Centrists are Partly to Blame for Extremism

Anne Marie Waters on an anti-Islam march

Anne Marie Waters, an unashamed racist and Islamophobe, was rejected by the UKIP membership for being too extreme.

Anne Marie Waters was also shortlisted to represent Labour in Brighton Pavilion for the 2015 General Election.

I will let that sink in for a moment.

Waters’ brief 15 minutes in the spotlight after announcing her bid to be the next UKIP leader revealed some unsettling — albeit expected — things about the right-wing party. With support declining since the vote to leave the EU, UKIP needed to look elsewhere to figure out how to realign itself in the post-referendum era. For a while, it seemed as though Waters’ anti-Islam message would win. Although she did not, coming second with over a fifth of the votes was not a roundhouse defeat, confirming there is a strong undercurrent of Islamophobia in the party.

None of this is surprising. What should cause more concern is that Waters was initially a member of the Labour party, repeatedly made attempts to become a candidate for the party and nearly succeeded in 2013. All this is indicative of the toxic environment which New Labour (a party of so-called moderates) enables. Centrism, while making comments about creating ‘nice’ politics, incubates extremists.

“Not being racist is not the same as challenging racism.”

The problem with “moderates” and “centrists” is that they cast their nets too wide. For people only concerned with winning elections, and importantly not about what they will seek to do once they have won, it seems a good strategy. In practice, it breeds an environment in which people with extreme views are accepted into the fold with almost no challenge. Centrism creates a spectrum and extremist right-wing views become just another point along this, validating racism, sexism and other bigoted views as just another opinion with which to disagree.

Make no mistake, this is happening across the Western world. UKIP and similar parties before it exist because the line between disagreeable but understandable opinion and downright unacceptable chauvinism has blurred. In America, there is little difference between Trump and previous Republican candidates. In France, Le Pen is the result of a system which demonises other cultures by normalising legislation like the burka ban.

The Anne Marie Waters example is no different. She was welcomed into Labour as an activist and was able to stand repeatedly for selection, despite having views that were directly in contrast with values the party purports to support. The fact she was not chosen offers no defence. She did not change her opinions between her attempts to become a candidate and came closest on her final bid for Brighton Pavilion, having made it onto the shortlist containing just one other person.

Her views on Muslims and what it means to be a patriot are abhorrent. But not everyone agrees. Meanwhile, centrists line up to defend people’s right to express such horrendous opinions which too quickly becomes indistinguishable from accepting them as par for the course in modern society. Then surprise, surprise, the inevitable happens — a white supremacist mows down a protester, an MP gets murdered, and attacks on mosques rise. “How could this happen?!” and “#notinmyname” pervades Twitter, shouted by centrists as they fail to recognise that not being a racist is not the same as challenging racism.

But how have parties not been able to undertake such simple reflection? Blinded as they are by their desire to be in Government, they do not challenge these views for fear of losing votes. The vague idea that one can only make positive change when in powers persists, which leads to needing to keep as many people on side as possible prior to that.

“Parties should be open about their ideology and not hide behind rhetoric.”

Only, when these parties do eventually make it into power, they become more concerned with staying in power and opinion polls. Look at New Labour. Having convinced its base in 1997 that appealing to a broader audience would secure victory so they could implement the change the country needed, the Labour Government proceeded to become a neoliberal champion of free market rule, utterly deserting its left-wing base. These people left and did not return — not even in 2015 when, after half a decade of Conservative austerity enabled by the Lib Dems (incidentally also a party of “centrists”), the progressive part of the population still rejected it in favour of other left-wing options or not casting a vote at all.

The Conservatives are equally guilty. The situation the UK is currently in is a direct result of it buckling to the right — on the EU, on immigration and on broader equality issues.

Parties cannot appeal to extremists and expect to continue running as normal. They either end up hamstrung in Government or cast out because they have lost touch with their natural allies. It is impossible in politics to be all things to all people. Parties should be open about their ideology and not hide behind rhetoric to circumvents dealing with prejudice and discrimination.

I am not seeking ideological purity, but every party should have a line. What will it promise in order to win votes? If the answer becomes “anything”, it should seriously question its priorities and motivations. By giving up the ability to challenge prejudice, centrists and moderates are complicit in the growth of extremist views. This is true both within their parties (as with Anne Marie Waters) and outwith them.

Extremist views will always remain extreme, but the centre will shift according to the edges. Allowing anti-Islamic messages to manifest even in the fringes of politics without addressing it simply means the centre will swing rightwards to neutralise these views.

If centrists truly want to create a new, friendlier politics, they ought to respond strongly and with confidence to bigotry. A fair and equal society cannot be built by anyone willing to accept extremism.

Image via Independent

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