Owen Jones Is Wrong: In Defence Of Centrism

We don’t need a new centrist party, but centrist policies have done Britain good. 

On his debut show on LBC Radio, Owen Jones argued that a centrist party would be a bad idea. His case is surmised in this 47 second video, where he states:

When we talk about centrists, you think nice, fluffy, moderate, common sense. But actually, if you think about it, many of the problems we have were caused by people who calls themselves centrists.

Tony Blair, he led us into the Iraq war, hundreds of thousands of people died. The Middle East as a consequence, let’s be honest, is in a bit of a pickle ever since, with terrible loss of life still every single day, the rise of ISIS.

Centrist politicians of all stripes presided over deregulation of the city, of big finance. That didn’t end so well either, they didn’t tackle inequality and all the rest.

So I think these politicians would end up pursuing the very policies that have left this country in a mess.

Ignoring the fact that there already is a centrist, progressive party in British politics (*cough* Lib Dems *cough*) Owen Jones’ statement about centrism and centrist governments overlook the immense force for good centrist policies have had on British society.

Blair and Iraq
The first part of Owen’s point isn’t a critique of centrism. It’s a critique of Tony Blair, and the Iraq War. This is ad-hoc reasoning, buoyed by the fact that no one would defend the Iraq War (unless you’re Tony Blair) ever since Chilcot revealed the cost of intervention gone wrong.

To be generous to Owen, Iraq provides an easy case study in the failings of the 1999 Blair Doctrine, which argues that humanitarian cases for military intervention can be made if intervening can do more harm than good.

But humanitarian military intervention can work. There’s a reason people in Kosovo name their children after Tony Blair. Intervening in Kosovo stopped the ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces of Albanians in the region. In the 1999 Journal of Foreign Affairs, it’s revealed diplomatic efforts failed when then Serbian President Slobodan Milošević intensified campaigns against Albanians in the region. Mr Milošević rejected the 1999 Rambouillet Conference attempts at peace, and only accepted NATO demands following allied air strikes. The success of NATO – spearheaded by the centrist Mr Blair and Clinton – reversed ethnic cleansing in the region, and allowed a million refugees to return home.

Kosovo has since seen sharp upturns in GDP, life expectancy and wages following intervention – according to the World Bank. While not perfect, the World Policy Journal commented in 2011:

… The upshot of NATO’s 1999 intervention is empowerment. It helped persuade enough Serbs to vote strongman Milošević out of office in 2000 — and gave Serb reformers the space to enforce that election. It strengthened the European Union’s insistence on human-rights conditionality before admitting new members. It generated, at long last, international backing for the UN Balkans tribunal, which would go on to convict 64 of the accused, give voice to thousands of victims, expand the legal interpretation of international law on war and genocide, and build the Balkan capacity to conduct domestic national war-crimes trials.

Focusing on Iraq also ignores the success of British intervention in Sierra Leone. There, many regard Tony Blair as a hero. An article in the Journal of Strategic Studies argued that a more limited intervention would have failed the people of Sierra Leone. It was the British commitment to the nation (both military and financial aid) which helped to secure peace and stability following their Civil War. It also helped to bring many of the atrocities there to light.

Not intervening has a cost, too. And one that’s rarely talked about.

There was nothing humanitarian or moral standing by during the 1994 Rwandan genocides, where 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days. Rwandanstories.org, an online archive of the genocide, is very clear about the costs of the West’s failure to intervene. A study in the journal African Affairs points at John Major’s indifference to Rwanda’s plight as a damning case for what happens when nations fail to act.

Iraq was a failure. Intervention isn’t the way to fight terrorism. However, military intervention shouldn’t be condemned because of recent failings. Hawkish foreign policy can and has averted humanitarian disaster. Owen Jones is wrong to ignore that.

Banking Reforms
Owen Jones lambastes New Labour for failing to regulate the financial sector. He’s right, because New Labour failed to regulate the financial sector. But he ignores the role the centrist Liberal Democrats played in forcing the Conservative-led Coalition to implement banking reforms.

Vince Cable, the then Liberal Democrat business secretary, clashed with Conservatives over ring-fencing retail and investment banks. It was the Liberal Democrats who wanted the reforms put in place as soon as possible. And it was Lib Dems pushing for tougher banking reforms in government.

Everything from banking levies, ring-fencing retail and investment banks (so bank failures don’t cost savers or tax payers), and raising savings protections were a result of Liberal Democrat pressures in Coalition.

Just because centrist New Labour didn’t regulate the financial sector doesn’t mean centrists failed to regulate it. It was the centrist Lib Dems who finally brought in stricter regulations.

The wider success of centrism
Perhaps most egregiously, Owen ignores the real positive impacts of reforms brought in by centrist government. The idea that centrist policies don’t fight inequality is a flat out lie.

A report by the DWP on New Labour reforms found that child poverty fell by 900,000. Pensioner Relative Poverty fell by 15%, and income growth rose among all income brackets.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, New Labour’s war on poverty (bringing in child tax credits, raising child benefits and welfare grants for children under 10, working tax credits, transferable personal allowances) targeted low income groups. The same study found that the families which benefited most from these reforms were low income groups – the ones targeted by centrist policy.

Another IFS report on New Labour’s changes to the benefit and tax system found that, across all 3 of New Labour’s terms in office, their “giveaways” and “takeaways” focused heavily on helping poorer households. Help for richer households fell, and rose for poorer households. They especially benefited low income families and pensioners.

OECD findings reveal New Labour’s reforms led to absolute poverty falling by 1.8 million. Relative poverty fell by 600,000. Material deprivation fell by 400,000. Fewer families worried about money between 1999 and 2006. More families could afford healthy food for their children, along with toys, holidays, and other modern comforts. By 2003, families saw their incomes rise by £1200. Poorer families saw them rise by £2400. In 2010 – this had grown to £2000 and £4500 respectively. According to a study by Durham University, attainment gaps between rich and poor children narrowed as a consequence of New Labour’s reforms.

Under New Labour, there were large levels of investment as a % of GDP in our NHS. In fact, healthcare spending almost doubled in real terms between New Labour getting into office and New Labour leaving office. A Kings Fund audit found that New Labour’s reforms lead to shorter waiting times, more hospital beds, more staff, more equipment to detect cancers, fewer suicides, and lower mortality from cancers and heart disease.

New Labour’s market reforms in the NHS improved quality of care, and access to care. Research by the London School of Economics noted, when looking at heart attacks, hospitals in more competitive areas saw faster improvements in care. Something later confirmed by Carol Propper at the University of Bristol. Research from the University of York found increased competition improved access and equity in healthcare. A 2011 review by the King’s Fund into New Labour’s reforms found that they did what they said on the tin: competition boosted efficiency, equity of healthcare access, and saved lives.

Their education, health and tax changes don’t even touch on the expansion of rights New Labour oversaw. The LGBT community in particular saw huge expansions in their legal rights because of New Labour. The list is long, and more extensive than any previous Labour government’s achievements in LGBT rights.

This isn’t conjecture. This is evidence.

Study after study after study shows centrist “tinkering” has raised living standards, improved the lives of the poor, shrank attainment gaps, in education, removed barriers for the disadvantaged in society, improved healthcare, and reduced poverty.

Under centrism Britain became a fairer, richer, healthier, more educated, and more progressive nation.

We need a third way
Today in British politics, there exists a definitively left-wing Labour party, a definitively right-wing Conservative party, and the progressive Liberal Democrats in the middle.

This is a problem. Abandoning moderate ideas means both major parties have decided to place ideology before people. However good their intentions, putting ideas ahead of people will always mean enacting policies which hurt those you want to help. This is why we need grounding in moderate policy.

Oxford Economics – as reported in Business Insider – proved this. Liberal Democrat policies would lead to stronger economic growth than the Tories or Labour, and a reduced national debt compared to Labour and comparable to the Tories.

And they’re the only party who’s manifesto pledges wouldn’t hurt the economy, or those they were trying to help. The Institute of Fiscal Studies Election briefing, when looking at Labour’s and the Conservatives economic plans, revealed the following:

For Labour:
1. Their manifesto costing don’t add up. Wealthier rich people would move overseas and reduce any revenue they’d gain to pay for their plans; their tax avoidance figures are unreliable (at least half of the £8.8bn of their pledged tax avoidance money wouldn’t materialise)
2. Their plans to raise corporation tax to 26% would hit workers, lead to higher prices, and hurt pension funds with shareholdings.
3. Labour’s benefit tax plans would still keep most of the proposed £11 billion cuts to working age benefits (the Lib Dems would reverse them) and would hit poorest households much harder than Liberal Democrat plans.
4. The IFS say Labour’s plan to abolish tuition fees will benefit richer households more than poorer ones. Indeed, the tuition plan designed by Vince Cable left poorer students better off and hasn’t deterred poorer students from going to University.

For the Conservatives:
1. Labour’s benefit changes may hit poorer households, but the Conservatives would hit them harder by cutting £11 billion from working age benefits. The poorest would suffer, while the rich see their net incomes rise.
2. Carrying on with austerity risks seriously damaging our public services, and will produce slower economic growth than a Labour or Lib Dem government
3. Attempting to cut migration into the tens of thousands puts a £6bn hole in the Treasury and seriously hurts our economy
4. They didn’t even cost the damn thing

And both parties positions on Brexit risk harming our economy, jobs and our research base. Brexit is already starting to bite for many.

Moderates aren’t turning a blind eye to the ills of society. Moderates don’t turn blind eyes to inequality, or poverty, or the needs of the citizen. Moderates are the best people to enact change that will truly help those who need smart policy makers making smart policy decisions.

The centre has a track record of success. That’s why Britain needs a party of the middle ground. And it’s why the Liberal Democrats need to fill that void

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