Even after Brexit, elections are still won in the centre-ground. The centre can and does hold – as it has since 1945.
For a narcissist, Tony Blair had a remarkable knack for understanding the public. Nobody wins three elections because their image is fetching and their opponents are inept. Nobody wins two landslides despite empty promises. The New Labour ruse was to swap self-indulgence for public outreach. There is a reason the party lost four elections before 1997 and won three from then on. It is also why they have not won anything since. Labour has restored its tradition of flunking elections because it has remembered how to give itself a jolly good time.
If a left-of-centre politician wants to move away from his ideological instinct towards the public, he must shift rightwards. Thus Labour wins when its right is in charge and loses when it is not. For the same reason, the inverse is true of the Conservative Party, but with one caveat: it left is in charge. The only exception is that in Britain a choice between a traditional left-wing party and a traditional right-wing party yields a traditional result. The Tory right only wins when the Labour left has control of the opposing party.
Since at least 1945 there has been no exception to this rule. For a fickle bunch, the British public (or at least, swing voters, the people who decide things) are resolute about many things. Their allergy to Labour governments that spend too much and Tory ones that spend too little implies fixity in their expectation of the level of public expenditure. They understand the appeal of additional state investment but are suspicious about its implications on tax, suggesting constraints for how the government should raise money. They mostly think markets should be free but would not like them to run away and oppose them in choice areas, which augurs a large-ish leviathan. If you refute any of these ideas, you will lose.
Brexit will do many things to British politics but it will not change this law. Britain today is not the same as Britain in 1945 yet centrist homing does not ebb and flow with the zeitgeist. There is always a realignment due. And it still awaits us.
Anyone who thinks Ukip can become the official opposition or, alternatively, that Jeremy Corbyn can become prime minister would save themselves nerves and disappointment by calming down. The case for and against the British electoral system is the same: newcomers are discriminated against as opinion is magnified in the middle. Before changing the system is possible, you must first win under that system. Leaving the EU will not make Theresa May support proportional representation. Only a centrist Labour Party should make her worry for her job.
Important events and important governments change the nature of what is acceptable. But only by so much. Tony Blair shifted social consensus to the left. The fundamentals of their policies remain intact. On the more prescient axis of open versus closed, Brexit is pushing consensus towards . Whereas a decade ago people lamented how “we’re not allowed to talk about immigration”, today we talk about little else. A new immigration policy, given openness of borders is bound up with terms of access to European markets, amounts to material change. What it does not amount to is a nativist consensus. Swing voters are probably not newly willing to accept worse material circumstances in return for a more managed population.
As centrists are, by definition, zealous in preferring openness, it is modish to declare the credo dead. The point about centrism, though, is that it does not inhabit a fixed point on the spectrum: it is revisionist. To stop revising is to give up on the best reason to support it. If there is a third way between economic efficiency and social justice, there should be one between cultural insouciance and nativism.
Critics will deplore this as a counsel to sell out. “Winning isn’t everything,” they will insist to the obvious rebuttal. Except, it is. Ideologies have no inherent worth. Ideas do not exist for the sake of intellectual pursuit. Politics is about the material betterment of people’s lives. As partisans will insist on the incapability of opponents, every day you are in opposition you will insist on intolerable lives being lived. You cannot deny the urgency of victory unless you concede life is tolerable for you.
As he addressed his party conference for the last time, Mr Blair — that elitist who made wages below a certain level illegal, that imperialist who enlarged the foreign aid budget out of moral conviction rather than need — committed to word a final heresy. “There’s only one tradition I ever hated: losing.”