All over the western world, the political centre is in retreat. Voters are bored with the same old politicians, parties and policies. And they’ve turned instead to what seem like the more novel solutions of the populist right and left.
Whether it’s Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders or Marine Le Pen, these politicians arouse more passion among their supporters than old yawns such as Hillary Clinton, Andy Burnham or François Hollande.
So how can the centre fight back? In an attempt to find out, I’ve been talking to politicians and voters from Britain, France, the US and the Netherlands
for a Radio 4 documentary. And the message is clear: what voters are rebelling against is not just the substance of centrist politics, but its style, too.
As the former Chancellor George Osborne told me, “When Donald Trump tweets, everyone knows that he did it himself, probably at three in the morning. When Hillary Clinton tweets, it looks like it’s been through seven committees before it gets published.”
What most traditional politicians lack is authenticity. No wonder Boris Johnson is one of the few mainstream politicians who’s popular across the spectrum. Even if he tried, he couldn’t squeeze himself into that guarded, buttoned-up, don’t-give-an-inch-to-the-interviewer style that was invented by New Labour and reached its zenith with Hillary Clinton.
For voters love candour. One of the most common reasons American voters give for supporting Trump is, “He says it how it is.” You may not agree with the substance of what the new US president says, but you can’t deny that he tells it to them straight. So centrist politicians need to learn to talk honestly and from the heart.
But they also need to sound new and different. Two who have managed to fight back against the populist mood may have lessons for those in other countries. In France, Emmanuel Macron currently looks set to win a place in the run-off against the Front National candidate, Marine Le Pen. Though he was a minister in Hollande’s Socialist administration, he’s avowedly centrist. But what works most in his favour is that he is not a career politician, and he has set up a new party – En Marche! – to challenge the tired old two-party oligopoly.
Though some disaffected moderate Labour politicians talk occasionally about creating a new centrist party here, it’s harder with our electoral system. But they could take a tip from Canada, where the Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau has succeeded by being as different from President Trump as he could possibly be.
He, like Macron, has a certain amount of glamour. But he has also taken his message well beyond “the economy, stupid” maxim of Bill Clinton. He talks a lot about Canadian values – which he portrays as open and tolerant, particularly in contrast to the messages coming across the US border.
It is this sense of national pride that the centre needs to recapture. After all, it’s worked very well for the Scottish Nationalists, perhaps the most successful party in British politics. They have managed to combine centrist policies with a strong sense of national identity, a formula that has often eluded parties in Westminster. It was partly because Labour and the Conservatives couldn’t find the right language to talk about Britishness that the two old parties ceded ground to the SNP and Ukip.
So how can the centre hold? First, it needs to find some new blood, then it must eschew the safety-first political style that has driven voters mad, and finally it has to tell a story that appeals to people’s sense of nationhood. It can’t be that hard, can it?
Can the Centre Hold? is on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 21 March at 11am