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10 August 2017

The problem with a new party – neither Tory left nor Labour right wants to play

Even before you get to the question of how well a new party would do, the appetite is not there among MPs. 

By Stephen Bush

There is not a lot that worries Team Corbyn these days, but the prospect of a new party of the centre is one. They don’t think this party would do well enough to overtake Labour, let alone win an election in its own right, but they fear that it would take a large enough chunk out of the Labour vote to deprive them of victory at the next election.

That private fear has turned into public debate after a series of tweets by James Chapman, a former aide to George Osborne, called for MPs of all parties who know that Brexit will be a disaster to “unite”, in a new party if necessary, to prevent it from taking place.

The debate is slightly bizarre, because ultimately, the appetite is not there among the group that really matters: Labour MPs on that party’s right and Conservative MPs on that party’s left. To take the former first: for reasons of both strategy and sentiment, most Corbynsceptic Labour MPs are opposed to any breakaway. On a strategic level, the success of Corbyn at the election shows, they believe, that the space on the left for any new party is limited in the extreme. On an emotional level, a combination of love and hatred keeps MPs in the tent: an emotional attachment to Labour, its history, its leaders and its tradition, and an aversion to letting the party fall into the hands of the leadership permanently.

On the Conservative left, there is more willingness to talk about a new party, but no more appetite to make the jump. (One thing that frustrates Labour’s pro-single market MPs is a willingness on the Tory side to, as one parliamentarian puts it, “to write pieces on Red Box or give sad interviews but not actually commit to anything”, be that voting with them on pro-European issues or even remaining part of Open Britain, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain’s single market membership.)

It’s worth noting, too, that Conservative MPs who might discuss a new party know that they are unlikely to have their bluff called by Labour MPs. It’s fairly safe for Anna Soubry to say it’s “time to get on with” forming a new party – she wouldn’t even stay in Open Britain the moment the idea of working to keep pro-Remain MPs in the House of Commons was floated. 

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There is undoubtedly a chunk of the Labour Party membership and ex-membership that would be willing activists in a new, pro-Remain party. But without leaders, they don’t really have anywhere to go. That could change if there are wholescale deselections of sitting Labour MPs, but for a variety of reasons, that is unlikely to happen.  

There are then, of course, further questions about how well any new party would actually do. But all that is secondary: because the appetite to create one, let alone vote for one, is very small. 

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