Ethan Shone 19th February 2019
Seven MPs resigned from the Labour party yesterday, citing concerns over the leadership, Brexit and the ongoing antisemitism row within the party.
It’s long been a question of when, not if, a number of Labour MPs would split from the party and set up “a new centrist party” but it’s unclear at this stage whether these MPs are the only ones who’ll leave or just the first to do so.
No doubt a lot of people are fed up with our political system as it stands, as effectively a two-horse race. The role of the third party has been greatly diminished in the last few years (unless you count the DUP, the Northern Irish political party with 10 MPs which currently props up the Conservative government) and many point to our First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system as an insurmountable obstacle for any new party seeking to achieve electoral dominance or even relevance. But the issue of Brexit has redefined the terms of political debate and the old battle lines no longer seem to quite fit divisions within the country. Many see this fundamental shifting of the political landscape as creating fertile ground for a new political party to be formed. The breakaway Labour faction will hope that they can take advantage of this climate.
But they are far from the only ones. Rumours have swirled for months of different new parties, and just last week it was reported that a meeting had taken place at the London offices of JK Rowling’s agent, Neil Blair, about the formation of a new pro-European, centrist political party (Lib Dems, anyone?). Those present included former staffers of Tony Blair, Countdown’s Rachel Riley and actress Tracey Ann Oberman. Though little details about the party have emerged as yet, it was reported that an attendee’s suggestion that Rowling should lead the party was met with enthusiastic applause.
The question is though, outside of after-hours meetings between celebs and ex-political heavyweights, would any new party be able to win over the electorate in a significant way, and what would that party need to look like in order to achieve this?
The Independent Group
The Independent Group is not technically a political party as yet but an independent grouping of former Labour MPs. There are only seven as it stands but for anyone in any doubt about the influence that a small number of MPs can wield given the current parliamentary makeup, allow me to point out the DUP.
It seems highly likely these MPs will wait a few months following this very public exit from the Labour party before announcing a new party. This, as well as offering the opportunity for two separate press conferences and therefore two days worth of headlines, gives the MPs a few months to plan their next move, see how people react to them, as well as offering more time to try and bring in others to the fold. There’s precedent for this, the split has drawn comparisons to events in 1981, which saw four leading figures in the Labour Party, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams, leave the party over disagreements on Europe and the direction of the party under left-wing leader, Michael Foot. The MPs, who came to be known as The Gang of Four, split from the party in January and a few months later formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP) which would almost match Labour in the popular vote at the next election but fall drastically short of challenging them in Parliament, having won just six seats.
Aside from the seven who were present at today’s press conference, it seems likely that some other former Labour MPs now sitting as independents, such as Frank Field, will align themselves with this grouping. There’s further speculation as to whether the grouping will allow ex-Labour MPs who are currently suspended over sexual harassment allegations, namely Ivan Lewis and John Woodcock, to sit with them.
The real question will be what these MPs ultimately want to achieve. Do they have ambitions to become a genuine contender for government, to oppose Brexit, or simply to stop a Corbyn-led Labour party taking government?
Though there were attempts today by members of The Independent Group to downplay similarities between their move and that of the Gang of Four in ’81, some within the group clearly think lessons can be learned from that episode. Dick Taverne, a founding member of the SDP who won a by-election following his resignation, revealed in an interview with the New Statesman that he has had many conversations with Chris Leslie about the split.
Yesterday’s press conference offered little insight into the policy platform that these MPs will unite under, and though they are broadly speaking from the same ideological wing of the Labour party, deciding on the exact policy platform will no doubt cause some problems down the line. The Independent Group’s website lists a set of fairly wishy-washy values, but they will at some point have to contend with the reality that much of the 2017 Labour manifesto policies are extremely popular. To ape too many of these would go against the ideologies of some of the splitters, but to go against them would put the group at odds with a majority of the electorate. We saw a first glimpse of this potential problem in the hours following the press conference, when Angela Smith, one of the splitters who favours privatised ownership of water companies, was challenged on this highly unpopular policy on Politics Live.
Aside from issues of electoral viability under FPTP, this new grouping will live or die depending on whether they actually seek to offer a genuine alternative to the status quo, with a coherent set of policies to match, or if the only thing which truly unites them is opposition to the current Labour leadership.
The Brexit Party
The Brexit Party, formed this year and headed by former UKIP parliamentary candidate and economic advisor Catherine Blaiklock, will look to contest a relatively large number of seats in the 2019 European Elections if the UK has not left the EU by that time, which looks increasingly likely. Political anoraks might remember Blaiklock as the UKIP candidate who solemnly brandished a framed photo of her husband, who is black, at hustings in 2017, in an effort to dispel the idea that UKIP is a racist party. Buzzfeed News also revealed a number of blog posts and articles written by Blaiklock in which she makes several Islamaphobic and racist remarks. Blaiklock maintains that her comments have been taken out of context.
Though the vast majority of new-party-talk focuses on the apparent need for a new centre-left party, this largely ignores the reality that it is voters who lean more to the right who feel most underrepresented by the current crop of mainstream parties.
One man who is, for his faults, acutely aware of this feeling of discontent among right-leaning voters is Nigel Farage. It’s likely that his decision first to distance himself from the increasingly extremist UKIP, and now to align himself with a new, Brexit-focused party, is done with this in mind. Farage has thrown his considerable political weight behind the new Brexit Party, which grabbed headlines over the weekend by claiming to have signed up about 100,000 members already. This seems to be a reference not to actual paid-up membership, but to interest, registered through the party’s website, at no cost. It seems highly unlikely that everyone who has done so — the author included — will become a paid-up member given the chance.
Like or absolutely fucking detest him, Farage is undoubtedly a big name in British politics; according to polling by YouGov he is among the five most popular politicians in the country and is only topped in name recognition by the prime minister, leader of the opposition and Boris Johnson. And if a certain demographic does start to feel like Brexit is being unduly frustrated, there are few people better positioned to harness that discontent than Farage.
It’s not clear what, if anything, this Brexit Party would stand for other than, well, Brexit, but if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that a right-wing party focusing on one major issue can certainly influence the political climate, if not achieve meaningful electoral success.
United For Change
Simon Franks, founder of LoveFilm and a tech entrepreneur, has been in the process of launching his new political party for some time now but details about it’s policy direction and staffing are almost non-existent. Franks, a former Labour donor, has, it’s claimed, been planning this new party since late 2016 at least.
The party will likely launch after Brexit and, unlike the other new parties, United For Change will not have a strong position either way in this area but will look to transcend the Brexit debate and focus instead on long-term problem policy areas, like education.
Writing in the New Statesman, co-founder of United For Change and headteacher of Westminster Academy, Saima Rana lays out her reasoning behind launching a new party. With significant experience in the education sector, she rightly identifies a number of problems with how policy is formed, many of which are applicable in other areas, such as short-sightedness, political posturing and disorder of policy caused by high turnover of ministers. Her argument that education policy should be independent of politics will likely resonate with parents and teachers across the country.
Given the potential for an over-saturation of the so-called political centre, is there chance that The Independent Group will merge with Franks’s party? It seems unlikely first of all as it would simply make too much sense, seeing as they are seemingly going after the same voter. But with some considerable egos to be balanced across both groups, and plenty of rhetoric from Franks indicating that his preference would be for a non-politician to lead the party, this seems unlikely. It might seem silly to set up a political party with hopes of serving a demographic not currently represented by any political party if another party already exists which serves that demographic — but again, there’s this party called the Lib Dems, so what’s another centrist party among friends?
If party infighting is one of the things thought to be turning voters off to the existing parties, United For Change might not offer much of an alternative in this regard. Already, pre-launch, they have suffered a number of internal splits and seen a number of high profile figures leave, like Credit Suisse banker and co-founder of the party, Adam Knight. Knight left the fold in late 2018 to start his own party, citing disagreements over strategy, but has since remembered the Lib Dems exist and now believes they are the best vehicle for change.
The Time Party
Founded and led by Robert Kimbell, whose Twitter handle, inexplicably, is @redhotsquirrel, The Time Party launched in Brighton in 2018.
It has so far not enjoyed the same level of media coverage as others on this list, likely because there are no high-profile members and they don’t seem to have done anything all that ridiculous — again, so far. Kimbell himself is a former management consultant, with a slightly UKIP-y background, who has achieved a minor level of Twitter fame as a cheerleader for Brexit, posting stories which show the positive side of Brexit and talking up the UK’s free trade prospects once we leave the EU.
Time’s website does boast an extensive list of policy stances and some relatively detailed proposals, though it would certainly seem their main focus is on achieving what Kimbell describes as a “clean Brexit” described below.
Other policy proposals include a flat tax on personal income, scaling back of international aid, a sizeable reduction in both VAT and corporation tax, a referendum on legalising cannabis for recreational purposes and almost doubling the size of UK Border Force. A mixed bag, it seems fair to say.
Though they may lack the star-power of Blaiklock and Farage’s Brexit Party, and the media connections of the centrist multitude, based on policy alone the Time Party would, in theory, tick a fair few boxes that no major party currently does. And surely that’s the whole point of a new party? Who knows, maybe @redhotsquirel and co are about to really tap into something that the electorate is desperately crying out for, or maybe there’s a reason nobody else is proposing *checks notes* a government-backed manufacturer of taxis and minibuses?
Main image credit: Mike Gimelfarb
Ethan Shone 19th February 2019