Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The problem with a new centre party

It's been three weeks since I promised a blog about the problems faced by any new centrist party. In that time, another new movement has been unleashed to great social media fanfare and not much more. I dare say more will follow. This at least points to an undeniable pent up demand for something as an alternative to this shambles of a zombie Tory administration under Theresa May, and to the hubristic, infantile socialism of the Corbyn project.

But here's the first problem with the centrists. It's become like the far left of the 1980s, with a Heinz 57 of varieties of politically pure programmes: I discovered recently that the SDP is still a thing; there's Renew, which stood in Battersea in 2017 and got 7.4% of the vote; a brief flurry on Twitter for the Democrats, of which ex-journalist and SpAd James Chapman was Rogue One; then there's the Radicals, started by accident by Economist writer Jeremy Cliffe.

And aside from new parties there are new movements around which the core unifying ideas can coalesce, More United and Open Britain, both of which I'm a subscriber to, as well as being the proud owner of a Centrist Dad t-shirt.

Chris Deerin on UnHerd helpfully refers back to a piece from a few years ago that aligned our parties into four far more coherent and equally representative groups. Left, Liberal, Christian Democrat and the National Front or UKIP. This was pre-Brexit, and we have been rather lulled into the false dichotomy that our society has become divided into the two defining camps of Remainers and Leavers, a fault line that this analysis claims broadly persists. As ever, I think it's more complicated than that.

As Stephen Bush commented in the New Statesman, all of these projects are avoiding the issue: "(As) yet another upper-middle-class bloke (sets up) ...  a political party. My suspicion, which may be unfair, is that the real reason why people keep doing this is that they look at the prospects for internal change in the big two and think it is all too difficult. So they set up a new party, not to fix the problem but as a rather public form of therapy."

Similarly, there are the Labour moderates who seem to be determined to cling on - the phrase quoted at me was not to retreat from anti-semites, but to fight (or campaign to put Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in Downing Street and hope you don't get purged). Stubborn pride and fear that there isn't a social base for an alternative seems to be holding them back.

Another spectre that haunts the British centre is that of Emmanuel Macron. For want of a charismatic leader for the British equivalent, inevitably thoughts turn to the potential of a number of generals in search of an army, be that Nick Clegg, Chuka Umunna or Liz Kendall. The flaws of each, and any alternative, make the task ever harder.

Then there is the challenge of our electoral system. The latest poll shows Labour and Conservative on 42% each, a remarkable hegemony for a two party system that is profoundly unloved.

Squeezed between these are the Liberal Democrats, tainted by coalition, lacking a core vote, but occasionally in receipt of a tactical vote or a local vote. At 100,000 members any centrist, pro-European political party has to accommodate the LibDems and give that movement a shot of purpose, other than just being the alternative.

The only set of circumstances that could make this work seem devilishly complex, yet marvellously simple: persuade a significant group of MPs to resign from their parties, cross the floor to the Liberal Democrats and mount a reverse takeover of the party machinery (including a name change) to campaign on a platform of resisting Brexit, reforming immigration, more devolution and a break with the tired old politics of discredited Mayism, a disastrous Brexit and save the country from Corbyn.

Waiting for that moment is maddening, but here's Chris Deerin again on the lessons from the failure of the SDP and the recent inspirations: "Quite: fail better. If the politicians lack the guts to bring about change, perhaps the answer is to focus on a bottom-up movement. That’s what drove Macron’s success, and Ukip’s, and Corbyn’s, and the extraordinary surge in support for campaign in Scotland. All of them brought new people into politics, tapped into public disillusionment with what already existed, and went on to bend the system to their will. The evidence shows that when voters feel disenfranchised they are willing to give the new a fair hearing."

The reason this has taken three weeks to write is because it is such a crux for so many in politics. I wonder how this would play out locally and I start to wince, which is where another problem lies. That's the problem laid out before us, but it won't get any easier by ignoring it.

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