Newsleaf: Centrists should stop trying to be Britain’s Macron

This article was first published on Newsleaf.

The Hegelian tsunami of anti-globalist populism that has swept across the Western world in recent years has rendered decades of conventional wisdom redundant and polarised political debate for the first time since the End of History.

The French presidential election of 2017 was a near-perfect archetype of what happens when establishment reactions at populist insurgency go awry. Spurred on by Brexit and Trump, the two horsemen of the post-liberal apocalypse, National Front leader Marine Le Pen set her sights on the Élysée Palace.

Le Pen saw her support surge during her campaign as she whipped up nationalist fury and created a sense of anti-establishment urgency. François Fillon of the centre-right Republicans watched on in horror as his position as the presumed shoo-in candidate evaporated in front of his eyes.

Seeing swathes of Republican voters migrating to the radical right, Fillon had no choice but to respond. Like a Labrador catching the scent of a nearby hot dog stand, he followed his nose and sought to replicate the populists’ policy platform and campaign rhetoric.

At the same time, something very similar was happening on the left. Jean-Luc Mélenchon capitalised on ubiquitous dissatisfaction with the incumbent Socialist Party by starting up a new hard-line left-wing movement, which soon saw its polling numbers leap thanks to the support of disaffected lefties, leading François Hollande’s would-be successor, Benoît Hamon, to follow Fillon’s lead and try to emulate Mélenchon’s populism.

The result was a perfect centrist storm. With simultaneous populist explosions on the left and right and both mainstream parties making the fatal mistake of lurching toward the extremes rather than standing their ground, a gaping canyon of unoccupied space emerged in the political centre.

Emmanuel Macron’s nascent centrist movement, En Marche!, was therefore able to slide into the very large gap and fulfil the desire of the majority for a moderate President. The young party rose up to snatch the presidency – followed by a roaring majority in the National Assembly – practically unopposed.

Naturally, this is every centrist’s dream. All those who applaud themselves for slagging off Nigel Farage and John McDonnell with comparable levels of conviction fantasise about such a perfect scenario in which the electorate would finally see what they have known all along, that only they are truly ready to dispense with ideology, calm everyone down and make everything nice and cushy again.

In reality, attempts to recreate this centrist fairy-tale on this side of the Channel have led to a series of low-brow Macron tribute acts. Top of the list, of course, is Heidi Allen’s steaming mess of a campaign in last month’s European elections, featuring grandiose rhetoric about overhauling the two-party system and giving British politics a total re-birth.

Anna Soubry, new leader of the Independent Change crew, repeatedly laments the supposed influence of her more right-leaning erstwhile Tory colleagues, claiming that “the hard-line anti-EU awkward squad… are now running the Conservative Party from top to toe. They are the Conservative Party.”

Along with Labour’s undeniable lurch to the left, a parallel Tory jump to the right of the kind Soubry describes is a necessary component of the fantastical narrative that leads to a Macron-style centrist coronation. The only problem is that it is a complete and total falsehood.

The last Conservative manifesto was the most left-wing in over half a century. The reason for the current parliamentary impasse is the Party leadership’s refusal to pander to the requests of the ERG, and the Brexit Party swept to victory in Brussels last month thanks to the widespread perception that the Tory position on Brexit was not tough enough, not the other way around.

The Conservative Party has not moved to the right, nor has it responded to Brexit by transforming itself into a proto-populist electoral vehicle. British voters do not face the same stark choice between the populist left and right that the French electorate did in 2017; there is no clear gap in the market for a new centrist movement.

Perhaps the most prominent British Macron super-fan is Chuka Umunna. Chuka is now on his third political party of the year (assuming that Change UK, the Independent Group and everything in-between count as a single party). He lunged for the Labour leadership in 2015 and was a founding member of the doomed Change bandwagon.

Chuka has since proclaimed that he will be a Liberal Democrat “until the day I die”. Having failed to execute his centrist insurgency at Labour and Change UK, he is now placing all his eggs in the Lib Dem basket, counting on the fact that fresh party leadership will be enough to manufacture an electoral revolution.

What all these wannabe transformers have apparently missed is that Britain’s Macron moment has been and gone. All the way back in 1997, in retaliation against a generation of Thatcherite Conservativism and against the backdrop of Old Labour’s socialism, a centrist soared to power in Westminster.

Tony Blair was able to forge a new centrist path and seize power from the political middle. His election bears a striking resemblance to that of Macron. Even today, Labour’s Corbynistas are juxtaposed against the overwhelming number of Blairites who continue to constitute the parliamentary party.

Britain today is a long way off the level of polarisation that would be required to recreate such a once-in-a-lifetime moment and facilitate a comparable centrist uprising. This is especially true given the majoritarian structure of our parliamentary system; simple electoral arithmetic is an insurmountable obstacle for a British Macron moment 2.0.

It takes some very imaginative political science to conceive of a Prime Minister who is not either the Labour or Conservative leader in the foreseeable future. First Past the Post simply will not allow for a British Macron. Judging by how things are going in the Hexagon, that is probably not such a bad thing.

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