Stuck in the middle with you?

As the party conference season is confirming, there are few places in British political life more crowded than the centre ground right now.

For the Liberal Democrats the middle has been traditional territory. New Labour came to power by swinging away from the old left and back into the consensus zone. And now, in a move that has taken the commentariat by surprise, David Cameron is repositioning the Conservative Party as a force for creative moderation, too.

A system once built on conflicting interests between workers and bosses, left and right, seems to have developed a different architecture. This is one where the diversity of the electorate and the dominance of the market has pushed everyone into competing for a new kind of political space defined by technocratic efficiency and the management of what might be called ‘the expectations of affluence’.

At least, that is how things look from the bridge at Westminster, as politicians calculate their electoral fortunes and figure out how to establish the next hegemony after Thatcherism and Blairism. But appearances can be deceptive. Underneath, another question needs to be asked: can the centre hold, and if so in what form?

It has long been recognised that the post-1945 bipolar standoff between Labour and Tories has succeeded by absorbing third party, Green and independent pressures through a winner-takes-all electoral system, and by handling structural change affecting the UK through periodically renegotiating the boundaries between ‘economic efficiency’ and ‘social justice’.

Now these virtues are claimed by all three main parties, who have also sought to add a green tinge to their operations, and whose disagreements over the transatlantic alliance and its recent wars have been matters more of degree than principle, despite the rhetoric.

At present the momentum appears to be with Cameronism. (You read the term first here, remember). If Tony Blair took the economic model of Thatcherism and adapted it to a gentler social outlook more in keeping with a public mood reared on welfare but anxious for consumption, David Cameron has taken the Tony Blair formula and is seeking to trump it by making compassion conservative once more. Or possibly making conservatism compassionate. It’s a little too early to tell.

What the Tories seem to have spotted is that everyone else is in such a tangle over the latest phase of this political game of Twister that it’s wise to be agnostic about the moves you hope will actually be decisive. Better just to throw your limbs around a bit, look as elegant as you can while doing it, and keep smiling for the camera.

This is a good ploy because it is clear that New Labour has no real idea about how to be new any more, while Brownism is both uncertain in prospect and less than immediately brand-friendly. Brownism? Quite. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, though not bereft of ideas, continue to hop unconvincingly from left to right foot and back while resolutely denying the existence of either.

The truth, however, is that as the next election nears, David Cameron will have to come off that fence he is currently hiding behind his back. And the decisive issue will be ‘social justice’. Once regarded the preserve of the reformist left, this concept has been given fresh currency by ex-Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith, whose particular influence has been Catholic social teaching.

The essence of Thatcherism was to deny the coherence of social justice. Markets are amoral, went the argument. Outcomes for particular social groups are not intended by free agents competing for their own interests in an open economy, and therefore resulting inequalities cannot be regarded as either good or bad.

Try telling that one to people on the brink of starvation, destitution and deadly disease, came the firm reply – not from politicians, but from a multiplicity of grassroots movements, including many in the churches.

Their initiatives in seeking to spare both the planet and the global poor from the ravages of neoliberalism may not have created a coherent redistributionist creed, but they have certainly exposed the bankruptcy of the current multi-party ‘debate’.

What’s more, in spite of the reduction of mainstream politics to economic obeisance, and acknowledging the fragility of solutions coming from social movements, it is undoubtedly the underside of politics where the real possibilities lie.

This is because the defining political arena of our age is not Westminster with its over-crowded centre ground. It is a world torn apart by injustices, environmental challenges, conflicts and inequalities whose real danger is that they make nonsense of our current ways of understanding what is truly ‘central’.

That remains a challenge to Christian groupings operating within the political parties. They are not short on Christian rhetoric. But they seem prisoners to the twists and turns of their host bodies’ electorally-driven fates – and there is little sign that they are capable of responding to the true radicality of the Gospel, no matter how personally sincere there members may be.