Another week and another discussion about another centrist party. Renew and The Centrist Party are just two of the latest concoctions. Groundhog Day or history in the making? A political inevitability or a 'third-way' fantasy?
The recent spike has been driven by reports of a new campaign group which has access of up to £50 million in funding. But beyond money, what does it take to make a new political party that would work, and why is this happening now? As you may have guessed from our previous blog on this subject, we’ve got a bucket of cold water ready and we’re not afraid to use it…
Where’s the demand?
Let’s start by asking where the demand comes from both within and outside politics.
31% of people didn’t vote in the 2017 election and only 19% (according to the latest IPSOS Mori poll) say they trust politicians. So faith in mainstream political parties is on the decline, but does that indicate desire for 'more of the same' or are the majority disenchanted with the entire political system?
Is the 48% of disappointed Remain voters more fertile territory? Many of these describe feeling a new political awakening and are looking to engage in politics more as a result of the Brexit vote. But the evidence is far from conclusive. The most overtly pro-European party, the Liberal Democrats failed to gain traction at the last General Election despite offering an ‘Exit from Brexit.’ So we would caution would-be leaders of a new party against putting all their eggs into the anti-Brexit basket.
So what other evidence of demand for a new party is there? A survey conducted during the 2017 General Election by NatCen suggests there is potential grassroots opportunity. It reported 56% of people feel no political party represents them, which - in theory - means they could be interested in something new. But amongst this majority there will be many different elements, who want different things.
Despite these caveats and for argument’s sake however, let’s suggest there is a particular group of voters. Voters who have supported Labour or the Conservatives, but have done so holding their nose. Voters uncomfortable with Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’ rhetoric, but perplexed by the Corbyn project and who - for one reason or another - cannot bring themselves to vote for the Lib Dems. Voters who would largely identify themselves as centrist, internationalist, optimistic yet pragmatic. Voters who perhaps would have backed Blair in 1997 and in 2001 and Cameron in 2010.
Appeal to these voters and the new party may just be in business.
And who will lead these people?
To be successful, a movement needs leaders.
Both Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party and Phil Collins, former adviser to Tony Blair, have rightly questioned whether a new party led by political names from the past could succeed. Collins argued “If a new party looks and sounds like an attempt to get the old band back together it will be stillborn”.
En Marche had Macron - the political insider turned outsider. The Republicans had an outsider in Trump, although his rebellious credentials were more spin than substance given his money and connections. Who is there in the UK? We cannot tell you this known-unknown. The as yet undiscovered charismatic political outsider who will lead this new party is yet to be found.
So does a new centrist moment need leading current figures from across the political sphere? You don’t have to search hard or attend too many dinners (often with the aid of free alcohol) to find MPs disapproving of their current leaderships. Are these MPs really looking for a new tribe? In their collective misery, could they be persuaded to join a viable new party?
“Moderate” Labour MPs are the most obviously unhappy, having publicly and privately bemoaned their leadership’s left turn. For political nerds and historians this brings about memories of the early ‘80s. Unhappy with Labour’s direction under Michael Foot, the “gang of four” who were big political beasts in their day, split away to form the Social Democrat Party (SDP). Expecting to sweep all before them, they came second in 313 constituencies in the 1983 General Election. Unable to top that, they merged with the Liberal party, creating the Liberal Democrats in 1988. In Labour circles, even today, this story is an apocryphal tale of the inevitable misery that shall be heaped upon traitors to the cause.
Not all is rosy in the Tory camp either. Many MPs of the Cameron and Osborne vintage are far from convinced by the direction of the party under Theresa May. These MPs are even more concerned about the potential of a Jacob Rees-Mogg takeover. Yet, their current status as the party of government and their ability to control who will be on the ballot in any future Tory leadership race, makes a split from a Tory perspective far less likely.
So back to that bucket of cold water
Talk about ‘something happening’ has not been in short supply. Former political heavyweights such as David Miliband, Tony Blair, Sir Nick Clegg and Sir John Major have all hinted at a major change to come. Yet, no-one seems to know what that change is and what the trigger will be. The most likely trigger (if there is one) could be the moment when Momentum, the grassroots pro-Corbyn Labour group, goes up a gear with its efforts to complete the hard-left takeover – by de-selecting sitting Labour MPs who are too moderate for their tastes.
Momentum will probably push their luck, but the barriers to de-selection are high and large-scale success for them is likely to elude them. Therefore, most moderate Labour MPs will largely be safe in their seats from internal critics, riding out the Corbyn storm whilst looking for opportunities to undermine his leadership, knowing it will take at least one more general election before significant change happens.
A Tory party run by Jacob Rees-Mogg? Well, stranger things have happened. But, probably not on this occasion. There are too many sensible Tory MPs who will ensure Mr Rees-Mogg’s path to the leadership is blocked.
So is it going to happen? Are we on the precipice of a major new political party? We beg to differ.
No matter how much some of the liberal moneyed elite in London may want this to happen: history, tribalism, realism and spinelessness make the odds of a successful ‘centrist’ party with political clout extremely long. But then, we could always be wrong, three years ago few would have predicted electoral success for Brexit, Trump and Corbyn.