Times are tough: children defy their parents, and everyone is setting up a new centrist party. Rachel Sylvester mooted David Miliband as a possible leader of one in the Times, while Simon Franks, the LoveFilm founder, is reported to have put up £50m of funding for one. Elsewhere, Renew, who have actually taken the vital step of registering as a political party and standing candidates, are running in a handful of seats in the coming local elections.
There are a couple of problems with a new centrist party, the first is that for it to have any chance of working in the short term, you need a critical mass of Labour and/or Conservative MPs to split off and join it, and they don’t want to play. That means that setting up a new party becomes a long-term project, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But setting up a new party “to stop Brexit” is a bit like dealing with the fact your train home has been cancelled by funding the development of faster-than-light-travel: while your project may have long-term benefits, it is not going to fix your essential problem.
Another, which I’ve written on before, is that, fundamentally, the gap in British politics isn’t on the centre-left or even the centre, but the right: there is no party for people who are socially conservative but (mildly) economically redistributive, which is far and away the biggest unserved group in politics.
However, I don’t want to talk about those problems but instead about the idea – prevalent at Westminster, including in the office of the Labour leader – that a new party primarily damages Labour.
There is no prediction safer than one which is near-certain not to be tested, but my instinct is actually it is the Conservatives who have something to fear from a new party.
Let’s say that this new party, as is widely assumed, is anti-Brexit, economically and socially liberal, and is exactly equidistant between the two parties as far as tax-and-spend goes, which seems likely given the possible make-up. Who might such a party appeal to?
Labour do have things to worry about as far as their 2017 coalition goes: in my view, they should be more worried than they are that around a third of their 2017 vote is not keen on Jeremy Corbyn. It’s not certain that in a close election, this group will stay with Labour: they might stay home or vote for someone else, and either is potentially disastrous for that party’s hopes in 2022. Labour’s central priority should be getting more people to see Corbyn as a Prime Minister-in-waiting.
But the other thing about this group is that they are, on the whole, Leavers not Remainers. So it is hard to see how this new, anti-Brexit party becomes the default second home for these votes. In fact it feels likely to me that the non-voting or even the Conservatives are likely a more congenial home.
Crucially, this group is a problem for Labour regardless of their opposition. They are one of the known unknowns of the next contest. It’s quite a different situation with the Conservatives.
The Conservatives have a similar problem: around 15 per cent of their 2017 vote is not keen on Theresa May. That 15 per cent is overwhelmingly pro-Remain but is not, as of yet, voting Labour. Given the awfulness of the 2017 campaign and the state of Brexit, it’s not unreasonable to believe this group will never vote Labour in its current form.
They are, however, a far more natural audience for a new centrist party – and indeed wherever explicit “Stop Brexit” candidates stood in 2017 they did better in areas of Tory strength than Labour ones – which is why, in the unlikely event that there is a viable new party, it is the Conservatives who have more to fear than Labour in my view.