When everybody from Conservative Anna Soubry to Vince Cable, through to those on the Progress wing of Labour is talking about the need for a new centrist party, it is logical to assume someone has a plan to form one.
Sometimes Paul Mason manages to stumble towards the truth. When I wrote about the problems in creating a new centre party a few weeks ago, I was aware that it was being discussed by various people, and while those thoughts and discussions may have been somewhat muted by the election, they’ve not completely come to an end.
One thing above all has been adding the fuel to the centrist flame: the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French Presidential election. It’s played out like a centrist fairy tale as the young technocrat minister spots an opportunity, forms his own political movement and then capitalises on the flaws of the tired old parties of left and right to rise above the extremes and become President in the first ever election he’s contested. And it is a remarkable achievement, for no matter how much luck Macron had as the Socialists and Republicans imploded, he still had to show enough political nous to actually win the election. It’s just not one that holds too many lessons for those hoping to emulate him in the UK.
For a start, French politics is intensely personalised around candidates at an order of magnitude beyond anything we see in Britain. It’s tempting to look at the Gaullists and Socialists as being roughly comparable to our Conservatives and Labour Party, but both are not really parties as we understand them, more convenient labels for the cats-in-a-sack factional infighting that characterises much of French politics. En Marche! (now known as La Republique En Marche – REM) was different in that it was separate from the Gaullist and Socialist movements, but not in that it was an organisation heavily focused on its leader (and whether EM! was targeted at the Socialist primary or becoming a separate movement was an open question around its foundation). Because so much of the power in the country is held by a directly-elected President, French politics encourages this level of personalisation. Even formal party structures have tended to follow the needs to individuals, with parties forming and dissolving with much more rapidity than any other Western democracy. The Socialist Party was the oldest organisation in this year’s elections and they may well deal it a death blow before it’s even reached fifty years old.
It’s this personalisation and factionalisation, coupled with the power of the Presidency, that will likely earn Macron a majority in the Assembly elections next month. Even if REM doesn’t win a majority in the elections themselves, his appointment of Edouard Philippe as Prime Minister has driven a wedge into the Gaullists, pulling those close to Alain Juppé into alignment with him. Macron is benefiting from fissures and divisions already present in French politics, and an understanding amidst politicians and the public that factions will move in and out of different party groupings as they see fit in their quest for power. Macron has surprised by showing a centrist can win in France, but he’s done it by exploiting the way the French system works in ways that can’t be simply transposed to Britain.
For a start, politics in Britain isn’t based around the individual the same way it is in France. As the relative sizes of ‘Theresa May’ and ‘Conservatives’ continue their inverse relationship in election branding, we may talk about an increasingly presidential style in our politics, but that’s firmly based on the control of existing party structures, not supplanting them and remaking and/or fundamentally rebranding the party every time there’s a new leader. (Momentum is somewhat of a departure from this, but it still came about as an offshoot of a traditional leadership campaign, rather than predating it)
There’s simply no way for someone to ‘do a Macron’ in Britain as the processes are the opposite way around. In France, you win the Presidency and then try to win a majority in the legislature, whereas in Britain you can’t become Prime Minister until you’ve won that majority. There’s no shortcut to power, it has to be the long slog though the trenches of winning a majority in Parliament, and to do that you need to build a real organisation that can find and campaign for candidates, rather than just creating a campaign movement to get one person elected.
Macron also had (and will have, in the Assembly election) an advantage thanks to the French electoral system. The French two-round system is a massive boon for centrists who are popular enough to get into the second round as in any head-to-head contest with a non-centrist, they can expect to hoover up the votes from the side not represented in the runoff. If voter distribution follows a vaguely normal pattern with a centre, than a centrist is likely to win any two-way contest, but the trick is being able to make it a two-way contest in the first place. The problem in Britain is that our system doesn’t create that situation (hence why Liberal Democrats play up the ‘two horse race’ in constituencies to try and artificially create it) and any new centrist party is going to find that winning from the centre in one jump is harder than doing it in two.
“Ah,” comes the objection, “but people like the idea of a centrist party with centrist ideals, so they’d vote for it in large enough numbers to win.” The problem with that is that people like a lot of things in the abstract, especially when they’re being asked what’s little more than ‘would you like nice things or nasty things?’. People’s views on most things political are effectively a nonattitude, especially when they’re dealing with hypotheticals. There might be lots of people out there who think a centre party is a good idea, but each of them has a different idea in their head of what it’s like, and aren’t guaranteed to support each others’ vision of it. How many people who say they like the Party Of Guaranteed Nice Things For All will change their minds on it when they discover its leading lights are Tony Blair, George Osborne and Nick Clegg, for instance?
The circumstances may seem right for a realignment of British politics if things go the way a lot of people expect in the election, and all the nebulous plans floating around before it might gain some solidity. However, it may be that all this talk of realignment in the middle of the election campaign may go the same way as the millions of words that were written about potential coalition deals and arrangements in 2015. If something is to happen, though, it needs to rely a lot more on the practical details of just how one would create and build a new party in the British political system, not just assuming you can copy-and-paste something from France to here.