Why we don't need centrist politics

By Bernadette Meaden
September 2, 2018

At a time when politics is becoming increasingly polarised and antagonistic, it is easy to understand why well-meaning people could find the idea of centrist politics attractive. It is perhaps a yearning for calm and civility. As Rodney King said after the Los Angeles riots, can’t we all just get along?

But centrism would effectively be an affirmation of the status quo, at a time when for many people change is desperately needed.

Taking the centre line between two equally wealthy and powerful sets of vested interests is fair. But that is not the situation we face today. For decades, the politics pursued nationally and internationally have served to ensure that the distribution of wealth, power and influence has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. The share of income going to labour has declined steadily,  as the power of trade unions has declined  and the power of corporations and super-wealthy individuals has increased. Perhaps the poster boy for this grotesque inequality should be Jeff Bezos of Amazon, who as the richest man in the world has more money than he knows what to do with, but whose employees work under notoriously harsh terms and conditions with many relying on food stamps and benefits to survive. 

In this situation, where power and wealth is so unevenly distributed, centrism is arguably a deeply unjust approach which will inevitably favour the rich and powerful, and guarantee their continuing dominance. As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

For people facing a housing crisis, using foodbanks, facing the destitution and humiliation that accompanies Universal Credit, struggling to get school uniform for their child or social care for their parents – a polite tinkering simply will not do. What they need is radical change, a complete rebalancing of politics and the economy so that the interests of all are considered equally important, and parents do not have to work all the hours they can get to simply keep their children in poverty.

So centrism promises a moderate approach which will keep the current show on the road, prolonging an extremely unjust situation with perhaps a few gestures to keep the discontented happy. Perhaps the truth that many people calling for a centrist party don’t want to admit was revealed in a Telegraph article headed, “There’s already a Macron-style centrist party in British politics. It’s called the Conservative Party”. Of course this is nonsense, the Conservative party is very firmly on the right – but those who support it see it as the centre, and that is no doubt what centrism would inevitably become, an extension of conservatism.

And predictably, President Macron’s popularity is falling, as the French public realise that when it comes to conflicting interests, compromise is not always possible, desirable, or fair. In a world divided between capital and labour, haves and have nots, corporations and workers, the wealth and power is currently all on one side. Centrism will never resolve that, only perpetuate it.

The idea that a radical rebalancing of wealth and power is periodically necessary is in fact a Biblical one. The concept of Jubilee, when debts and bondage would be cancelled and lands returned to previous owners prevented an ever-increasing accumulation of wealth into fewer and fewer hands. We don’t need centrism, we need a modern Jubilee.

In fact, centrist politics may not just be ineffectual in the current climate, but actually dangerous. Injustice and inequality leads people to seek solutions wherever they can. The US elected Donald Trump, and we know that the far right is on the march in Europe. If centrism denies people the sufficiently radical solutions they need, (which may be radical in British terms but are in fact mainstream in many other countries), then the field will be left open for true extremists.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden



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