% up to £50K; then 40% up to £100; then 50% above £100k. I have a block on the idea that HMRC should take more than half of anyone’s pay.
    All allowances for pensions etc., to be taken out of the first £50k of taxable pay subject to the allowance claimed being a maximum of half of taxable pay up to £50k. There are too many tax accountants that can exploit any failure of the tax system to set a limit on tax paid.
    In less than 5 years we would have paid off the deficit and re-funded the NHS and installed a Living Wage where previously a minimum wage reigned.

  • That would appear to be what is being said here, in a nutshell.

    What is not being acknowledged is the glaring fact that Labour no longer represent the working people of this country. They have become the “slightly less appalling” version of the Tory Party.

    The label of Red Tories is certainly apt for the current Labour Party.

  • No, not really. My solution to an eco omic and social crisis is to focus on what politics can actually do, not what we might wish it could do, while doing all we can to make politics more effective at doing what it can do reasonably well.

  • Emm, you have a clear analysis of the problem but i don’t see a clear solution against the simple, non realistic solutions of the ‘populist’. My reading is that you are essentially saying that the centre or ‘establishment’ has to say we who are running the system don’t have control of all of it (true but who has ever heard some who is in ‘charge’ or hoping to be in charge say we won’t be in control, not a palatable thing to say). How do you put this message across in clear understandable way that offers hope of the change people yearn for. I don’t think you have began to address how to counter the simple populist message, because although i think people deep down know its true. The allure of people talking with certainty they can solve or change things is very difficult to counter. More needs to be done to convince you have a realistic way forward.

  • Why would any decent moderate Brit want to fight UKIP common sense politics.!! All we’re asking for is the return of control of our own destiny from the 5th columnist traitors who pretend to govern this nation.

  • i agree all M.P.’s need to start doing their jobs and represent their constituents better. Labour candidates fighting marginal seats need to debunk the current xenophobic political hysteria that has usurped the agenda by focusing on the genuine concerns of the electorate. Rather than pandering to the regressive right with grandiose gestures such as the sacking of Thornberry, Labour need to be taking the Tories and UKIP to task over the miserable poverty statistics facing young people in the UK. I also think that young people are naturally progressive and will want to hold on to the right to travel and work in the EU. Rather than playing hateful populist politics, politicians need to get serious on issues that affect young people, education, training and employment. The desertion of young people by the current administration is seen today in the heartbreaking poverty and homelessness statistics. UKIP want to introduce a single tax band which would have the lowest paid ie the young hit by the biggest increase in their tax bill. It should be a fairer fight not an ugly one skewed by racism and xenophobia.

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