One Thursday night in the next couple of years we could go to sleep knowing that, by Friday morning, neoliberalism in Britain will be over. If a left-led Labour party comes to power, leading a coalition determined to scrap free market economics, that will be a good day for working people. It will be a bad day for Virgin Care, Portland Communications and Saudi Arabia.
If this prospect appals you, there is now a clear course of action. James Chapman, a former Daily Mail journalist and former spin doctor for George Osborne and David Davis, who now works for the PR firm Bell Pottinger, wants to launch a new centrist party called the Democrats, consisting of diehard anti-Brexiters from all parties. He claims that two cabinet ministers, several former Tory frontbenchers and even members of the Labour shadow cabinet have been “in touch”.
Chapman’s gambit is welcome because it comes after the early summer promise of a Tony Blair-led move to create a new centre party (emulating Emmanuel Macron’s) fizzled out. Private Eye claims that Blair asked Labour donor and Brexiteer John Mills for money, to no avail. At the annual conference of Progress there were few takers for my suggestion that they “do a Macron”; in fact, Progress itself is a shrunken force inside the Labour movement and does not look capable of launching anything in the near future.
The fact remains, however, that a constituency of voters exists who are so emotionally wedded to Britain’s European Union membership that the issue obliterates all others – and that they are poorly represented in English electoral politics. I do not share their objectives, but I welcome the re-emergence of the “new party” debate.
Because Chapman’s move illustrates where the real centre of gravity of a new centrist party would have to lie: it would be a liberal Tory party. The party of Notting Hill and Canary Wharf; the party of free market economics, globalised finance and social liberalism. And its major impact on British politics would be to split the Conservative party, not Labour.
These political forces, though I oppose them all, are not the worst enemy we face. The main enemies are economic nationalism, racism, xenophobia and the underlying project of those who promote it. The project of the rightwing Tory Brexiteers and the Trump faction within the US elite is to save their own national forms of neoliberal economics by breaking with the global institutional form – global trade and climate treaties in the case of Trump, the EU in the case of the Brexit right.
Their project is iniquitous not just because it seeks to create the conditions for further wage stagnation, further deregulation and more austerity; but because the only way it can do so is via a period of chaos. The chaos fantasies of the American right are luridly spelled out in the works of Neil Howe and William Strauss: the US will have to undergo a “reset” as traumatic as the civil war and reconstruction era in their historic scheme. The British equivalent consists of genteel bumbling into chaos: walk off the edge of an economic cliff and close your eyes; something will come up.
So it is logical for the forces that believe the global free market system can be rescued to look for a political home. If they manage to create it, it may look a lot like it did when Nick Clegg and David Cameron stood together in the rose garden of Downing Street in May 2010, though less naive – and would have to espouse the same project: austerity at home, and a more gradual divestment of trade links with Europe in favour of links with the Hindu chauvinist regime in Delhi and the dictator in Beijing.
But I want to suggest to those contemplating a new party a different course of action.
The global system is in trouble because it does not work. The European Union likewise. $12tn worth of unconventional monetary policy by central banks has bought time, and filled the cities of the world with speculative apartment blocks and shopping malls, but it has not restored dynamism to the world economy.
That is because the model is broken. A model based on wage stagnation, excess financial profit, relentless privatisation and stagnant productivity was always going to blow up – and that’s what happened in 2008. The decade since has been wasted because, among the wider elite that now fantasises about a new party, there was actually no new thinking.
It is not just political careers at stake: if neoliberalism is dying, thousands of PhDs are worthless; entire legal codes will evaporate; career paths will have to be rethought. Easier to blame the electorate for their stupidity in reaching for the gun of national-centric solutions than re-examine your own flawed assumptions.
Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Brexit is the only one a consistent social democrat could take: to attempt the softest possible break with Europe commensurate with ditching the free movement of workers, replacing it with a generous and humane migration regime and a trade relationship with the EU maintaining the benefits of the current position.
It is a compromise not just with the 52% who voted for Brexit, but with a new global fact: Britain has a new and unstable relationship with Europe, in which the EU27 will always have the upper hand, and the resulting frictions will always threaten a repeat of June 2016. And the difference between Corbyn and the Tory right is clear: under no circumstances could Labour present to parliament a deal worse than the present situation, let alone vote for it.
For people who really cannot live with that, who would rather idealise the Europe that smashed Greece while tolerating racists and antisemites in power across eastern Europe, maybe a new party is the only place they’re going to be happy.
But the world has still changed. The global system is fragmenting and demands radical answers that neither Blairism nor Coalition-era Conservatism can offer. A new party would form an emotional comfort blanket: braver to expose yourself to the strategic problem of the age – to ditch the economic strategies of the past 30 years and rethink.
• Paul Mason is a writer and broadcaster on economics and social justice