A key feature of modern global politics has been its increasing polarisation. Debates over what now seem like mere tweaks to policy have given way to divisive rhetoric and sloganeering, the return of traditional political ideologies such as Marxism on the left and fascism on the right, and a more personal, more aggressive form of dialogue in Westminster, Washington and elsewhere.
Political figures on the populist right, from Donald Trump to Nigel Farage, have deliberately taken aim at their opposite numbers to encourage this kind of polarisation. Their insults provoke insults from their targets, and the resolve of their political bases is only strengthened. Meanwhile, some on the left have too often resorted to branding conservatives ‘fascists’, and used the financial crisis to justify a wholesale dismissal of capitalism. Both groups have all but removed any possibility for serious debate.
Here in the United Kingdom, the supporters of a ‘hard’ Brexit continue to pull the Conservatives to the right. Jacob Rees-Mogg, once dismissed as the ‘Honourable Member for the 18th Century’ owing to his love of history, his socially conservative views and his perceived distance from the mainstream, now looks like a likely candidate for Tory leader. The days of New Labour, meanwhile, are long gone. Jeremy Corbyn, with his pledge to bring back ‘municipal socialism’ has dragged Labour to the left, with the ascension of Jon Lansman, Yasmine Dar and Rachel Garnham to the National Executive Committee meaning Labour isn’t likely to move rightwards any time soon.
In the middle, where elections used to be fought and won, there are fewer and fewer options. Some see this as a good thing. In 2017, Giles Fraser of The Guardian said the middle ground was ‘where the elite try to manage things into staying the same’ and celebrated the return of ’big ideas’. Others have cited surveys showing increased political engagement among the electorate. They say though polarisation might lead to tribalism, it connects voters with policies and reinvigorates democracy.
But good or bad, there remains a large section of the public that are now politically homeless. These people are generally moderate, pro-business, socially liberal and internationalist. In the existing political parties, you might include Remain-supporting, Cameronite Conservatives in this group. In the Labour Party - home still to many Blairite or centrist MPs - Chuka Umunna is often mentioned here; he was the one cited as a potential leader when rumours surfaced that Tony Blair was looking for donors to fund a new centrist party.
There are obvious obstacles to a new centrist party emerging. Many of those who would seem to slot right in would be unwilling to leave their current parties. After all, they might say, those parties belong to them, too. To leave Labour, for example, might be construed as acceptance that the party is now irreversibly of the far left. To abandon the Conservatives could be seen as a kind of surrender to hard Brexiteers, false nostalgia and austerity. Moreover, these historic parties lend clout to their individual representatives. Is it even plausible that a newly created party could break through?
There’s only one way to find out. For now, what’s certain is that there is a vast gap between the major parties and enough people disillusioned with both of them to seek out a third option.