The political centre is dead – but the establishment won’t admit it

18th December, 2013 9:03 am

If you listen carefully, there’s one name that Ed Miliband’s team has stopped mentioning: François Hollande. The French President was persona grata earlier this year when the two met several times and discussed plans to tilt Europe away from austerity. Hollande even brushed aside protocols to warmly greet Miliband in Paris.

The speedy fall of François Hollande’s fall from grace – within six months he was the most unpopular President in French history – offer two key lessons for the Labour party leader.

Firstly, a consensus-style politics of trying to please all voters makes leaders look confused and ineffectual. Hollande’s unpopularity reached its zenith when, in an effort to look tough on immigration, his government deported a Roma teenager, only to give her the chance to return and finish her studies, but only if she did so alone. As the centrist Francois Bayrou pointed out, “[The French] think the state has totally lost its compass, deciding one thing and then deciding its exact opposite one minute later.”

You can’t please all people all of the time. But to avoid permanently annoying everyone, you have to convince them what you’re about. François Hollande failed in even that basic task.


The more important lesson to learn from France is that the political centre is dead, but the establishment across Europe isn’t willing to admit it. The main beneficiary of Hollande’s fall hasn’t been the centre-right but the far-right National Front. Marine Le Pen commands some popularity for her anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric, but her populist economic policies are quite left-wing: nationalizing banks, protecting French industry, paying more to low-paid.

In fact this isn’t unique to France. Across Europe, the far-right is surging in strength. The Danish People’s Party, the Dutch Freedom Party (who’s Geert Wilders is allying with Le Pen), Greece’s Golden Dawn, the Finns, Hungary’s Jobbik party, the Flemish Block – are part of the same trend. In Germany, a newly formed eurosceptic party has already sent shockwaves.

In most of these cases, the right-wing parties are offering decidedly left-wing economic policies. They want to protect the welfare state and rail against how globalisation is driving down wages. In Denmark the People’s Party has attacked the Social Democrats for cutting services for the elderly.

Pollsters and think-tank wonks sagely repeat that the political centre is where elections are won, and that where social democrats must stay. But they cling to a bygone era without realising that the world has changed around them. Social democrats across Europe keep losing because they offer blandness, triangulation and meek responses to the havoc wrecked by the crash of 2008.

In this age of insecurity and political blandness, people crave authenticity and bold solutions. They want politicians they can believe in even if the solutions sound extreme. They’re so sick of the establishment they’re willing to vote for the extreme. In Greece, the radical-left SYRIZA is now leading the polls.

François Hollande is now making the same mistakes other centre-left parties across Europe have made. Ed Miliband should learn from his ally’s mistakes.

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  • MrSauce

    Hmm – nothing to do with the economy then, and France’s second return to recession.

  • Chris

    I’m not sure much of what you’ve said is evidence that the political centre is dead. If anything, it just shows that in the face of a new situation – ie, world recession – people have re-prioritised, and those priorities just happen to be things that are typically considered right wing.

    It doesn’t mean people have stopped caring about everything else – but if people are convinced the economy is the biggest issue and the right make a convincing argument to fix it, people will vote for them.

    10 years ago people were claiming the future was left wing and the Conservatives would probably never get into power again. It amazes me that commentators repeat these same mistakes over and over – you need to look past the new few years. When the world economy picks up and jobs begin to re-materialize, do you still think the same number of people will care about “foreigners stealing their jobs”, for example, and vote for far right parties that wants to cut immigration?

    • treborc1

      10 years ago people were saying the future is New Labour not left wing, you really have to be totally out of the loop to think either Blair or Brown were anything other then right wing Tory Lite.

      The idea that the Tories would not get into power again was simple why vote for a right wing Tory party when you have New Labour.

      The issue for Miliband is simple he needs to get the swing voters and basically needs to gain some constituency which are small majority liberal and Tory, but the problem is those are at risk to UKIP as well.

  • girlguide

    You have missed the main reasons for his unpopularity – his failure to achieve growth and bring down unemployment. He has failed to shrink the size of the public sector, probably due to his ties with, and fear of, the unions. In order to bridge the hole in the public finances he has increased general taxation for most families and created a flight of the rich through a punitive top rate tax. His tax increases on businesses have led to a growing sense of gloom and pessimism amongst businesses who are increasingly unwilling to invest and create jobs.

    Mr Balls take note.

    • ClearBell

      So what the answer then? Oh, I see what it must be – from now on all politics must be right wing, reactionary, and regressive. The political world should only be about appeasing business and destroying any compassionate social support provided by a public sector funded through general taxation?

      To take power and stay in power politicians must protect the rich and globalized corrupt money-market players at all costs? Strange to say I thought those groups have never paid up their fair share of anything.

  • Callum Smith

    Worth noting that, according to recent polls, the far-right populist Sweden Democrats are now the third party in Sweden. A lot of commentators seem to ignore the rise of the far-right in Sweden …

    • treborc1

      The biggest rise of course would be Austria it was growing even before the banking crises or depression. But yes Sweden France and not forgetting Belgium which was sending in under cover agents to search the Military, and a lot were found as well.

      France and Germany you ban groups they change their names but once they get a politician into power it’s difficult to ban.

  • Martinay

    Sunny is right. What he says is really very important indeed: we lack an all-embracing narrative.

    The far-right has such a narrative – just as Hitler did in the 1930s.

    The ” centre right” had one under Thatcher (trickle-down economics plus borderline-xenophobic nationalism) – but it has failed because less than nothing has trickled down. Cameron has tried to make a virtue of this failure. Boris Johnson is attempting to revive the illusion of trickle-down. They are doomed to fail.

    The far-left has an all-embracing narrative – but it’s laughable.

    The “centre left” triangulated a narrative successfully under New Labour. But that is no longer an option since one corner of the triangle (trickle-down economics) has collapsed.

    We desperately need an all-embracing narrative because we will NOT win simply by saying that we are truthful about our decent values and that we promise economic growth.

    But Sunny has no proposal as to what that all-embracing narrative should be.

    “One Nation Labour” is an attempt to provide that narrative. But it has been taken solely to connote our rejection of gross inequality. This is important – but it’s not nearly enough.

    We could go back to the notion of “Social Democracy”. But this is 100 years old and is now outmoded (that’s a long discussion!).

    The narrative we should develop – whether we are social democrats in the UK or elsewhere – is that of “democratic pluralism”.

    This means economic pluralism (i.e. a commitment to public, private and mutual ownership) plus political pluralism (i.e. international, national, regional and local levels and responsibilities of government) plus social pluralism (i.e. no racism, no sexism, no social exclusion plus universal health care and social care, radical reform of housing etc). All underpinned by open, transparent democratic forms of accountability.

    This is surely what we are all about: we need to proclaim it in straightforward language.

  • Doug Smith

    “Ed Miliband should learn from his ally’s mistakes.”

    That’s not going to happen. The squabble over the safe seat at Falkirk gave indication of where Miliband’s priorities lie. No matter that employees at the nearby refinery were placed at mercy of a Swiss-based multi-national in an attempt to discredit the trade union – and they subsequently had their rights diminished.

    No surprise that “Across Europe, the far-right is surging in strength.” – the parties that once spoke for ordinary people are becoming an out-of-touch elite, with one side of the Establishment indistinguishable from the other and united in arrogance.

    When Miliband attempts to jettison the unions next year and become even more like the Tories he may as well go the whole hog and propose a grand CamCleggMil/LibLabCon coalition.

    • treborc1

      He cannot jettison the Unions for god sake not unless he wishes to take forward an election with a bank balance saying empty, just a few months go Labour had to ask UNITE for a loan of a Million, and I believe although cannot swear to this, but the GMB gave £750,000 emergency funding.

      In Wales my Union the GMB pays out a large sum of money to each constituency to just keep them going, if that was removed I’ve a feeling a lot of MP’s would be asking is it not time to remove the leader.

      • Doug Smith

        “He cannot”

        Oh yes he can!

        And he will. State funding of political parties will follow a probable Miliband victory in 2015.

        • JoeDM

          Well that would make him the most hated PM in history !!!!

          Our hard-earned taxes being doled out to LibLabCon. There would be a huge public reaction.

          • Doug Smith

            But a huge public reaction is most likely to manifest itself as more abstentions. Can’t really see that UKIP is up to the task of coherent opposition to the feather-bedding of the elite, at least not with Farage as leader. But a populist movement of the Right or Left could emerge from the widespread revulsion.

            Certainly, once the current crop of trade union leaders receive their pay-off and are billeted in the House of Lords – picking up £300 a day for just clocking in and out – there will definitely be a political chasm where once stood the Labour Party.

        • BillFrancisOConnor

          And he will. State funding of political parties will follow a probable Miliband victory in 2015.

          How do you know?

          • Steve Stubbs

            He certainly isn’t going to put that is his manifesto. Not if he wants the undecided voters to go his way – what a gift that would be to the tory party.

          • Doug Smith

            I suspect it will feature very prominently in his manifesto.

            It’s not as if Cameron is going to win votes by speaking up in favour of donations from bankers and like.

          • BillFrancisOConnor

            You’re writing the manifesto are you?

          • Steve Stubbs

            Don’t care who writes it as long as it is not approximately the same extreme left wing drivel that comprised Michael Foot’s longest suicide note in history, and bought us all those years of Tory governments. .

          • Doug Smith

            What other option does Miliband have? Trade Union members will not join Labour en masse and contribute through subscriptions and small donations. Large businesses will still prefer to contribute to the Tories with whom they have a long-established relationship.

            The best Miliband can do is try to convince the public that politics needs to be cleaned up and propose to take away the big money that buys influence. It’s not a bad call and, if he can get the message across undiluted by his usual oddness, it most likely will be well received by the general public.

            But a price will be paid. Our mainstream political parties will then inhabit an ivory tower and become even more detached from the life lived by most of the population whose opinion and experience, even now, is no longer represented by the LibLabCon elite.

          • BillFrancisOConnor

            There is no evidence to support any of this. But that aside which political party does represent the life lived by most of the population- Bloom UKIP, The BNP, The National Front, The British Nazi Party? I think you should tell us oh all knowing one.

          • Cole

            A lot of nonsense. US politics has shown that you can raise millions in small donations from large numbers of people. It’s already been done in the UK by groups like Avaaz and 38 Degrees. What Labour has to do is to inspire people to donate and become activists.

            Not easy, but not impossible either, and they’re beginning to do it.

    • BillFrancisOConnor

      “Ed Miliband should learn from his ally’s mistakes.”

      That’s not going to happen.

      You seen it in your crystal ball did you round at Mystic Meg’s? In my experience people who give predictions about what is going to happen in the future usually don’t know what they are talking about.
      Reactionaries are always (and always have been) telling us ‘this is the way things are…this is the way things will always be’ – it’s b**l*cks- no one knows what’s going to happen in the future. This is why the sense of possibility within the socialist idea is so powerful and always will be.
      May I offer a quotation from the late great Joe Strummer: ‘The future is unwritten’. It was true when he said it, it’s always been true and it is the one certain thing that can be said about the future.

      • Doug Smith

        Sorry Bill, you’ve lost me with that. I just haven’t a clue as to the meaning of your sagaciations.

    • Daniel Speight

      …he may as well go the whole hog and propose a grand
      CamCleggMil/LibLabCon coalition. But then, in many ways, this has
      already happened.

      Interesting as we look at the German Social Democrats getting into bed with the Christian Democrats again. Then again the Social Democrats are not really the same as our Labour Party and the Christian Democrats never fully adopted the Anglo-Saxon/Republican/Tory ideology of neo-liberalism.

  • EricBC

    Mussolini said, ‘Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.’ He was right and in recent decades we have been living in a country which through outsourcing, privatisation and incorporation of the private sector into public services is taking upon itself a fascist character. The notion of ownership of the state by the citizens is disappearing at all levels of society.

    We are well down the road to corporatism.

    This course of events can ONLY be opposed with radical policies. And you are right to emphasise the weakness and impotence of centrist and consensus processes. Centrism or consensus processes will accelerate the destruction of our citizen state. Radical policies are required.

    The question facing Labour is this: What should these radical policies be?

    But, as you also point out, it is much more probable that Labour will muddle in the middle, pore over marginals and listen to experts intent on grabbing the swing vote.

    Welcome to Mussolini’s dream come true.

  • PeterKenyon

    Dear Sunny

    Interesting thesis spoiled by “They’re so sick of the establishment they’re willing to vote for the extreme. In Greece, the radical-left SYRIZA is now leading the polls.” Syriza – extreme?

    Check out the Jan-Feb 2014 edition of Chartist when it is published in the New Year for its take on current power play and a more consider view of Greek politics.


    The “political centre is not dead”. Ed Miliband is looking after it.

  • RWP

    If this article implies that EdM should move further left, then I disagree. Labour has a comfortable and solid lead and is dominating on the centre ground – to abandon this position to pick up disaffected old Labour non-voters and BNP sympathizers (most of whom wouldn’t vote for our rivals anyway) would be the gift the coalition parties need – it would let them recover the initiative with the moderate mainstream where 2015 will be won and lost. Rightly they would paint EdM as a latter-day Foot-ite; Labour has much more to lose than gain by taking this approach. It’s just as silly as those Tories who think they can only win by being more right wing. Extremism isn’t on the rise in Britain – the BNP threat is receding if anything.

  • Daniel Speight

    Social democrats across Europe keep losing because they offer
    blandness, triangulation and meek responses to the havoc wrecked by the
    crash of 2008.

    The lack of courage in the leadership to truly differentiate Labour from the coalition could well come back to bite them in the bum. With Douglas Alexander bringing back the old ‘New’ Labour spinners and shakers, it looks like more of the same.

  • RAnjeh

    Doesn’t mean the political centre is dead at all. When there are tough times, people often turn to rightwing extremists who tell them what they want. In happened across Europe in 1920s and it has always happened throughout history.

  • MonkeyBot5000

    The examples you give don’t show the death of the political centre as much as they highlight the fallacy of trying to reduce all political opinions to a single left-right axis.


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