Westminster politics is a mess and the MPs of UK Labour and the Conservatives are at odds with the views of their grassroots. Many MPs on the Conservative pro-Brexit right are rebelling against Theresa May but until the Brexit deal is done are not willing to move against her. Many on the Conservative left are at odds with the hardline Brexiteers and won’t tolerate a Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or David Davis leadership.
Labour are arguably in a worse position. The better than predicted 2017 election result was delivered by Theresa May’s awful campaign and not really by Jeremy Corbyn, but it bought Corbyn time. Time to win over the 172 Labour MPs who had previously passed a motion of no confidence in Corbyn’s leadership, but he isn’t doing much with it and Corbyn-mania is busted flush.
YouGov who have been recently showing a Labour lead of one or two points is now suggesting a 38% to 38% tie. Think about that: the worst Conservative Prime Minister of all time, massive political infighting within the government, Brexit mismanagement and a plethora of ministerial resignations and Labour can’t even maintain a tiny poll lead.
Labour’s anti-Semitism row is obviously a gift to the mainstream media but entirely predictable. In this column three years ago during Corbyn’s initial leadership challenge I wrote: “If Corbyn wins, Labour party infighting and unbridled press character assassination will combine with the weight of corporate London to sink Labour in the UK polls”.[Read more: Labour reverting to 1983 could lead to Scottish independence ]
So we have 185 pro-EU Tories with at least 15 in open rebellion against the influence of the hard Brexit minority and 172 Labour rebels who passed a motion of no-confidence in Corbyn in 2016. We also have 80 or so Tory MPs in constituencies that voted Remain, voters who won’t relent and MP that supports anything other than a Brexit that at least includes single market access.
The last time this dynamic existed was when Michael Foot and Margaret Thatcher were opponents and those extremes led to the formation of a third party, the Social Democratic Party (the SDP) that aimed to win the centre ground.
It has become a genuine possibility that history will repeat itself.
The SDP formed in 1981 and entered an electoral pact with the Liberal Party, (the SDP Liberal Alliance). The new party had momentum and Thatcher’s Government was unpopular until Argentina invaded the Falklands. Winning that conflict allowed Thatcher to call and win an early election in 1983. The Alliance still won 25.4% of the vote compared to Labour’s 27.6%. However, given the spread of the SDP Alliance support (they came second in hundreds of constituencies) they only returned 23 Alliance (MPs) compared to Labour’s 209.
More recently, Ukip tilted at the windmills, in 2015 securing 13% of the vote but returned only one MP (a Conservative switcher). They did gain nearly 500 Councillors (none in Scotland) and 24 MEPs. So although they were miles from power they did have enough resources to mount a campaign that changed the narrative on the EU, but didn’t breach the Westminster system.
So the conditions are right, just as they were in the 1980s, for a new centrist party to emerge and crucially Brexit adds an extra dimension, a problem that represents a clear danger to prosperity, a problem crying out for a new party with an answer.
In the EU referendum 39% of Tory voters, 65% of Labour voters and 68% of LibDem supporters voted Remain so there is a huge swathe of the electorate that would naturally gravitate to a credible third party. Polls by ComRes and BMG confirm this, suggesting 42% of voters in England would consider voting for such a party.
Such a bold move would need five characteristics to break the two party system:
Former Tory donor and founder of Love Film, Simon Franks, is rumoured to have a group with £50 million to back such a move.
2) Big names
That could include some Tories as well as the Blairite Labour MPs and flailing Liberals (let’s face it, any half decent dating site would match them instantly).
A group with some of the following: Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry, Chuka Umunna, Lord Adonis, Stephen Hammond, Angela Eagle, Stephen Kinnock, Liz Kendall, Vince Cable… would be credible. With 70 or so Labour rebels, 15 Tories and the LibDems they could form a block with nearly 100 MPs, enough to force an election.
Update 07/07/18: iNews reports several of those listed above are looking to take back control of Labour for the centralists (they will fail) and that Vince Cable had attended meetings on setting up a new party.
3) A policy that solves Brexit
There isn’t one, but offering customs union, and single market membership and freedom of movement might be a compromise you could build a winning electoral mandate around.
4) A promise to reinvent politics
That may include a Macron style promise to involve more non-political experts, localise decision making and widen democracy with more people being engaged in the decision making process.
5) Enough MPs to have a backbone and the strength of their convictions to risk their seat at the Westminster feeding trough
And that is why it might not happen. If everything went well, in a new General Election the new party would need 25% of the vote to be relevant and maybe hold the balance of power, 30% to be the opposition and 35-40% to win.
I am not wishing for this, but it’s an interesting scenario. It’s possibly unlikely unless there is a no deal Brexit and a Tory hardliner deposes May, but it’s still a scenario worth considering in planning for a second Independence referendum. Such a party would gain no foothold in Scotland – the SNP have a death-grip on the centrist space, but it would take Labour out of the game and leave a second independence referendum a straight fight between the Yes movement, its political partners the SNP and Greens, and Ruth Davidson whose Scottish Tories just couldn’t hold the line for the Union the way Labour did in 2014.
So Westminster’s vote on Brexit in Jan/Feb 2019 could create a pivotal moment – an opportunity for a new party to form, providing rebel MPs with an ability to say: “I have to put my nations wellbeing before my party, and seek a more palatable deal with the EU than Labour or Conservatives can offer”.