There used to be a distinct summer ‘silly season’ in British politics. Unfortunately, global warming and the catastrophic meltdown of most rational sense about politics in this country means we’re now living in a permanent silly season where ideas that would normally be laughed off are now taken utterly seriously. So, we have this:
Blair has publicly stressed that the institute will not become a new centrist political party. But in private, close allies admit that the idea of a new party emerging around the time of the next British general election is being seriously considered.
With Theresa May’s Conservative Party resolute in its hard Brexit stance, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn declining to offer resistance to the triggering of Article 50 to take Britain out of the EU, and the Lib Dems a minuscule parliamentary force with just nine MPs, the question of whether a new party is needed to oppose Brexit has become a favorite topic in Westminster.
While the Lib Dems publicly eschew such talk, Farron was contacted last summer by a close ally of former Tory Chancellor George Osborne, who suggested the creation of a centrist party called “The Democrats,” the New Statesman reported. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem former deputy prime minister, met with Blair in November, ahead of the creation of his new institute in March.
Like so many ideas associated with Blair, this one too has its roots abroad, this time in the remarkable and rapid ascent of Emmanuel Macron to frontrunner in the French Presidential election. In the past year, he’s jumped from the Socialist Party, set up his own movement (En Marche! – or, as Google Translate likes to call it, Walk!) and become very appealing to a population that’s become very tired of the old parties of left and right. (By the way, if he gets into power and disappoints his supporters with his education funding policies, I’ve already copyrighted ‘Nick Cloeuf’)
Of course, if Macron wasn’t there to be held up as the shining example, then the mantle of Great Centrist Role Model would have remained with Canada’s Justin Trudeau who took the Canadian Liberals from third place into majority government in 2015. Like Macron, Trudeau was an outsider if you squint hard enough – the son of a former Prime Minister, he’d eschewed a political career until a few years ago – but unlike him, had the advantage of becoming leader of a party that, while it was at a low ebb, had provided more Canadian Prime Ministers and governments than any other.
Somehow, these two pieces of electoral fortune outside of the UK have translated into a belief that what the British people are crying out for is a new centre party led by Tony Blair and George Osborne. Like a rushed undergrad essay, it’s making a big leap to some rather bold and unsupported conclusions, but it is based on some solid ground.
First, there’s the fact that the voters of Britain do tend to describe themselves as being generally quite centrist. The graph to the right here (from the 2015 British Election Study) shows how voters position themselves on a scale from 0 (left) to 10 (right), showing a marked peak in the centre and fewer and fewer voters the further you get from it. Second, there’s evidence to show that in Britain when the two main parties move away from the ideological centre, there’s an increase in support for the centre (see Nagel and Wlezien, 2010).
Obviously, people talking about setting up new centre parties is of great personal and academic interest to me, but the actual prospect of Blair, Osborne et al doing it doesn’t fill me with any great hopes for its success (even if they’re eminence grises, kept well away from the public spotlight). It feels to me as though they (and others) have spotted that there’s a gap in the electoral market and decided that it’s necessary to fill it without asking why no one’s come along to fill it already.
The first problem is that the term ‘centre party’ covers a wide range of different parties and proponents of one don’t seem to have any clue about which of them their party would be. We can probably assume it won’t be one of the old Scandinavian Centre parties which tied old agrarian parties in which the urban bourgeoisie, but are they looking at following the model of the Christian Democrat parties that sought to occupy the centre between extremes of right and left, or the various post-dictatorship Democratic Centre parties (like the one David Sanders advocated last year) that sought to rebuild the democratic foundations of a country, or are they looking towards the model of catch-all liberal parties that try to combine both right- and left-liberalism in the same party? They’re all commonly referred to as centre parties, but they have a very different approach to politics and come from different political circumstances. It’s all well and good talking about the need for a centre party, but what is that party actually going to stand for?
Second, there’s the problem that just saying ‘we’re going to create a new political party’ is just a tiny part of the process. One can set up a nice shiny office somewhere in London, pay someone to design you a nice logo, but political parties need people to function, especially in Britain. Not only do you need to recruit a membership, you need to find an activist base within that membership who’ll go and do all the donkey work of populating the institutions that make up a political party. The key driver of the RoadTrip 2015 campaign that’s got the Tories under such heavy investigation at the moment was the problem of getting actual feet on the ground to do campaigning in key constituencies. It’s all well and good having lots of people to make interesting graphs in your HQ, but who’s going to be calling members and supporters in Easthampton West to find out who’ll agree to do polling station telling on election day? The idea that a party might somehow ’emerge’ shortly before the next election ignores everything that’s involved with creating an actually functioning political party.
Third, there’s what you might call the SDP problem (and I deserve some sort of congratulations for going a thousand words into this without mentioning them): the British electoral system makes it ridiculously hard for a new party to break through into Parliament. There’s a catch-22 problem for all new parties: you’re going to need well over 20%, possibly 30% of the national vote share to make a significant breakthrough into Parliament, but unless you’ve made that breakthrough into Parliament, people aren’t going to think you’re credible enough to be worth voting for to get you that share of the vote that gives you a breakthrough. Otherwise you’ll be following the example of the Alliance in the 80s (and UKIP in 2015) in doing moderately well in a lot of seats, but winning next to none of them. As I’ve said before, being an equidistant centre party is good for winning votes and terrible at winning seats.
That’s three questions anyone wanting to set up a new centre party has to answer, just as a preliminary: What does your proposed party stand for? How are you going to build an actual party, not just an HQ? How are you going to win Parliamentary seats and not just accumulate wasted votes?
Once they’ve got the answers to those, then we can move on to the more important ones, like how are they going to actually work in the current British party system. But we’ll save the advanced questions until we’ve got answers to the basic ones.