Radicals and Democrats and Renewals, oh my!

As ever, there’s an xkcd for that
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.

7 thoughts on “Radicals and Democrats and Renewals, oh my!”

  1. This reminds me of the early days of the SDP. It was founded by a small group of experienced politicians, but it drew in many newcomers to politics and played on its newness. There was genuine excitement among many of the newcomers that they were creating a new kind of party and a new kind of politics, and they did have some bright ideas, but basically very little was innovative and the party was run in a rather controlled, top-down way compared to the Liberal Party of the time. Where the Liberal Democrats are centralised and top down (which is in more ways than you might think), this is a legacy of the SDP.

    Battered, realistic politicos like us should recognise, as a reality, that many people have been turned off traditional politics, largely by the right-wing media plus the collapse of traditional right-or-wrong allegiances, so anything new and presenting itself as different would appeal to a lot of people provided it got some momentum and a few well-known people. But then? If it achieves power, whether at Westminster or on Brunkledum District Council, how does it cope with conflicts and disappointments? Will its activists stick to it through thick and thin as the much-sneered-at Liberal Democrat local parties have? Or will it evaporate like the Arab Spring – or UKIP?

    There is also the small problem that many of the resilient and experienced activists in the Liberal Democrats and indeed parts of Labour would never turn out for something presented as a centre party.If it’s “Radical”, what is it radical about?

  2. What would be interesting (although, yes, probably still a flash in the pan) would be if any of the disaffected UK MEPs (particularly the two Tories who have had the whip withdrawn, but their may be Labour candidates) joined up with any of these ‘movements’ and gave them more of a platform (OK, a wobbly one) and representation (don’t laugh).

    From a ‘traditional poliitics’ and Euro-centric Toryish perspective (do you remember, people used to be able to say those words without incredulity), there are two biggish Euro-groupings which are centrist or centre-right, which are not represented in the UK, and could give theoretical support and advice — a) the EPP, and b) the EDP wing of ALDE (which, ok, could be an issue for LibDems, but would not be unsurmountable).

    As a Lib Dem, I wouldn’t be inherently in favour of all this, but a plus-point might be the prevention of the LibDems being stretched into the most hypocritical big tent imaginable (but since Rachel Johnson joined, we’re probably near that point already).

    1. Before you point it out, the appeal of such a party would in fact not really be its ‘radical-ness’ it would be its centrism and its partial continuity with elements of Tory thinking that are being rejected by the current lot. (i.e. much more John Major-y ‘steady as she goes’ pseudo-consensualist politics than we’ve seen recently, but maybe retaining some of the Cameronian ‘leap in the dark’ experiments with democracy in a more coherent form than he ever managed?) So may be that’s all too dull to work.

  3. One interpretation of “socially and economically liberal” is right-wing on economics and left-wing on social issues. I.E. Nick Clegg.

    The problem this has is that the big unrepresented voter group are the exact opposite: right-wing on social issues and left-wing on economics.

    Remember the UKIP attempts at being in favour of the welfare state? Someone who actually meant that, and still had all the (mild to moderate) racism and flag-wavy nationalism of UKIP would do pretty well. This is the “white working class” vote that went to Trump. Remember that he was promising impossible things about healthcare (his rhetoric was an attack on Obamacare from the left). It’s like using the NHS as your attack on the EU.

    There are lots of people who like the NHS and like benefits (at least as long as they are going to the right sort of people) and think the rich and businesses should pay more taxes and think that if you work a proper day’s work you should get a proper wage, but also don’t like non-white people (except for Mr. Patel who runs the shop down the road, he’s one of the good ones) and don’t want immigrants or “your filthy foreign muck” as food, they want a good British chicken tikka masala. And they think gay people are OK as long as they don’t wave it in other people’s faces (Mr. Smith’s nice nephew is fine, though, and my wife liked his wedding). Trans is a bit much, though. And they think that hanging should probably come back, and why don’t we have bobbies on the beat any more?

    Note that it’s usually health or pensions, not education, that works here. People who didn’t like (learning at) school don’t want lots of money spent on school; people that did like (learning at) school generally are better educated and usually (as a result) tend to be more socially liberal as well.

    Sure, centre-right economics and centre-left social policy are on the outs at the moment. But they had a hell of a good run from Major to Cameron.

    1. …you’re talking about a UKIP without it’s neo-con wing or it’s year-zero radicalism?

      Or, to put it another way, a British New Zealand First, whose coalition with Labour and (potentially) the Greens, is going to be very interesting to watch…

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