The Modern World is More Complicated Than This

Change UK's calamitous performance of recent weeks isn't simply down to incompetence. It reflects the profound lack of insight and ambition that plagues Britain's political centre.

In February, as Chris Leslie stood beside seven fellow Labour MPs to resign, he seized the moment as an opportunity to vent his own frustration with Labour’s direction under Jeremy Corbyn. 

Unsurprisingly, in his departing words, the one-time photocopier for Gordon Brown took particular aim at the democratic socialist principles that Corbyn had spent his entire life fighting for. In a few sentences, Leslie mocked Corbyn’s apparently childish perception of a world “divided between oppressor and oppressed,” where “class enemies” engage in perpetual conflict with one another. “In truth,” the wise Leslie opined, “the modern world is more complicated than this.”

But what are the complicated views of Chris Leslie? Few seem to have permeated Change UK’s hollow political platform. In an attempt to resist allegations of vacuity, Chris Leslie published The Centre Ground: Six Values for Mainstream Britain in August last year. It is telling that his choice of publisher was the Social Market Foundation—an organisation known to be the favourite think-tank of former Tory Prime Minister John Major, and one that experienced a renewed existence through its associations with New Labour’s courting of private companies in Britain’s public services.

Immediately, the reader can grasp the familiar perspectives that mould The Centre Ground and the broader approach of Change UK. In Chris Leslie’s eyes, we live in a time of crisis where the forces of “populism” and “revivalist ideologies”—presumably including the socialism of Corbyn’s Labour—have found “new oxygen.” In this situation, Leslie argues, considerate people must resist the temptation of “sweeping solutions,” offering instead answers that rest neither on the free market nor “statism.”

Leslie identifies six mainstream values he claims are underpinning his political views: “fair play, not playing the system,” “responsibility,” “evidence, not ideology,” “representative democracy, not populism,” “opportunities, not pre-determinism,” and “focus on 21st century challenges – not twentieth century nostalgia.” 

Despite Leslie’s stated disdain for ideology, the core tenet of The Centre Ground is that centrism is a distinctive belief system. It is a defence of a certain type of politics: a contractual interwovenness between the individual, the market, and the state. Here, those who work hard to satisfy market forces may be rewarded by a competent—but limited—state apparatus. 

In this landscape, the atomised individual is an equal and neutral agent interacting in a consensual and equal relationship with the market and the state. It is unclear who the market and the state are comprised of, but it is certainly not the individual citizen—who the state and market appears to be done to, rather than with or for.

This technocratic instinct is evident throughout The Centre Ground. Having tirelessly asserted that “rigid doctrinal attitudes” are overtaking “reason and science” in politics, Leslie urges a return to a “common sense.” This is a politics where, despite his previous political wagering on the “mainstream,” he believes that an irrational public must be diverted and quarantined from their worst impulses by an enlightened governing elite who are capable of higher reason and understand the art of governance.

Leslie’s choice of language is telling. The rhetoric of “empowerment” is strong; anyone who was brought up under New Labour would recognise assertions that solutions to our problems lie in the “individual willingness” of citizens to “fulfil their side of the bargain” with the state. But where New Labour gave the answer in the form of punitive benefits systems, and Margaret Thatcher believed this was achieved through entrepreneurial spirit, Leslie’s text is unsurprisingly devoid of answers for how this fealty should be demonstrated.

It is perhaps for this reason that Leslie does not like to mention institutions. His scant mentions of “cooperation” relate to the individual’s social contract with market forces and a benevolent state. No space is offered for trade unions in Leslie’s work, which are not once discussed. As pilloried as Chris Leslie may have been throughout his career as a Labour MP, it seems truly extraordinary that a 55 page document written by a then-Labour politician seeking “moderate” Labour answers to the questions of our day did not bother to include industrial concerns even once.

Nor does Leslie like to deal with the political party of workers. No appeal was made to Corbyn supporters who make up the mass base of Labour. The legacy of the post-war Labour government is referred to as “the original Labour Party”—as opposed to the current one, the references to which come across only as embittered. Leslie proudly quotes the new Clause IV, the greatest signifier of New Labour’s triumph over the left and the trade unions, as the highest possible ideal: “the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe.”

A lack of ambition is reflected across The Centre Ground: in the face of the rise of precarious work and underemployment, Leslie’s game-changing idea is “advance notification of shift patterns.” Rather than clamping down on tax evasion, Leslie wants to arrange an international treaty to discourage “tax arbitrage.” Instead of emphasising the need for international solutions for the problems the environment faces, Leslie is interested only in “frictionless trading.”

In the context of economic stagnation, he doesn’t want us to tackle huge structural inequalities, but instead to focus on how to create wealth—going by the traditional Thatcherite logic that growing the pie will solve the question of slices. When summarising his views, Leslie blames the current crisis on the “impatience” of the British public, whose collective refusal to display “restraint, forbearance and short-term sacrifice for the sake of long stability has driven a dalliance in some quarters with the persuasive charms of cure-all salesmen.”

This reflects the reality that Leslie and Change UK, far from representing the centre ground, are in fact cast adrift from a society where opposition to austerity has entered the mainstream. This disconnect from the suffering caused by policies they championed is reminiscent of the Brecht line: “those who take the meat from the table demand contentment/those for whom the contribution is destined demand sacrifice.” In an era where child poverty impacts a third of Britain’s children, millions of workers suffer the longest wage freeze since Victorian times, growing numbers rely on food banks and working conditions seem to be returning to the Gilded Age, it is quite a sight to see an elected representative castigate people for not being satisfied with this thin gruel.

In December 1944, the Tribunite and future Labour MP Ian Mikardo, then a parliamentary candidate for the Tory safe seat of Reading, proposed a resolution at Labour’s national conference that sought to restate the fundamental socialist principles of the party. Calling for the nationalisation of the banks, all major industries, the land, and the country’s transport system, Mikardo told delegates that “we have got to show the people that we mean what we say and say what we mean.” Despite mortified opposition from Labour’s national executive committee (NEC), the vote was carried by such a large show of hands that no senior party figures dared demand a card vote. 

Following the vote, Herbert Morrison—then guru of the party’s ‘sensible’ elite—told Mikardo: “You did very well this morning. That was a good speech you made—but you realise, don’t you, that you’ve lost us the general election?” Just months later, Labour won its greatest parliamentary majority in history on the back of a radical programme. This “howling misjudgement,” in Mikardo’s words, “came not just from anybody—it came from the man who was accepted throughout the Party as by far our greatest and most authoritative electoral strategist.” 

It would be grossly unfair to compare Morrison to lightweights like Chris Leslie. However, it is worth remembering the misguided timidity shown by those who have often crowned themselves as experts of Labour politics. We can see in 1945 and 2017 how history tends to humiliate those who claim moderation as a necessary condition for a winning strategy. This is far more obvious now than in 1945, since our electoral opponents are not the Winston Churchills but the Chris Graylings of this world: as thick as they are callous, as directionless as they are mean-spirited. 

Despite its claims to “evidence-based politics,” The Centre Ground, like Change UK, ignores the compelling case for a break with a status quo that impoverishes millions and marches us towards ecological collapse. In this regard, Leslie should be thanked for producing an advance warning of the inadequacies of his party, which have become evident in their European election debacle. For all of his hiding behind an undefined “mainstream,” it is clear looking across the political landscape today that only the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn is trying with any intellectual seriousness to find answers to the challenges we face. 

Despite Leslie’s assertion that “centre ground politics sees the world as it is today and tries to improve it,” you will rarely read a book that shows such scant interest in the realities it aims to describe. At the next general election, Leslie will find that, in jumping from the party that gave him everything, he has made a worse “howling misjudgement” than Morrison in 1945. After all, Morrison couldn’t predict the future, but Leslie was around to see the 2017 general election—and recoiled from its conclusions. Labour should relish the opportunity to put those facts to the political ‘centre’ once again. Because truly, “the modern world is more complicated than this.”