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13 April 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 8:56am

A new centrist party? It wouldn’t be liberal

There is no supply-side issue for a liberal, anti-Brexit party. The problem is demand.

By Helen Lewis

Wait by the bend in the river long enough, goes the saying, and eventually the bodies of your enemies will float past you. In the wake of the EU referendum, may I suggest an update? Wait by the bend in the river long enough and you’ll miss a dozen new centrist parties being founded by anguished Remainers. Also, you’ll get a nice day out.

On 8 April, the Observer reported that Simon Franks, founder of LoveFilm and a former Labour donor, had secured £50m to fund either community activism or a formal new party. The group would “break the mould of Westminster politics” by drawing on ideas from the left and right of British politics.

If so, that would distinguish Franks’s idea from a run of suggested new movements – barrister Jo Maugham’s Spring the Party, former Tory spin doctor James Chapman’s the Democrats, and Economist writer Jeremy Cliffe’s the Radicals – driven primarily by opposition to Brexit, with social liberalism as an inevitable adjunct. When each of these groups was announced on Twitter, there was polite (if slightly passive-aggressive) muttering from Lib Dem supporters that, well, isn’t that what the Lib Dems are for?

The arguments for a new party usually run as follows. Neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn secured a majority at the last election, suggesting that voters do not see either of them as occupying the moderate centre ground. The Lib Dems are too tainted by their time in coalition to win back their pre-2010 support. Also, Brexit has opened up a new fissure in politics, and May and Corbyn are on the same side, united in agreement that there should not be another referendum and that Britain should end freedom of movement. All that means a chunk of voters are, theoretically, up for grabs.

The arguments against are equally compelling, however, and usually revolve around the harshness of a first-past-the-post electoral system to parties with broad but shallow support. After the SDP broke from Labour, it won nearly eight million votes in the 1983 election but only 23 seats. “Subsequent attempts to break through, such as James Goldsmith’s well-funded Referendum Party in 1997 and Ukip in 2015, also stumbled and quickly fell away,” wrote former YouGov head Peter Kellner on 9 April.

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As opposition to Brexit and social liberalism are intertwined, a liberal, anti-Brexit party would have to compete with Corbyn’s Labour in its current strongholds: cities such as Bristol and swathes of inner London. A party that sold itself more as “none of the above”, meanwhile, would be likely to attract some support across the country, but would find it hard to gain a firm foothold anywhere.

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There are other problems: anyone who went misty-eyed over photos of Tony Blair talking to George Osborne at an education summit in Dubai recently should remember the sizeable gulf between their economic instincts. An anti-Brexit party will collapse if the only things its members can agree on is Brexit.

Then there’s the defection conundrum. How many existing MPs can a new party tempt away? I often return to the 2015 Vice interview given by John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn – then marginalised backbenchers – because it contains their answer to a central question now tormenting the Corbynsceptics: if you hated the leadership so much, why didn’t you leave Labour? “It’s our party, not theirs,” said McDonnell. “We’re not the interlopers. We stand in the centre ground of the Labour Party and our traditions.” And just as he never gave up hope of a left-wing takeover, so the party’s right still dreams of wrestling Labour back again.

As my colleague Stephen Bush has written, there is a quirk in all these discussions. There is no supply-side issue for a liberal, anti-Brexit party: influential men are practically falling over themselves to donate one. The problem is demand. Conversely, there is a space in British politics for an authoritarian party with left-wing economic instincts. “That’s the place where Ukip voters were,” says Paula Surridge, a lecturer in politics at Bristol University. “In 2015, Ukip and Labour voters were in the same place on the (economic) left-right scale. They were just as in favour of nationalisation, for example.” The majority of the left don’t define as liberal – and since 2010, that group has become less likely to vote Labour.

“One of the big missed stories about turnout in 2017, when we focused on the youthquake, is that lots of older left-wing voters didn’t turn out,” Surridge tells me. In 2015 and 2017, the more authoritarian a voter was, the less likely they were to vote. Isn’t Theresa May an authoritarian? “But some of them are also ‘never Conservative’.”

In other words, bash the bankers, promise generous pensioner benefits and pledge better workers’ rights – but also champion tough prison sentences, run a punitive immigration enforcement regime and say that young people today need to respect their elders… and as a political party, you’re in business. 

This article appears in the 11 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war