Modern global politics has seen a new trend in the past few years – the downfall of centrism.
Emmanuel Macron is an anomaly – he basically had the full backing of the left to stop far-right Marie le Pen from being elected. He was successfully elected as President of France last year.
Other centrist parties, though, have not fared as well. In Britain, even though they secured four more seats in last year’s snap election than they had before, the Liberal Democrats’ tally of 7.4 per cent of the votes is a far cry from the 23 per cent they gained in 2010. New Zealand’s centrist party United Future dissolved last year after taking just 0.1 per cent of total votes and losing their one seat.
Centrism is a political outlook that involves support of a balance of social equality and social hierarchy. It means opposing political changes which would result in a shift to the left or the right.
We saw this ideology manifest itself strongly in former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s party in the 1990s. New Labour was all about introducing free market economics into the traditionally left-wing Labour Party. It was about showing how socialism can be delivered through the free market, instead of the state, to achieve better efficiency.
This went down very well during the 1990s and the early 2000s in the western world. Under Blair, the Labour Party won the 1997 general election with a landslide victory. In the United States, the New Democrats (a centrist faction of the Democratic Party) helped elect both former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama into the White House.
Fast forward 20 years, though, and we can see signs that centrism is dying, and the more traditional left winger is once again a major player on the political landscape. After former British Prime Minister and Labour leader Gordon Brown lost to the Conservative Party (led by former Prime Minister David Cameron) in 2010, Ed Miliband attempted to move the Labour Party somewhat back to its more left-wing roots. It was not until leftist Jeremy Corbyn took over as leader of the party, however, that Labour is now once again a strong political player in Britain. Corbyn’s left-wing policies have taken voters in the 18-25 age group by storm and, though they did not win the election, they helped deny the Conservatives the seats they needed in the House of Commons in the 2017 general election to rule as a majority government.
While centrists might look at their dwindling numbers and blame young people for destroying their vision of the future of the country, let’s not forget that it has been two decades since their ideology become the norm. Just because it worked in the past doesn’t mean it will work now.
The youngest voters of today, made up of those born in the 1990s and the early millennium, face a far different future in the world than their parents do. For so-called baby boomers (those born roughly between 1954 and 1964) and early Gen Xs (those born between the 1960s and the early 1980s), if you earned a university degree and worked hard, then you’d be guaranteed a good life. That is no longer the case.
House prices in Hong Kong are now 40 per cent higher than in 1997. If a flat is priced at HK$12,147 per sq ft, and a university graduate earns an annual average of HK$15,000, then it would take them 42 years to buy a 500 sq ft flat.
That is not just happening in Hong Kong – it’s being seen all over the world. That is why it shouldn’t be a surprise to see students voting for leftist political figures, or starting viral campaigns on social media.
From their point of view, left-leaning policies – investing in public services, the re-nationalisation of infrastructure, the scrapping of university tuition fees, etc – offers them a chance to free up money and time to achieve things in their lives that they might not otherwise have access to. Without these policies, they’re looking at decades of (in the case of tuition fees) loan repayments which doesn’t allow for the building of a nest egg for the future.
This is why centrism has failed. Free market economics, which limits government interference to tax and benefit cuts, causes inequality. The rich can afford a better education for their children, because the poor can’t afford the fees, or don’t want to be chained to a near-lifetime of loan repayments. How can centrism demonstrate they are able to deliver a better future, when people already believe the system they want to use is failing?
If centrists want to survive in today’s political world (rapidly changing to one of very definitive left and right), it must ditch their long-standing policies, and think of something new. If not, then I foresee it being a very long time before they play a major part in politics again.