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  2. Brexit
9 May 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 3:10pm

What failure to agree a Remain candidate in Peterborough means for Change UK

By Patrick Maguire

Pro-Remain parties will not stand aside for an independent candidate in next month’s Peterborough by-election, Change UK have revealed. In a statement this evening, party convenor Gavin Shuker reveals talks with the Liberal Democrats and Greens ended in failure.

“Change UK, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats and Renew have been working hard these last few days on a joint approach to the Peterborough by-election, recognising that we need to put the country’s interests first, securing a People’s Vote and remaining in the European Union.

“We all agreed to stand down any candidates we might field in favour of a genuinely independent, pro-People’s Vote and pro-Remain candidate who had expressed an interest and intention to stand.

“However, senior Labour figures, including senior figures campaigning for a People’s Vote, made it clear that they would strenuously disrupt the campaign and obstruct an independent Candidate, driven by fears that it would harm their party in Peterborough.” 

The result as far as the contest to succeed Fiona Onasanya is concerned is that the Liberal Democrats and Greens will both appear on the ballot paper, while Change will not: instead, they will concentrate their efforts on the European elections. Their frustration is clear. But were the negotiations doomed to failure all along? 

Both of Change’s putative partners agree that the party entered talks in good faith – which is not the case if you canvass opinion on their approach to the nationwide poll the three will fight separately on 23 May – and all three parties were, to one degree or another, willing to stand aside. 

As news of the discussions emerged yesterday, however, Change’s approach generated much consternation in the Green and Liberal Democrat camps: a premature tweet from Anna Soubry, sent with neither the knowledge nor authorisation or the other parties, presented the move as not only a fait accompli, but one over which Change had sole ownership. 

Soubry’s announcement depleted goodwill on the other side of the negotiating table, already in short supply. But it wasn’t fatal: instead Change blame Labour-aligned members of the People’s Vote campaign, namely former spinners Tom Baldwin and Alastair Campbell, for exerting pressure on their preferred candidate, second referendum campaigner Femi Oluwole, who pulled out before he could be formally nominated.

Both that outcome and the difficult journey to it underline the structural challenges Change face. As much as they would like to – and often talk as if they do – they neither lead nor own the campaign for a second referendum, which cuts across established party lines. Any attempt by Change to appropriate it as an electoral platform will run up against rivals with a bigger and better campaign infrastructure and greater political influence within the broader Remain movement, as it has here. 

For those members of the People’s Vote campaign whose primary allegiance to the cause, rather than any individual party, like Oluwole, maintaining good relations with Labour will always be a greater priority than fighting them at the ballot box, no matter how many other parties are willing to cohere under an ecumenical Remain banner. He told ITV’s Robert Peston as much this evening, and also revealed his concerns that his candidacy could split the Labour vote to such an extent that it facilitated the election of the Brexit Party’s first MP. He denied he had been pressured to drop out but the fact remains that without a Labour whip, his cause is a deeper shade of doomed – and being seen to contribute to the loss of a plum marginal isn’t a recipe for engineering goodwill. 

Failing to agree a joint candidate was no skin off the noses of the Liberal Democrats or Greens, both of whom already had candidates selected – and in the former case, leaflets printed. But it left Change with an unenviable choice: forgo a potential chance to build electoral momentum, or run and face humiliation.

The lessons from the history of other insurgent centre parties, namely the SDP and the Liberal Democrats, is that by-elections are essential means of demonstrating a new entity’s worth as a going concern or viable challenger, both locally and nationally. But it is also true that a bad result can not only embarrass but kill a movement. David Owen’s continuing SDP disbanded more or less immediately after winning a desultory 0.4 per cent – less than the Monster Raving Loonies – in the second Bootle by-election of 1990.

A joint candidacy would have allowed Change to participate without confronting that existential risk. That bigger vested interests have scuppered them this time underlines just how difficult it could be for them to muscle into contention under first past the post

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