The political centre is now a punching bag, but maybe it can regain its strength at Davos

To restore trust in sensible governance, this year's World Economic Forum needs to get away from 'business as usual'

Security forces operate as supporters of Jair Bolsonaro demonstrate against Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brasilia. Reuters
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Next week, I will be in Davos for the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in search of a re-emerging middle ground for politics. It feels as if we are nearing the end of a cycle of created chaos, inflicted on us all by those seeking to take advantage of societal divisions. Perhaps it is because we have had enough real chaos – from the Covid-19 pandemic to the extreme weather events caused by climate change – that the appetite to maintain the lack of consensus has finally been satiated.

For too long we have squandered opportunity for prosperity, inclusivity and progress and allowed armed conflict to spread for the sake of not giving ground to those we disagree with.

There is evidence everywhere that this stance is softening.

For example, seven years after the Brexit vote, the atmosphere between UK and European diplomats is far less frosty.

When UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged in his first big speech of the year to Britons “if you work hard and play by the rules you should be rewarded”, he echoed former US president Bill Clinton and a more stable era.

Mr Sunak must still contend with both rising industrial action and antisocial behaviour more reminiscent of the 1970s than the 1990s and will not be in Davos next week. His opposite number, Labour leader Keir Starmer, is expected to be, as he attempts to show that the left can once again embrace business as a friend.

Also demonstrating a willingness to evolve and following a landmark year of effective public disruption, the environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion said it plans to quit its campaign in the UK in an effort to “prioritise attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks”.

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Progress is being made to strengthen the middle ground

The move may be an acknowledgement that public opinion is turning away from more extreme acts, even if the issues behind them still matter to people a great deal.

The fractious field of play may well be diminishing a little at last.

For example, the sight of far-right Republicans in the US House of Representatives dragging out the process to elect a new speaker and undermining Kevin McCarthy, left former president Donald Trump reportedly telling them to “knock it off”.

Although the reality is that we are still a long way off from unity.

Progress is being made, however, to strengthen the middle ground. In recent years, the World Economic Forum has worked to broaden its own natural territory to include more voices from the margins including those representing refugees and climate activists.

This pivot, including a vision for globalisation remade as stakeholder capitalism, has come from the fact that few wanted leadership from the centre any longer following the financial crisis. The Forum, too, has taken much criticism for having done little to avert the decline of living standards and wealth of the majority as the rich got richer.

It is understandable then that, politically at least, the middle became the punching bag that the right and left used to galvanise their bases to put them in power.

A case in point: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, widely tipped to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, last week urged his supporters to fight against the “threats to freedom” in the form of “entrenched bureaucrats in DC, jet-setters in Davos and corporations wielding public power".

Trust in democratic institutions still remains in short supply. In Brazil, for instance, angry mobs rampaged through Congress, the Supreme Court and presidential offices after Jair Bolsonaro lost the presidential election to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of WEF, said on Tuesday he had a “good recipe” to restore trust. “Only personal interaction creates the necessary level of trust, which we need so much in our fragmented and fractured world,” he said.

Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, practises his speech before a virtual media briefing in Cologny, Switzerland. EPA

“One of the root causes of this fragmentation is actually a lack of co-operation. This, in turn, increases fragmentation in society, and leads even more to short-term and self-serving policymaking. It's a truly vicious circle,” he said.

According to Prof Schwab, decision makers are overwhelmed by the complexity of the issues they face.

“We are all stuck in a crisis mindset that leads to short-term decision making that may have long-term unintended damaging consequences. Davos should help to shift that mindset,” he said.

The meeting “shall try to make sure certain leaders do not remain trapped in this crisis mindset and develop a longer term, constructive perspective, and to shape the future in a more sustainable, more inclusive, and more resilient way".

It certainly should not be a time for "business as usual" thinking.

Perhaps, it is time younger people were allowed to be a catalyst for a new paradigm for the political centre ground.

According to Chris Davis, director of global sustainability and activism at The Body Shop, a retailer: “Young people are energetic, thoughtful, and positive about the future – so it’s important their voices are seen and heard in parliaments around the world every day."

Hundreds of young leaders will be present in Davos, including from academia, business, government and humanitarian sectors, and will be involved in putting together solutions for the future.

And I hope to find that they are out front and centre when it comes to it.

Published: January 13, 2023, 5:00 AM