As the Conservative minority government lurches from one crisis to another, according to a YouGov poll for The Times, the proportion of people who think that Theresa May makes the best prime minister has gone UP. Labour may be slightly ahead in the polls overall, but even after such a string of calamities, it’s pretty much neck and neck.
One interpretation of this could be that the government are doing badly, but the opposition isn’t a credible alternative.
So, inevitably, it seems the issue of creating something else springs to mind, and talk of a new grand party at the centre of politics will surge again. It did during conference season, but not terribly seriously. Another new movement was unleashed to great social media fanfare and not much more. I dare say more will follow.
But here’s the first problem with the centrists. With each new announced plot they become ever more like the far left of the 1980s, with a Heinz 57 of varieties of politically pure programmes. Apparently the original SDP is still a thing; then there’s a grouping called Renew, which stood in Battersea in 2017 and got 7.4% of the vote; there was a brief flurry on Twitter for a party called the Democrats, supposedly with front bench support, which ex-journalist and Special Adviser James Chapman was the front man; then there’s the Radicals, started by accident on Twitter by the Economist writer Jeremy Cliffe.
And aside from new parties there are new movements around which the core unifying ideas of the centre ground coalesce, More United and Open Britain.
As well as the journalists literally starting their own parties, there is also a supportive grounding amongst the commentariat. Chris Deerin on UnHerd helpfully referred back to a piece from a few years ago that aligned our parties into four far more coherent and equally representative groups. A party of the Left, splitting Labour, a Liberal centre ground spanning all three main parties, a mainstream Christian Democrat party and something on the far right that looked a lot like the National Front and UKIP. This was pre-Brexit, and we have been rather lulled into the dichotomy that our society has become divided into the two defining camps of Remainers and Leavers, a fault line that this analysis claims broadly persists. As ever, it’s probably more complicated than that.
As Stephen Bush commented in the New Statesman, all of these projects are avoiding the issue: “(As) yet another upper-middle-class bloke (sets up) … a political party. My suspicion, which may be unfair, is that the real reason why people keep doing this is that they look at the prospects for internal change in the big two and think it is all too difficult. So they set up a new party, not to fix the problem but as a rather public form of therapy.”
Similarly, there are the Labour moderates who seem to be determined to cling on – or fight meeting by meeting, selection by selection, or to put it another way, to stay in the party and campaign to put Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in Downing Street and hope you don’t get purged. Added to this there’s a certain amount of stubborn pride, an attachment to the Labour brand, and a deeper mortal fear that there isn’t a social base for an alternative.
Yet the largest spectre that haunts the British centre is that of Emmanuel Macron. For want of a charismatic leader for the British equivalent, inevitably thoughts turn to the potential of a number of would-be generals in search of an army, be that Nick Clegg, Chuka Umunna or Liz Kendall. The flaws of each, and any alternative, make the task ever harder.
Then there is the challenge of our electoral system. The latest poll shows Labour and Conservative on 42% each, a remarkable hegemony for a two party system that is supposedly so profoundly unloved.
Squeezed between these two are the Liberal Democrats, tainted by coalition, lacking a core vote, but occasionally in receipt of a tactical vote or a local vote. Yet at 100,000 members any centrist, pro-European political party has to accommodate the LibDems and give that movement a shot of purpose, other than just being the alternative.
So, here’s the set of circumstances that would make this work. Persuade a significant group of MPs to resign from their parties, cross the floor to the Liberal Democrats and mount a reverse takeover of their party machinery (including a name change). Their core purpose, their unifying mission would be to resist Brexit, reform immigration, have more devolution. It would favour a regulating state, but a market economy. It would be a break with the tired old politics of discredited Mayism, a disastrous Brexit and save the country from Corbyn.
Waiting for that moment seems to have put off the impetus to act, to wait for one of the would-be leaders to take that first step. But here’s Chris Deerin again on the lessons from the failure of the SDP in the 1980s and what the recent inspirations tell us: “Fail better. If the politicians lack the guts to bring about change, perhaps the answer is to focus on a bottom-up movement. That’s what drove Macron’s success, and Ukip’s, and Corbyn’s, and the extraordinary surge in support for campaign in Scotland. All of them brought new people into politics, tapped into public disillusionment with what already existed, and went on to bend the system to their will. The evidence shows that when voters feel disenfranchised they are willing to give the new a fair hearing.”
It all seems frighteningly simple, but fraught with obstacles. The test of politics is often who is prepared to take a risk and calculate that the downsides are certainly no worse than not trying at all.