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Let the battle for the centre ground begin

PUBLISHED: 12:03 23 August 2018 | UPDATED: 12:39 23 August 2018

Tony Blair captured the centre ground and won a landslide victory in 1997
Photo: PA

Tony Blair captured the centre ground and won a landslide victory in 1997 Photo: PA

PA Archive/PA Images

Brexit will define the United Kingdom for many years to come – but exactly how, it is too early to tell.

The current Labour leader has moved the party away from the centre and now boasts more members than any other party in Europe
Photo: PAThe current Labour leader has moved the party away from the centre and now boasts more members than any other party in Europe Photo: PA

But at some stage, however far off in the future, this country will settle down in to a new normal.

Our politics though is set to be forever changed. And Brexit is only one of the reasons.

Let us rewind to the mid-90s when politics had its last major shift on the back of years of Conservative rule and the monolithic figure of Thatcherism still loomed large of the UK.

Fresh-faced new Labour leader Tony Blair ushered in a new politics. It was unashamedly centrist and went after voters that sat between the two traditional stances of the main parties.

It was little surprise to anyone in May 1997 that Mr Blair and his New Labour swept to power. The old Labour vote remained loyal and millions more who had previously voted Tory backed Mr Blair’s new politics.

Some dubbed it the Third Way and it coincided with a project across the pond in the US with president Bill Clinton successfully capturing the White House using similar tactics in 1993.

The Conservative losses were huge. Initially they attempted to tackle the rise of the centre by moving away from it. But in the end they conceded they needed their own Mr Blair to take on Labour: arise David Cameron.

But this shift for both Tory and Labour left the traditional left and right feeling homeless. The backlash of those wilderness years is being played out now.

We often hear talk of the ‘liberal elite’ in relation especially to the Brexit vote. It relates to a type of person, usually centrist and metropolitan, that did very well out of the Third Way years. And during that time it is undoubtedly true that politicians from all the parties ignored people with real concerns about issues like immigration and a lack of affordable housing.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn – who was as much an opposition to Mr Blair as any Conservative or Liberal Democrat MP during his premiership – was perhaps the first sign that things were changing.

There was a desire for a more left-wing, socialist party. Labour now has more members than any other political party in the whole of Europe.

And in Brexit we saw a vote against the European Union – a firm kick up the backside for generations of MPs desperate to align the UK more closely with Brussels.

But both right and left voted for Brexit. The Leave campaign played upon the fears of those people who felt left behind by centrist politics. They focussed on job prospects and the future of the NHS. Remainers – headed by Mr Cameron – instead fell in to the trap that Third Way politicians had for sometime: complacency. Those liberal élites were seen to be telling the people what was best for them again.

The right-wing takeover of the Tory party is not yet complete, of course. Boris Johnson is plotting in the wings alongside Jacob Rees-Mogg et al. But there is every chance a leader who is not standing on a centrist ticket could succeed Theresa May.

So where does this leave the centre of British politics? These are the centre’s wilderness years.

But the likes of Mr Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell did not simply pack their bags and go home when Mr Blair became Labour leader. They fought on and finally grasped their chance to shape the party in their vision when it arose.

And MPs in the centre of all parties must do the same. There is a sense of shellshock about many Labour MPs still. An air of ‘what has happened here’ even now almost three years after Mr Corbyn became leader.

Is it time then for a new party to occupy the centre ground? Lovefilm millionaire Simon Franks thinks so. He is about to launch United for Change which he hopes will quickly gain mass membership and perhaps even see some MPs quitting their own parties and starting again under a new banner.

The finances are in place and there is certainly a growing appetite for something new among the electorate.

Their mission statement says: “United for Change was founded to offer an alternative to the divisive and extremist politics we see at Westminster. To offer a vision of a prosperous, united and fair Britain. To offer a vision of a New Deal where hard work and contribution are championed.”

But they have a battle ahead. Most Labour MPs want to stay and fight like Mr Corbyn did. These maybe the centre’s wilderness years but the battle to win it back is about to begin.

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