For the past couple of years, the media has been endlessly excited about the idea of a realignment of British politics. Articles keep on appearing pontificating on how Brexit is the new political divide and speculating about how a new moderate party might emerge and capture all the votes available now that both the Conservative and Labour parties have decided to march off to their respective extremes — just as the Liberal Democrats have failed to do.
It was no surprise, therefore, that this excitement reached fever pitch on Monday when seven Labour MPs announced that they had quit the party and would now be sitting as a group of independents.
There have been plenty of comparisons to the SDP/Labour split in the 1980s, some of which are relevant but most not. The SDP was launched as a distinct political party with a Social Democratic agenda and set of policies. While this centre-left alignment appealed to disaffected Labour voters, not many Tories were convinced and the SDP ended up being accused of merely splitting the Labour vote and keeping the Tories in power. Unfairly, in my view — the likelihood of the very left wing Labour Party led by Michael Foot actually winning an election was close to zero, regardless of anything the SDP did or didn’t do.
The Independent Group, on the other hand, is being very careful to not describe themselves as a political party and their statement is the sort of blandly aspirational stuff that is difficult for anyone to disagree with. I am assuming that this vagueness is a deliberate attempt to encourage moderate Conservatives to join them before they start committing to actual policies. It’s also possible, of course, that their action is driven more by frustration with the many failures of Labour under Corbyn and they don’t really know where they want to go from here.
On the face of it, a centrist party that is able to attract moderate voters from both sides of the divide should be able to make an electoral impact. It worked for Macron and, in the UK, polling suggests that around 40% of voters think that neither of the two main parties represent them and a new party would be a good idea. The acid test, of course, will be when this not-yet-a-party starts hammering out actual policy positions and asking voters to support an economically and socially liberal agenda.
This is where we hit on the problem with that word, “Centrist”, because it can mean different things to different people. Nick Barlow touched on this back in September and Flip Chart Rick has expanded on the point more recently. Both posts are worth reading but the shorter version is as follows.
Most people don’t spend too much time thinking about politics. Most people who don’t think much about politics would describe themselves as centrist, is asked. When asked about specific policies, however, most people’s opinions are not opinions that the commentariat would describe as centrist.
If any issue is big enough to break the sclerotic state of the UK’s electoral system, it’s Brexit. If there’s a time to try, it’s now when both of the main parties are embracing their extremes and leaving many people disenfranchised. But it’s not enough for the Independents to tell us what they are against or to remain vague and expect to pick up votes by default.
If they want to succeed as a party, The Independent Group will need to take a leaf from the Macron playbook and not only develop a positive, outward looking agenda that addresses actual concerns and about which people can start to feel enthusiastic. They will then need to go out and sell this vision and to convince people that their ideas are worth trying in and of themselves, and without reference to what the other parties may be doing or saying.
Britain’s first past the post electoral system makes it difficult for new parties to gain any traction, but not impossible. The Independent Group has a challenging future ahead of them, but I hope that they do manage to make a difference — the country needs it.