It’s getting very hard to go on social media these days without bumping into someone declaring that they’re going to be creating their own new centrist political party and inviting everyone to join. In this era of Warholian politics, everyone gets to be a party leader for fifteen minutes, and last night it was Economist writer Jeremy Cliffe describing his Macronic dreams in public and declaring a new ‘Radicals UK’ movement. Previous incarnations of this idea include ‘the Democrats‘, ‘Renew‘, multinational street parties in Maidenhead, and the idea that George Osborne will come riding to the rescue sometime around 2022.
Now, I’m not going to repeat the various blog posts and articles I’ve already written about why forming a new centre party isn’t the guaranteed route to political glory some people seem to think it is, but I do want to focus on one particular aspect of all these proposals. Tom King talks about it here, and we could phrase this problem as ‘you want to create a socially liberal, anti-Brexit, forward looking party, yet the Liberal Democrats and the Greens already exist. Why not just join one of them?’
The usual response when asked that is to say something on the lines of ‘because reasons‘ and declarations that this new party is going to be different in some vaguely unspecified way. I think it actually reveals a fundamental flaw in the makeup of these new movements that show why they won’t amount to much more than a short term flash in the pan, even before we get to the massive problems they’d face because of the nature of the British political system and the structure of the British electorate (the ‘socially and economically liberal’ people they want to represent are the smallest segment of British voters and massively over-represented within the commentariat).
The problem I think the ‘we have to have something new’ attitude reveals is an antipathy to dealing with the actual realities of politics, especially centrist politics, which requires the ability to compromise and build wide coalitions of support if you’re going to achieve your long-term goals. Compromise and coalition isn’t just something that happens between parties, it’s something that has to happen within parties unless they’re going to remain hopelessly small or ridiculously centralised and authoritarian. Divisions, disagreements and factions are an inevitable part of creating any political movement that has more than a handful of members. The sort of people declaring that they want to join a new movement/party because they have some disagreements with the existing ones are the sort of people who are going to become very disillusioned very quickly when it turns out that not everyone in their bold new movement agrees with them on everything.
It’s very easy for someone to read what they want into a vague set of principles – consider that even in existing parties, there are people who are a long way away from what you might regard as that party’s core beliefs – and aside from being anti-Brexit these new movements are saying little more than ‘we’re for good things and against bad things’. Jeremy Cliffe talks of his Radicals UK being ‘pro-tech and social liberal‘ but what do those phrases mean to people. One person might see ‘pro-tech’ as full speed ahead to the technofuturist dream, fracking all the way because technology will save us, while another might see it as ‘yes, we must invest more in sustainable technology and renewable energy’ while ‘social liberal’ can mean anything from a vague Cameronian middle-class niceness to full-on Georgist land value taxation fuelling massive social changes. Somewhere along the line if you want to be a proper political party, you’ve got to broker a compromise between these people who’ve all joined your group because they think it means they won’t have to compromise.
If you want to try and create a political party for people who don’t like the realities of doing politics, that’s fine, but at some point you’re going to have to face up to the problems and contradictions that causes for you. If you’re going to build a movement based on people who aren’t willing to compromise, don’t be surprised when they won’t compromise with each other.