It’s no secret the Labour Party has problems. The factions. The leaks. The bitter internal rivalries. Happily a group of centrist Labour members have decided to rescue the party from these woes by forming a think-tank called ‘Progress’, and if you want to learn more you can read this account leaked to Matthew Hooton of Progress’s founders having an argument with Labour Deputy Annette King (paid).
On one hand: every other demographic within Labour has its own voice in the form of a formal advocacy group, so why shouldn’t the centrists get one? On the other hand: because they’d almost certainly use that voice to conduct a sustained PR campaign against their own party membership, releasing populist policies designed to wedge the members and the public.
More broadly, I have two basic problems with the idea that Labour should be a centrist Blairite ‘third-way’ party. First: the left’s great intellectual struggle over the past eight years has been about how to reposition ourselves after the catastrophic failure of Blairist third-way centrism. The deregulated free markets that were supposed to fund generous social welfare states worsened inequality, even when functioning, and then they crashed and needed to be bailed out. The centrist argument boils down to ‘Let’s go back to that system that failed!’ It is not intellectually serious.
Secondly, we already have a Blairite centrist third way party in New Zealand. It’s the National Party. If you take Labour and nudge it slightly along the political spectrum while taking away the identity politics and token environmentalism you have a smaller less popular version of John Key’s National.
‘But that’s the point!’ Progress would probably say. ‘National is popular! If Labour wants to be in government it should be more like National. Then it will be popular too.’ But popularity in politics doesn’t work like that. It’s complementary. The trick is to make National unpopular. People just aren’t going to switch their vote to a less credible version of the thing they already like.
I do wonder why more of these people don’t forget about their quixotic mission to change Labour, and just support National? I don’t mean that in a glib way. National are pro-business and ‘aspirational’ but they’re doing loads of social democratic stuff like free doctor’s visits for kids and increasing benefits to poor families, plus they really hate identity politics and the environment. That is basically the centrist manifesto. Shane Jones is the patron saint of these folk and he’s crossed the aisle. Why not follow him?