The Mythology of Centrism

When Tony Blair and Bill Clinton held a joint press conference in the Rose Garden at 10 Downing Street in London on May 29, they might just as well have been standing in a place called the "radical center" or "dead center," to judge from the accounts of the American press. The New York Times, for example, wrote that Clinton and Blair shared an "unabashed moderation," while the Washington Post reported on the statesmen's "moves to the center." Of course, it is hardly surprising that the press accounts focused on centrism when the two world leaders themselves took turns scorning "doctrine" and "ideology" and applauding "fiscal responsibility" and "prudence."

For many on both sides of the Atlantic, the Democrats' breakthrough election in 1992, followed by Labour's breakthrough in 1997, represented the successful pursuit of a "more moderate market niche"—the triumph of "electability," in Joe Klein's characterization. But reducing these breakthrough elections to the triumph of centrism misses entirely the election dynamics that allowed Clinton and Blair to win. Centrism offers only a partial, indeed, a revisionist, account of the policy priorities advanced under the banner of the New Democratic and New Labour campaigns (which I know well, since I worked as a pollster and political consultant for both). According to the centrist interpretation, Labour and the Democrats reinvented themselves by attracting more moderate, affluent voters who were looking for financially prudent parties. In fact, the opposite happened: Blair and Clinton were catapulted into office by the new votes of working-class and lower-middle-class voters who were becoming uncomfortable with the marketization of all areas of public life. Voters were trying to rein in Reaganism and Thatcherism.



In the United States, conventional wisdom regularly pronounces that President Clinton recovered from the 1994 congressional debacle and won re-election by reclaiming his centrist, 1992-New Democratic mantle [see, for example, "Why Did Clinton Win?" by Will Marshall and Mark Penn, TAP, March-April 1997]. But Clinton's first presidential campaign was not only centrist—it advanced both an economic and values-based agenda. During the 1992 campaign, Clinton pledged to create eight million jobs, expand public investment, and guarantee health insurance coverage for every American. He also promised to raise taxes on the wealthiest and consistently attacked the irresponsibility of those at the top who multiplied their own compensation while depleting the companies they headed.

Clinton's populism and activism were combined with a commitment to elevate values and change a Democratic Party that had lost touch with most working people in a new industrial age. Bill Clinton in 1992, not just 1996, talked about honoring work and family, promising to "move people from welfare to work"; he supported tough crime measures, including the death penalty; and he pledged to cut taxes for the middle class.

The 1992 Clinton campaign reached out to working people by addressing their hopes for economic renewal and a restoration of values important to working- and middle-class family life. The 1996 Clinton campaign, however, sought to stamp out any signs of such "class warfare" or any identification with economic grievances, concentrating instead on touting the strong economy and Clinton's support for family values and a balanced budget. Yet the message the voters sent pollsters was crystal clear: Their main reason for voting for Clinton was his defense of Medicare and education. Voters wanted to stop the conservative assault on the system of retirement security and government-supported social support.

We should remember that the party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman had failed to win a majority of working- and middle-class votes in any of the three presidential elections of the 1980s. Clinton carried those voters in both of the presidential elections of the current decade. Clinton's electoral success has allowed the Democrats to reemerge as a viable presidential party—not because of centrist appeals to more affluent voters, but because recent Democratic campaigns have rekindled a kind of popular progressive politics.

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The rush to interpret New Labour and Tony Blair's landslide win through the lens of centrism is an even more grievous distortion of events. True, Labour won in part by reassuring voters that it could manage public finances and the unions. But the party also won by promising more investment and less privatization as well as renewed public services and a reduction of economic inequality. Blair's "one nation" appeal was distinctly populist, conjuring a vision of a Britain where everyone, not just the privileged few, could prosper.

To be sure, Blair could not have achieved this victory without monumental efforts to reassure voters that Labour could keep the trade union forces in the party ranks under control. The Labour Party, much more than the Democratic Party, had lost the confidence of the people and forfeited its claim to lead the country. Labour had fallen far since the years after World War II, when voters had turned dramatically to the party to give working people a stake in Britain's industrial economy. Clement Attlee's Labour government nationalized the Bank of England, the coal mines, the railways, and the steel industry, and created the National Health Service. Labour's success extended even into the 1960s under Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

But the overly close embrace of the trade unions and the state proved dysfunctional to the changing postwar Britain, and the Labour Party crashed as perhaps no other center-left party in the Western world. Under Prime Minister James Callaghan between 1976 and 1979, the last Labour government before Blair, trade union strife brought the legendary "winter of discontent," when rubbish piled up in Leicester Square and trade unionists refused to bury the dead. Out of power in the early 1980s, the party swung left, championing massive increases in spending and taxes, wholesale nationalization, and unilateral disarmament, effectively nullifying any chance of recovery.

By 1983, the Labour vote had sunk to a mere 28 percent. Blue-collar workers, who had cast two-thirds of their votes for Labour in the 1960s, failed to give them a majority in any election in the 1980s. In 1992, despite a recession, Margaret Thatcher's disastrous "head tax," and the unpopularity of the Conservative government, Labour could muster only 34 percent of the vote and lost by eight points.



Thus Blair's first task as leader of the Labour Party was to restore public confidence in Labour's ability to govern. For Blair and party reformers that meant visibly limiting the power of the trade unions in party affairs. During his first three years as party leader, Blair used rule changes to limit union voting power, campaigned successfully against bitter union opposition to end the party's historic commitment to nationalization, and endorsed many of Thatcher's trade union regulations. Labour also did something previously unimaginable by reaching out to Britain's business leaders. On public finances, Labour offered, in effect, an extraordinary probationary period. It promised not to raise income taxes during the life of the next parliament, to operate for two years under the ceiling of the Conservatives' budget, and to cut the value-added tax (VAT) on fuel. Labour also expressed a new protectiveness about responsible "hard-working families" and promised tough new measures on crime that would speed up prosecutions. Remarkably, by election day, according to the exit polls, voters judged Labour to be as capable as Conservatives of keeping taxes down (33 to 32 percent) and managing the economy (34 to 33 percent) and even judged that Labour would be more effective than the Tories at fighting crime (33 to 25 percent). According to Labour's own polling, a majority of the electorate rejected the charge that New Labour was just Old Labour in new clothing.

The centrist version of the Labour victory is right about one thing: Voters wanted the reassurance that New Labour really was new. But what the centrist story misses is that voters also wanted a government that would slow privatization and diminish inequality. The centrist interpretation glosses over Labour's commitment to save the National Health Service—its promise to increase spending in absolute terms each year, to cut the waiting lists, to increase the number of nurses, and to abolish Thatcher's "internal market" for health care services. It glosses over, too, Labour's commitment to increase the proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on education and its promise to shift state subsidies from private to public schools. And it misses Labour's commitment to institute a minimum wage and sign the European Social Chapter. Finally, Labour's promise to tax the "excess profits" of the privatized utilities—from 3 billion to 10 billion pounds—to finance 250,000 government-created jobs for the long-term unemployed is hardly centrist, at least not in the sense Clinton watchers typically use the word.



Quite simply, voters wanted Labour to be more "moderate" so it could be trusted to do the right things once in government. According to exit polls, 72 percent of Labour voters—including 60 percent of first-time Labour voters—wanted the government to redistribute income from the better off to the less well off. An even larger number of voters (75 percent of Labour voters overall and 71 percent of new Labour voters) favored raising taxes to increase spending on the schools. And a still larger number (84 percent of Labour voters and 73 percent of the new ones) expressed the hope that the government would carry out no further privatization.

When British voters went to the polls, the choice could not have been more clear. The Tories were promising to reduce government spending even further as a proportion of the GDP, while Labour was promising to curtail Thatcherism's reach into the future. The Tories viewed expanded choice and privatization as the route to future prosperity; Labour promised to end the market in health care services, stop the expansion of private school choice (and expand spending on mainstream public schools), and stop the privatization of the state pension and the threatened privatization of the London Underground. Labour's runaway victory spoke clearly. Yet despite this stark progressive mandate, commentators heard only the call to centrism.

The battle for the meaning of the terms "New Democrat" and "New Labour" is probably lost in the United States. American pundits and politicians are convinced that these terms must stand for a stripped-down centrism that reduces the public's mandate to fiscal prudence and political compromise. Columnists insist on interpreting Labour's landslide in terms of the diminished aspirations of the second Clinton administration. But neither the British nor the American public was expressing diminished aspirations in the last election. Both countries voted for reformed center-left parties that would fight the extension of Reaganism and Thatcherism and that would strive to make government work for ordinary citizens. That is the popular banner that progressives should reach for to win the support of electoral majorities.

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