Grief for the Centre Ground.

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During the 1990s, Tony Blair had cleared a designated space in the rubble of our politics and he had installed some calming linoleum flooring. This became known as the centre ground and millions of jaded voters were attracted to its chemical cleanliness, its sheen of linoleum inoffensiveness. The centre ground, whatever it was, was modern, sensible, uncontroversial, and supervised by Blair’s crew of earnest middle managers, with a corporate efficiency which was quite characteristic. People who didn’t really think about politics – who were too busy to think about it – would occasionally close their eyes and the immaculate linoleum of the centre ground would float in front of them.

Recently, however, a hideous crack has opened up in the centre ground. Its surface is starting to look old, tired, and increasingly like a health-and-safety liability. We had all assumed that the centre ground was the premier corporate product but lately, looking up from its calming veneer, we see suddenly that, oh no, it can’t build houses for ordinary people, or nuclear power stations to provide them with cheap electricity, or a model which can supply free-to-access healthcare for much longer. Once the centre ground had seemed durable and modern, but perhaps it was always just cheap plastic flooring, which could never realistically bear the weight of millions of people.

And the centre ground’s earnest salespeople are having to shout ever louder to be heard. The claims that they make about their product now appear flimsy and at odds with the starkest commonsensical assessments.

In this year’s Labour leadership election, for instance, the centre-groundists had flocked around the voters, with their panicky, soothing appeals. Close your eyes and relax your brain with our vision of the centre ground. Forget about all of those difficult political decisions – we’ll privatise them, contracting out one responsibility after the next to Atos, Capita, the Bank of England, and the EU. Just allow our perfect linoleum surface to ease any worries you might have, your grievances about immigration, or your anxieties about international security.

Unfortunately, the self-selected electorate came from a section of society which is the least likely to appreciate such disempowerment. Momentum’s young activists are hardly inclined to leave politics to a load of managers or to contract it out to private companies. Moreover, the centre-groundists had, almost by definition, a stupendous intrinsic disadvantage. They had suddenly needed a majority of alternative party members to materialise from somewhere and support them, but, paradoxically, all that they could offer these activists was a disempowered, depoliticised version of politics. Owen Smith was essentially begging germs to take a dip in the linoleum’s disinfectant. The centre-groundists had also set their sights upon a “broad, inclusive politics,” which means a politics without any basis in specific ideas or morals, a politics reduced to a dreary Mumsnet chat about the prices of foodstuffs. Again, nobody who is genuinely politically active is going to find this very appealing.

Yet this crisis cannot be isolated to the Labour interior. Behind the Momentum vanguard, perhaps not necessarily aligned with them but definitely behind them, are millions of people who have blinked and opened their eyes from the vision of the centre ground. Sensible, mainstream economics, why it cannot actually, upon inspection, deliver so much as the colour of the coin which is needed to generate housing and infrastructure. Why are billions of pounds locked away in property – and, more to the point, why is so much of that property owned or traded by the political class? Why is it apparently more unworkable than alchemy to ensure that hospital trusts remain solvent?

The centre-groundists had been in front of the electorate again during the EU referendum, pleading with everybody to contemplate their linoleum surface. It was, the voters were sternly told, the normal, sensible, uncontroversial thing to do to remain in the EU, since this was vital for jobs and economic growth. A majority of voters tore their eyes away from the linoleum and saw a collection of basket-cases. In Spain, Italy, et al, nobody had any money, so why were we trying to export our products on exclusively uninhibited terms to this currency bloc? Direct your gaze back to our linoleum, the sceptical voters were feverishly instructed. Don’t worry about immigration or VAT – we’ve privatised these responsibilities, contracting them out to the EU who will helpfully manage them. Alas, a majority of voters opened their eyes again and the EU, the ultimate underperforming private contractor, got the sack.

Over in the US, the classic Batman villain Donald Trump has been not yet successfully neutralised as a threat, because Hillary Clinton is struggling to get the vote out with her soothing centre-groundism. A fish on a bicycle will lead you to a more coherent analysis of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) than Trump, but when he points to the Rust Belt, rather than to his own gala of character flaws, then it wreaks real damage. The case for Clinton’s Presidency is basically that she is not Donald Trump; that people should tear their gaze away from this ghastly fright and search for the calm of the linoleum again. Her campaign is fundamentally, and perhaps fatally, nostalgic.

The only political constant at the moment is that more and more eyes are being lifted from the centre ground across the First World, more and more people are shaking away the spell of its hypnotic flooring. This reaction is uncoordinated and it has benefitted any political chancer to hand: Trump, SYRIZA, Podemos, UKIP and the SNP. Sometimes the turn is to the right, sometimes to the left, and uniquely in the case of Scotland’s SNP, to both.

In its de-energised economics, in its knack for crafting a post-ideological coalition of political interests, in its occasional flashes of a bit of authoritarian leg, the SNP is often more like New Labour than New Labour ever was itself. It will eventually provide a test-case: what will happen when disenchanted voters rip away the tartan rug and find the same old linoleum underneath, with the same sluggish productivity and consequently unaffordable public services? Corbynomics, if the voters choose it and find a lack of radicalism, or a lack of even just otherness, therein, will follow suit. On the economics, Brexit has the freedom of being an exhilarating rejection of the centre ground and little else.

It is as if the entire world does not know what to do next. Clearly, we are waiting for somebody to invent something that will stick, the first significant political invention of the twenty-first century. Until then, today’s centre-groundists are wasting our time with their nostalgia, with their hopeless beaming insinuation that a feelgood politics from the late 1990s is still fresh. Has-been New Labour politicians with their washed-up ideology, Hillary Clinton, and the SNP are simply delaying the inevitable, whatever it is.