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Renewing the Centre

Commentary17th March 2017

The new and most crucial dividing line in politics today is around attitudes to globalisation. On one side of the line are those who see globalisation as an opportunity whose risks and challenges should be mitigated so that globalisation can work for the many and not the few; on the other side are those who see it as a threat, changing established ways of living and working, and operating largely outside democratic control.

Another way of putting it is open vs closed.

Neither position is as stark as it seems. Those who accept globalisation have got to accept that the insecurity it causes is profound and for some damaging. Those on the closed side don't seriously dispute at least some benefit from globalisation.

But for one side, it is hope which dominates sentiment; on the other, fear.

After decades in which the politics of hope eclipsed those of fear, today, the balance has shifted. The politics of fear have not triumphed; but they are making the weather, the climate in which political discourse takes place.

There is therefore an urgent need to re-state, re-define and renew the open-minded side of the debate, especially for those of us on the progressive side of politics. Making a contribution to that debate is the purpose of the Institute which we're starting.I come at this obviously from the progressive tradition in politics. But I want its thinking to be available for all those across the political spectrum who share this essentially open-minded view.


Under pressure from new strains of populism, parties of the traditional left and right are moving further to the extremes to accommodate them. This is squeezing the options available to the people in democratic systems.


The urgency is not only because it is clear that the balance of the debate has shifted towards closed. It is because under pressure from new strains of populism, parties of the traditional left and right are moving further to the extremes to accommodate them. This is squeezing the options available to the people in democratic systems.

The Conservative Party in the UK is now the party of Hard Brexit. The leadership of the Labour Party has been captured by the Hard Left. The parties in France have shown similar tendencies. There is every possibility of the politics of the USA moving in the same direction.

In fact, all over the Western world the political landscape is changing. New parties are being formed – left, right and centre. But the centre ground, if marginalised in the mainstream traditional parties, finds it harder to get traction.

The support for centrist politics, as the poll we release today shows, remains strong. But it struggles to be heard in the traditional party machines.

That is why we are calling this element of the Institute’s work: Renewing the Centre.

The Institute is not a conventional Think Tank. The idea is rather to create a platform in which the best thinking on the key issues of the day is curated and turned into politically realistic strategy and policy so that those, in whatever party, who support the essentially open view of the world, are armed with the arguments necessary to prevail.

So even though I am personally located and will remain within the progressive tradition of politics, the Institute should be helping all those who want practical solutions, consistent with liberal democratic values, to the challenges we face. 

Of course the background here in the UK is likely to be Brexit. It could hardly be otherwise. But the purpose is to inform global and not simply British debate and is not solely about Brexit. In the end, attitudes to Europe are largely bound up with attitudes to globalisation more generally.

As of now, it is uncertain where this tide of populism goes. It could subside. But the fact that we have witnessed it overwhelm conventional politics in the USA and Britain and can even contemplate major support for far right and often plainly racist politics in parts of Europe today, means that complacency is foolish. Even where this politics doesn't win, as fortunately was the case in the Netherlands, it influences and distorts the political debate.

And we can't be sure whether we are at the end of this cycle or the beginning.

Some of the polling around attitudes to Liberal Democracy itself is worrying, with significant numbers of people in many Western countries now seemingly indifferent to democracy as the governing concept and supportive of authoritarian populism/nationalism as an alternative.

The stakes are high. Take a step back, look at the broad sweep of history, and there is a paradox. Over the past few decades, there have been greater reductions in poverty than ever before for humankind; greater progress on life expectancy; huge advances in civil rights; and even in Western nations scarred still by the financial crisis, the world basically avoided the Armageddon many predicted.

Technology has transformed the way we live, opening up enormous opportunities to some of the world’s poorest; and trade has given those in the East jobs and improved living standards and those in the West, access to cheap consumer goods and lower inflation.

‘Opening up’ is what changed China and brought its people the beginning of prosperity. Reform and opening up are doing the same for India. Trade overall has definitely been positive not negative. Technology has of course displaced jobs and changed societies; but imagine taking away the inventions of the past 25 years or so – no mobiles, email, text, smart phones, no online commerce, TV which we can choose, the connectivity which now we take completely for granted. It is unimaginable.

So why is globalisation – which has produced so many benefits – under such sustained attack?

Because it has also produced deep and discomforting stresses, cultural and economic.

Tom Friedman in his brilliant new book sets out convincingly the context for the new politics. We live in a world of accelerating change. Yes, it has its upside. But it is also disruptive and frightening. Something is lost as well as gained. The losers from it think they have little prospect of becoming winners; and they think those in power aren't listening to their concerns.

They see immigration changing their communities. They see some doing very well; others without hope of ever doing better than average. The generational promise – the foundational backbone of the middle class in Western society – namely that the next generation will do better than the last, seems in doubt or broken.

People feel they have lost control and naturally want to re-gain it. The change appears to be happening without consent and that feels wrong and, even, dangerous.

9/11 put extremism on the Western radar and events since then have given rise to –again – understandable anxiety about security and cultural integration especially of Muslim communities. The financial crisis rocked confidence in the financial system and the ability of those in power to manage it; and many households have struggled to return their family income to what it was pre crisis.

However, I am not satisfied with this as a complete explanation of the new politics. There are two other factors at play.

Even in the later part of the 20th C, politics was changing and new coalitions were forming. When I was growing up, Conservatives were conservative economically and socially. This was maintained into the 1980s when, for example, the Thatcher Government was introducing quite harsh measures against the promotion of gay rights.

But a new generation came into being that was aligned with a conservative view of the economy i.e. essentially pro-enterprise economics; but socially liberal, on issues of race, women and life choices.

Likewise on the Labour side, Labour has always been a coalition between industrial and workplace interests and social liberals. So Labour Governments promoted strong defence of trade unions and nationalisation, but also – as in the 1960s – were the champions of civil rights.

There were working class Tories of course – my Dad was one – and they often shared socially conservative views; but most of all, they regarded ‘socialists’ as holding back their aspirations to do better economically.

A similar pattern can be found in the political development of the USA and in continental Europe.

But today, there is a new alliance between those working class voters who support quite leftist traditional economic positions; but who are socially conservative. And they have formed an alliance with right wing elements who share the social conservatism and sense of cultural loss but who disdain the role of Government and want deregulation.

Likewise on the left, there are those who want to represent the losers from globalisation, and who are traditionally anti-business, who are forming an alliance with those who want more social liberalism not less.

So there is a competition for the anti-globalisation vote. The left think they can re-capture their traditional support by appealing to the displacement through economic change.


I do not think these shifting coalitions of politics have been caused by the events since the turn of the century. They have been exacerbated by them, but the elements were in place already.


The right, by contrast, think they can appeal to the same vote through emphasising cultural anxiety.

I do not think these shifting coalitions of politics have been caused by the events since the turn of the century. They have been exacerbated by them, but the elements were in place already.

Even in the late 20th Century, traditional parties were moving to accommodate the changing dynamics of political support. New Labour and the New Democrats shifted to tougher positions on law and order for example. I remember fighting my last election in 2005 on the issue of immigration and promising tighter controls on asylum claims and the introduction of Identity Cards, precisely because I could see how the mood was changing as society changed. The Conservative Party became much more socially liberal, changing radically its positions on things like gay rights.

This was essentially the means by which the Centre retained its power. It adjusted, built new alliances and kept old ones by reaching out across the traditional party divide.              

What then happened is fascinating and vital to understand.

A combination of the security challenge symbolised by 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, wrested the initiative from the Centre, empowered the narrative of leftist forces about capitalism and rightist forces about culture, and dis-orientated the centre ground.

So a whole lot of positions came under attack: liberal economics through the financial crisis; liberal intervention through Afghanistan and Iraq; social liberalism through the perceived failure of multi-culturalism and over-emphasis of ‘political correctness’; and Liberal Democracy because it was seen as the author of all of these failures.

All of this meant that changes in political coalition, which had been building for some time, suddenly became manifest and dislocated from the Centre, which went into retreat.

Traditional Party structures proved incapable of withstanding this force of revolt.

The reason lies in the second factor driving this change: the power of social media as a revolutionary force all in itself.

Social media allows movements to grow at scale and at speed in a manner never seen before.

And it creates its own means of communications which disrupts conventional media and changes it too.

So, just as these new political forces have started to shape politics, so the media has also been re-shaped, becoming much more partisan, more fragmented, only feeling it can survive by capturing a core constituency of support and keeping it in a permanent state of anger and grievance.

Thus the very essence of centre ground politics – the ability to achieve common ground – is swept away in the tidal wave of ‘this is my truth and there is no other’.

The irony is that the populist left and populist right come to certain shared sentiments.

They're both protectionist and isolationist.

They are both on the closed side of the globalisation debate.

And most of all, neither really offers solutions to the challenges we face. There is frankly little doubt that protectionism would be disastrous for the global economy of which we are all part today, like it or not; and neither nativism nor isolationism correspond to the world’s interdependence.  

So what does the Centre do?

It has to keep hold of two absolutely defendable judgments: globalisation has brought huge benefits to humankind; and Liberal Democracy is the best system humanity has devised of governing itself.

But it has radically to renew itself in order to assuage the genuine anxieties of the people; and to rebuild a new and sustainable alliance to regain the initiative.

The Institute will focus on Renewing the Centre of politics. This means advocating the open-minded approach to the world; supporting strongly the basic principles of Liberal Democracy; and developing a modern policy agenda which shows how the stresses of globalisation can be overcome in the interests of the broad mass of people.

The challenge is that very often today we are not asking the right questions never mind getting to the right answers.

The debate about immigration is important and restoring people’s faith in the political system to respond to anxieties about it, essential. But the reality is that our future prosperity will not depend on reductions in immigration. This is a chimera.

It will depend, however, on how we handle the next wave of automation, Artificial Intelligence, and the impact of Big Data. All of this technological change will mean big changes at the workplace. Engagement with this issue is urgent and yet absent from much of the political debate.

We have lived through the greatest experiment in monetary policy the world has seen, yet it barely scratches the surface of the political discourse.

Finding the right balance between fiscal policy, monetary stimulus and structural reform, is at the heart of the European response to the travails of the Euro; but at present it hardly features compared to quite an old-fashioned discussion about austerity.

Healthcare will become more about specialisation, public health and personal choice and responsibility; yet it is dominated still by arguments over hospital closures.

Education – at least in the UK context – is still stuck in very conventional disputes about structure when clearly the issue is how we move to much more individualised teaching and learning.

Retirement and welfare issues remain where they were twenty years ago, when, instead, wholesale reconsideration of what they mean and what their purpose is today, are where we should be concentrating.

How will we facilitate locally driven solutions to communities left behind by globalisation?

What do we do about the families which are socially excluded generation to generation?

What does education through life really mean; is it feasible and how is it paid for?

How do we bridge income inequality in a way which does not undermine the competitiveness of the economy?

How do we keep control of the waves of migration, and protect our cultural heritage and freedoms without losing immigration’s undoubted benefits?

From tax reform to the treatment of the new global titans of business operating across the boundaries of multiple systems, there are a plethora of questions to be raised and debated where the answers require a level of deep analysis and coordination we are nowhere near achieving.

What has really happened to living standards over the past 30 years? Which groups have lost and which have won and why? Sometimes the basic research is not easily comprehensible or accessible and therefore the quality of debate poor or inaccurate.


The Institute will seek the best partnerships and sources of research and try to turn them into politically understandable and strategically realistic policy and information for use in frontline politics.


The Institute will seek the best partnerships and sources of research and try to turn them into politically understandable and strategically realistic policy and information for use in frontline politics.

It will try to find the answers to the problems I know I would want answered if I was still in the frontline myself.

One major aspect will be the role of technology: how its opportunities are accessed; its displacement effects mitigated; and its impact explained.

I am struck by how the intellectual eco-system of those transforming our world by technological innovation, and the public policy environment responding to it, are so separated from each other.

Public policy makers find the changes in technology hard to understand, difficult to predict in consequence, and bewildering in scale and scope.

There has to be a way of bringing these different sectors together.

For one thing, technology should transform public services and Government. Yet the risk is that policy makers become actively hostile to those in positions of leadership in technological change because they feel them indifferent to the consequences of the changes they're making.

But we know technological change will not stop, but rather intensify; so this gulf is dangerous and short-sighted.

The Institute will reach out on both sides of the Atlantic. The truth is: all developed nations face the same type of challenges. Insularity is a vice in this regard and this is exactly what the new populism breeds.

It will also look at how the modern media functions – conventional and social; how that affects political debate; and how we bring people to some common form of discussion rather than forming self-reinforcing segments of opinion at war with each other.

We are assembling a cohort of smart and capable workers in the respective fields of policy and strategy. I am delighted that the brilliant Yascha Mounk has agreed to head up this stream of our work.

We will also build a network of people who are interested in participating in these debates and who can inform our work as well as receive its conclusions.

All of the work that the organisations I have helped create since leaving office 10 years ago will be part of this new Institute. We are bringing everyone under one roof – literally and legally – in one Not For Profit organisation. The businesses we formed are closed and the reserves of almost £10m transferred to the Institute to help get it going.

These other streams of work will continue and develop. There is an absolute linkage between the new stream of work, supporting the open-minded approach to globalisation under the banner of Renewing the Centre, and the work of the other streams.

All of these other elements of our work are defined by an attempt to change policy so that we are solving the challenges of globalisation more effectively.

In development policy, we believe that governance and not simply aid is the way forward. So we will continue the work of the Africa Governance Initiative – now in 8 countries and soon to be more – and in other countries especially in Eastern Europe which want our help.

 We have successfully built up teams in all the countries in which we work who focus on how the leadership of those countries determine their priorities and deliver them for the people. Look around the world today and you can see countries next to each other, with roughly the same population, resources and geography, one succeeding, one failing: Columbia and Venezuela; Rwanda and Burundi; Poland and Ukraine; and of course North and South Korea. Governance is the difference. We want to be thought leaders in this field.

In respect of the challenge of extremism, we believe it is essential to confront the ideology of extremism and not simply the violence. This means in particular combatting the political ideology of Islamism and not just violent Jihadism. We have to promote co-existence and mutual respect between religions as the right way forward. We do so by education programmes which are in over 20 different countries. And by the research done by the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics which has won plaudits for the excellent work it does in tracking extremism across the world and in its thoughtful analysis of what is driving it.

Finally, on the Middle East peace process, where I still spend a significant proportion of my time, we are pioneering a new approach towards the two state solution, namely through the Israel/Arab relationship and not only the Palestinian/Israeli one. The key to the Middle East lies in modernisation around the principles of religious tolerance and rule based economies; and the key to the peace process in enhancing the ties between Israelis and Arabs and through this process of change, help support the achievement of peace between a secure State of Israel and a viable State of Palestine. We will continue to work on this approach to peace.

So all of the work the Institute will do has at its core the same values, the same approach to globalisation and a synergy which allows each stream of work to augment the others.

I am aware that some will profoundly disagree with the thinking behind the Institute. Some will be unable to move beyond their views about me as the founder of it.

However, we are at a very special juncture in human history. We could be living through a populist moment; but we could be living at the start of a populist era. I am convinced that only by Renewing the Centre can we provide a compelling alternative. I feel passionately about it. I care about my country and the world. That is why I am doing it.

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