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What are my political beliefs and views? Inside progressive centrism

I have often described myself as a socialist, but left-leaning centrist seems a more appropriate label these days. The absurd rise of cancel culture as the default mode of liberal campaigning drove our revolutionary cause to distraction while driving me towards the middle. Nevertheless, of all political theories in circulation today, democratic socialism is probably the most representative of my views, so I want to explore what the concept actually means to me and how it can evolve into a serious force.

Acknowledging the limitations of ideological Marxism

In many ways, I arrived at democratic socialism as an ideological Marxist who grew up. The older we get, and the more we experience reality, the more our idealism melts in the heat of pragmatism, common sense and everyday triangulation. I have had my rebellious theoretical phase. I have overcome my teenage flirtations with radical socialist doctrine. Now, having lived among it, I’m more attuned to society's inherent need for mature, sensible cohesion. I’m passionate about building consensus rather than alienating the extremes.

I believe strongly in a new form of centrism that relies on spirit more than schemes, instincts more than ideology and proclivities more than precepts. I have grown to see the difference between doctrine and actuality. I have learned to appreciate certain aspects of the capitalist mood music – social mobility, progressive self-enrichment, competitive innovation and the right to ambitious expression – even while detesting its gross unfairness and rampant exploitation.

Mine is now a tempered socialism, therefore. A democratic socialism, indeed, taking the original economic theorem of equality and melding it around the needs, wants, traditions, desires, faiths and opinions of normal citizens.

For instance, I do not believe Americans must choose between supporting democratic socialism or upholding the Constitution. The former can be a compassionate mode of implementation for the latter, devoid of gun-toting evangelism and vile epithets.

Likewise, lefty progressives should not be lambasted for admiring the constructive patriotism, religiosity or free speech of a centre-right leader. These beliefs can coexist in a cohesive system, underpinned by rounded values as opposed to sharpened dogma.

What is the difference between communism, socialism and democratic socialism?

Communism fails because it is too simplistic, and because it ignores innate and undeniable human tendencies to lie, cheat, steal advantages and form hierarchies. The failure of Stalin was the ironic failure of an egomaniac to see that egotism exists in everybody, not just in thyself. And, besides, communism is a pure economic paradigm rather than a broad political guide. It cannot succinctly account for public policy and, thus, it is unfit as a tool of governance.

Socialism is the ideological undergirding of communism, and it can be seen as a more acceptable strain of capitalist regulation. Socialism is somewhat fluffier than communism, swapping authoritarianism for liberty and trading state hegemony for person-focused dividends. Still, there is a stigma attached to socialism, which seems inextricably linked with Cold War propaganda and rogue dictatorships to some mainstream traditionalists. In this regard, it can be difficult to unmoor the ethos from its chronic misuses, and that makes it a hard sell at elections.

In practical terms, then, what is democratic socialism? To me, it is a fluid aspiration of achieving socialism – or socialist policies – without necessarily overthrowing capitalism entirely. Instead of stark choices between corporate profit and furious anarchism, democratic socialism allows us to achieve the best of both ideas while discarding their divisive excesses.

Through stringent regulation of the capitalist class, demanding that private companies play by strict rules, we can rebalance our societies while safeguarding the sacred elixir of ambitious, self-motivated enterprise. We can stabilise a harmonious middle ground, flexing to meet the demands of real people before pondering the gluttony of big business.

What political policies do I believe in?

That may sound great, but aside from the endless fixation with semantics, and beyond the empty progressive platitudes, what actual policies do I want to see? Well, free universal healthcare, for a start. Free university tuition. The nationalisation of public transport, with minimal travel costs and ticket proceeds used for maintenance and growth rather than to engineer profit.

The state should work to develop and deliver an unbiased right for every individual to have an education, a job and guaranteed healthcare at the point of use. By repealing privatisation, government should provide clear and accessible pathways to employment and home ownership, and it should regulate utilities so we pay affordable, sustainable prices for water, electricity, heating and broadband.

Socialist recalibration

The purpose of a job should not be to drive capital and increase commercial revenues, but to help the state operate and encourage communities to thrive, allowing people to live happy lives in return for social security.

We should strive for an end to the five-day working week, dictated by the commercial treadmill, and we should push for advancements in flexible working, freeing people from the agony of workplace stress to pursue their full potential.

Law and order

We should not make absolutist decisions to defund the police. We can reform those vital services while also investing in alternative community-led solutions, such as mental health support, financial education and addiction counselling.

The police needs more funding, not less, and it also needs greater scrutiny to ensure efficiency of spend. Let police officers focus on the most dangerous forms of disorder, and let community agents transform the causal infrastructure of softer crimes.

Equality and diversity

We must standardise human resource processes, with state involvement in private hiring and firing. If we are ever to make tangible improvements in equality and tolerance, beyond the regurgitated marketing spiel, fundamental change must be made to how organisations recruit, develop and terminate the employment of their people. Companies cannot be trusted to do this themselves, while history has proven that capitalism is incapable of creating equality of its own accord.

Libertarians will shudder at the prospect of state-monitored human resource reform, but how else can we ensure black and ethnic minority candidates are treated fairly? How else can we guarantee serious consideration for disabled candidates and people – like me – who grew up on council estates?

Corporate benchmarks, targets, guidelines and aspirational goals are not enough. They have never worked. Alas, the time has come for a root-and-branch overhaul of human resources. Out with nepotism, in with opportunity. Out with systematic racism, in with a level playing field. Out with cancel culture deplatforming, in with creative expression.

Workplace reform

While we are redrawing the rules by which capitalist companies must abide, we should abolish zero-hours contracts and raise the minimum wage. We should increase annual leave provisions and extend paternity periods. We should also guarantee free universal childcare so no parent has to choose between keeping their job and caring for their kids.

To pay for these ambitious projects, we should raise taxes on carbon, sugar, plastic, gambling, alcohol and other deleterious industries. We should raise corporation taxes on the largest, most profitable companies, for they can afford to shoulder a greater burden. And we should chase multinational monoliths who fail to pay their taxes, forcing them to do so or lose the privilege of trading in our markets.

Environmental change

I want to see genuine change – in rhetoric, intention and policy – on environmental matters, to reverse the climate emergency that threatens our very existence. You cannot solve global warming within the parameters of capitalism. Indeed, capitalism is the engine of environmental ruin, encouraging as a matter of existentialism the endless commodification, carbonisation and globalisation of life. We need to end unchecked indulgence before it is too late.

Mental health treatment

Here in the UK, we must address the woefully inadequate provision of mental health treatment available on the NHS. Everybody who needs one-to-one, face-to-face therapy should be able to get it – free of charge and without delay. Medication reviews must be formalised, with science-led exploration rather than back-of-the-napkin experimentation. Oh, and prescriptions should be free, because nobody should profit from the production and distribution of antidepressants.

Creativity and enterprise

We must incentivise the study of subjects and skills that are essential to a functioning society, creating fair and reliable pathways for people to become doctors, psychiatrists, epidemiologists, therapists, mathematicians, coders and physicists.

We must reimagine our national relationship with the arts, allowing passionate creatives to follow their dreams rather than funnelling them towards dead-end office jobs.

We should establish an artist sustainability fund, which will guarantee a basic living income to writers, authors, bloggers, singers, musicians, painters, artists, actors, graphic designers, photographers, filmmakers, poets, dramatists, dancers, bakers and vloggers, so long as they are creating and so long as they are enriching our culture.

No writer should have to sit in a cubicle from 9-5 then work on a side-hustle blog for a couple of hours each evening, selling their soul through clickbait just to legitimise their greatest skill, so long undervalued by capitalist society. No musician should have to use Universal Credit if they fail to reach a certain threshold of monthly Spotify downloads. And no documentarian should have to spend five years on one film because working nights at a local petrol station is the only way to address historic rent arrears.

The government needs to support genius rather than shepherding it into the homogenous pool of lanyard-wearing dissatisfaction.

Unapologetic patriotism

We should celebrate our Britishness, not apologise for it. Yes, we should repair the wrongs of our fallen empire. And yes, we should welcome refugees and shield the persecuted. But we must do so contextually and proportionally, without eroding our unique cultures, values and social fabric.

Let us create a points-based system of compassionate yet constructive immigration. Let us legitimise citizenship tests and insist on the need for residents to learn English, aiding integration. And let us not condemn such fair, transactional ideas as racist, divisive or elitist. They most certainly are not.

We should not be afraid to put Britain first through fear of appearing insular and insensitive. Jingoistic protectionism goes way too far, but so does unfettered cosmopolitanism. The former leads to bigoted external suppression, while the latter leads to naïve internal neglect. We can, we should and we will help those in need around the world, but that charity must begin at home, because more than 14 million people in the UK currently live in poverty.

We need to get Britain making things again, selling things again, thinking through its problems and fashioning solutions rather than clicking buttons to outsource headaches to different continents. We need to stop conflating the Union Jack as a symbol of shame, an icon of the right or a logo of knuckle-dragging football hooligans. It is our national flag, and we must reclaim the values woven therein. We must celebrate those values, too, rather than tutting at them in feigned modesty when confronted by revisionist liberals.

Free speech

It is time to eradicate the scourge of cancel culture from our public discourse. Freedom of speech must be upheld in action, not just in theory. People should be able to share their honest opinions without being mauled, muzzled or manipulated. Fearless creative expression and balanced academic critique must be ring-fenced from woke destruction, and we should value – not vilify – the wordsmiths, journalists, songwriters, painters and podcasters who melt modern orthodoxy with passionate iconoclasm.

Even speaking as a working class kid born in Birkenhead – a town ravaged by Thatcher’s systematic destruction of British industry – I say we should not be scared to agree with certain neoconservative principles. Patriotism. Faith. Enterprise. Staunchness. However, those valuable ideals must be filtered through a socialist economic prism, producing a balanced consensus for weighted, empathetic and cumulative change.

How political ideology creates division and polarisation

Exploring this guiding theme of evolving pragmatism, I advocate the normalisation of issue-by-issue politics at the expense of rigid ideology. I do not have a profound opinion on Brexit. I do not apply template reasoning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I do not harbour residual indignation on Scottish independence, nor do I favour Celtic or Rangers. Things change. Situations morph. We live in a fast-paced age of infinite nuance, and the time for obstinate orthodoxy has passed.

It is possible for me to commend Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak for their unprecedented coronavirus job retention scheme – arguably the most socialist policy Britain has seen in generations – while also lamenting the inconsistencies and insensitivities of their pandemic response more broadly. It serves nobody to dismiss the utility of an idea based merely on the mouth from whence it originates.

Some would say I’m describing classic Blairite reformation here, but that philosophy was somewhat irresponsible. Others would say I’m depicting the multifaceted, incremental progressivism of Barack Obama, but his was an inimitable toolkit fuelled by cultural context and situational expediency. There are certainly echoes of Clintonism and dollops of Third Way spirit in my worldview, but applying such binary labels to motivating forces is part of the problem, not the solution. We need to forge a new way forward.

Here is a pertinent passage from my recent piece on the upcoming US election:

“If Trump has taught me anything, then, it is that the old political spectrum of left and right is outdated, one-dimensional and unfit for our complex age. We cannot explain or solve an unprecedented force using precedented technology. Yes, the linear axes of economic and interventionist ideology are important, but a more immersive model is needed to separate modern leaders from mere scholars. The traditional political spectrum is a theory machine. It does not account for optics, values, energy, faith, background, skill, acuity, leadership, dexterity, diplomacy, oratory, conviction or aura – essential facets of our current existence.

By eschewing the outmoded schematic of tribalism, we can be freed from the debilitating shackles of obstinate dogma. We can travel beyond the labels of socialist versus conservative, communist against fascist. A deeper, more nuanced political taxonomy allows a socialist to admire a centre-right leader for his presence and conviction without the stifling pang of existential guilt. Only by encouraging such triangulation and bipartisan reasoning can we deconstruct the labyrinthine walls of credenda and begin to unite. Begin to heal. Begin to repair the polarising, abusive discourse that has infected our planet.”

Indeed, I often wonder whether, by calling it socialism at all – democratic or otherwise – we are doomed from the outset by poor optics and unsatisfactory connotations. The classic tropes of socialist opposition – namely, that the blueprint grants impunity to dictators and rewards lazy citizens undeservingly – are so baked into our political discourse that disproving them may be impossible. Some people just do not want to listen, and that is a real challenge to transformative education. 

What is centrism? Defining a new way forward

Accordingly, we may need a new name entirely for this optimistic movement. We may even need to recalibrate the breadth of our focus, using democratic socialism as an instinctive base from which to reach across the aisle and encourage détente. Progressive centrism seems like a fitting umbrella, while Cohesion strikes me as a fantastic name for a fictional party founded in that spirit. Yeah, Cohesion. That sounds like a winner, huh?

Right now, global politics is defined by entrenched polarisation. We live and think in restrictive dichotomies, fostering spontaneous hostility by virtue of where an idea originates rather than by assessing its prompt utility. Of course, polarisation is an incredibly difficult rift to heal, and supposed solutions are regularly shot down. But he who does not try is bound to always fail.

By nature, once inculcated, proponents on either side are instinctively and exclusively opposed to anything their rivals suggest. Therefore, in the post-Trump landscape, whenever it arrives, we face relentless oscillation between extremes – between capitalism and socialism, between concrete walls and breached borders, between trillionaires and food stamps. There will be no end to the righteous overcorrection.

Ultimately, however, the difficulty of a task has no bearing on its importance, nor on its moral correctness. Alas, we must try to heal the wounds of ideological extremism on both sides, or else surrender to a life of boom and bust, feast and famine, tweet and counter-tweet. We may well fail, as Change UK did so spectacularly last year, but there is an ethical duty to pursue brave diplomacy in this hour of gravest need.

What are the pros and cons of centrism? 

It is often said that, in attempting to placate everybody, the centrist satisfies nobody. An avoidance of tribalism is conflated with sitting on the fence, among the most lamentable of political follies, and people therefore condemn centrism as a formula for repeated dissatisfaction.

No sooner do people test-drive centrism, the argument goes, than they are immediately frustrated and propelled back to their comfy, familiar trenches on either flank. This argument is heightened in the digital age of instant gratification, when the slow burn of centrism is so easily dismissed. 

In rebuttal, such feedback illustrates the two-pronged importance of having a strong latitudinarian base and being willing to triangulate – as in, starting from a hub of urbane democratic socialism, but tweaking its implementation to account for, and to adopt, the best parts of opposing ideology.

Think Jeremy Corbyn without the stubborn isolationism. Think Bernie Sanders given a presidential makeover. Think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with a little more strategic subtlety and a denser splash of patriotic diplomacy. Now that would be something special. That would be utopia, in fact. We should campaign hard for that in 2024 and beyond.

To truly advance, we must eschew the classic and debilitating holdups of liberals as generally good and conservatives as generally bad. “The liberals are illiberal in their demand for liberality,” explained Stephen Fry, a fellow progressive. “They are exclusive in their demand for inclusivity. They are homogenous in their demand for heterogeneity. They are in-diverse in their call for diversity.” 

I wholeheartedly concur with Fry’s critical self-analysis, and we must heed such exposure of hypocrisy when building a different mode of contemporary thought. For all the spartan handwringing, true inclusivity and equality does not only reside on the left. There are valuable people – and opinions – on the right, too, and their input must be heard.

In this regard, only centrism can deliver true equality. Left-wing credenda penalises the richest members of society, destroying any incentives for self-improvement. Right-wing theory, meanwhile, is ruthlessly divisive and criminally prejudiced. Only by embracing the middle lane can we thaw the ice of either extreme. Only by supporting centrism can we unite for the common good.

Many detractors say centrists are indecisive. The left is busy winning arguments; the right is busy winning elections; and the centre is busy commentating on it all. However, centrists can make decisions, and they do. Look at Emmanuel Macron in France. Study Justin Trudeau in Canada. Not only do centrists make decisions; they do so in the most democratic way yet devised by our political machinery – by listening to prevailing sentiment and embodying compassionate consensus rather than by shouting for their absolutist voice of smarmy persuasion to be heard as the loudest.

Am I a centrist? Am I a democratic socialist? The future does not care

If we really want to soothe our fraught minds and fix our broken institutions, we must swallow our preconceptions and listen – to each other, to our opponents and, most of all, to the people. We must take a more nuanced approach to a wide tapestry of issues, stepping down from our soapboxes and leaving our ivory towers to pull up a chair and speak about the subjects that drive us. The age of ideology is dead, and we now need practical solutions to clean up the carnage in its wake. 

To me, democratic socialism is a spiritual nucleus from which to debate and govern pragmatically more than it is a dogmatic religion to be worshipped without deviation. Maybe it is not even democratic socialism after all. Maybe that term, and that school of thought, is too narrow for our moment and too prescriptive for our needs. Maybe the bigger tent is left-leaning centrism, or outright progressive cohesion. Maybe it is not even politics. Maybe it is simple human decency, beyond the labels and above the posturing.

Whatever it is, I feel it in my heart. One day, I may run for office – become an MP or a local councillor. It is often said that those who want to change the world must attempt to do so, and there is a mission out there for me. A mission to unite the polarised extremes of political thought and restore selfless honesty to the Westminster zeitgeist. I do not know when, and I do not know where. I do not even know if there is a party that shares my views. But those views will guide me one day, and I will always fight to have them implemented.

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