Jayne Dowle: Can the centre hold when extremists rule politics?

IF we've learned anything about politics this year, it's that each major party, both Labour and Conservative, has fallen victim to its extremist wings.

Is it time for a new centrist party to be formed as the Tories and Labour become bogged down by Brexit?

As Prime Minister Theresa May found to her cost last week, her own particular version of caring Conservatism cuts no mustard with the hard Brexiteers. Although she emerged from the attempted coup, her persecutors, led by ultra-right-winger Jacob Rees-Mogg, remind us that the Tories are a party where individual self-determination presides above all.

Such is the cacophony coming from Westminster, it’s easy to switch off sometimes and forget that each political party is a very distinct body.

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However, deepening class and geographical divide and the shrill shriek of what passes for debate on social media soon remind us that the demands made by political allegiance have never been as powerful.

At the other end of the spectrum from the Eurosceptics who look back longingly to the patrician days of Empire, we have Labour’s hard left or – should we say - Labour’s current leadership.

Here the opposite has happened. Rather than individuals popping up literally, left, right and centre, to state their case, much of what has evolved in Labour during recent years can be attributed to a major tenet of the faith – party loyalty.

Put in very simple terms, this is one of the reasons why no credible and consistent challenger to leader Jeremy Corbyn has emerged. No-one wants to let the side down. Indeed, one of the founding principles of the Labour movement was to stand and fight.

Ask a moderate Labour MP privately why there has been no serious assault on Corbyn’s plans to turn Great Britain into a socialist utopia of nationalised industries and women-only train carriages, and they will tell you that they are playing the long game. It’s worth remembering that former Prime Minister Tony Blair was a Labour backbencher for 11 long years.

However, it’s also worth remembering that our major political parties have shown no aptitude for fixing their own internal rifts. And we, the electorate, are the ones to suffer.

In the midst of all this, whatever happened to ‘consensus’ politics? If you remember, it was talked of a lot around the time David Cameron became Prime Minister. A couple of years in Number 10, the whiff of power and then Jeremy Corbyn taking over from caretaker Labour leader Harriet Harman in 2015 soon put paid to any possibility of happy-clappy inclusivity.

And, eventually, this helped to sound the death knell for the existing middle ground. Their credibility ruined by the coalition formed with Cameron’s Tories after the 2010 election, the Liberal Democrats crashed and burned. The party now has just 11 MPs in Westminster, led by Sir Vince Cable.

Why then, against this backdrop of polarisation, would anyone think that the idea of a new ‘centrist’ party was a good one? Well, precisely because of that. Call it centrist, call it the Third Way, but the middle ground is up for the taking.

Clever academics have long argued that there are insurmountable reasons why this kind of party would fail in Britain. There are serious matters of ideology for a start. How would left-leaners and soft Tories reconcile matters such as funding the NHS and social care, education and fiscal policy?

What about defence? And what about Europe, let’s not forget? Here’s where we must start to unravel some long-standing assumptions about British politics. Recent events, in particular the EU referendum, have taught us that voter behaviour is undergoing seismic change.

One of the reasons why the result was such a close-run thing was because voters made their decision based on instinct, rather than along the traditional patterns of party politics. In many Northern communities in particular, it was also a protest vote against austerity.

We can see that it opened up a fissure in British politics which no party has sought to heal. In fact, it could be argued that recent weeks have done nothing but pull the two sides further apart.

This cannot be good. I accept that there are certain practicalities which have to be addressed. A leader for a start. Some critics suggest that a new centrist party could risk looking like a collection of misfits and losers, outlaws from both Labour and Conservative, with no seats in Westminster and therefore no power.

Also, to have any chance of making an impact, it would need the wherewithal to field around 650 candidates in every Parliamentary seat, plus back-up on local councils and devolved governments. This means funding and organisation.

Sometimes distance gives us the clearest sight. From afar, we look at our stymied government and regard what passes for Her Majesty’s Opposition with incredulity, and can’t help but think that there has to be a better way to run a country.