How is Change UK set to fare in its first electoral test since its foundation? Its aim is to use the referendum result to reconfigure British politics: to become the natural party of the 48 per cent. Yet if the polls are to be believed, it is on course to get between 5 to 7 per cent of the vote, depending on the pollster.
This is, at first glance, an astonishingly bad result. But if you think about it for a little longer, this would actually be a remarkably – I would go so far as to say unbelievably – good set of results for Change.
By any objective standard, Change has had a truly disastrous introduction to political life, both due to forces inside and outside of its control.
Let’s first take the factors outside its control. Change’s political calculations were based on the idea that the Liberal Democrats were a finished force, a founding thesis that has had a hole blown in it by the local elections. The party now has to fight an election after it has been demonstrated that there is life in the United Kingdom’s third party yet, and with the local elections having served as free advert for voting Liberal Democrat in the European elections.
Also, from a policy perspective, there is very little to separate the Liberal Democrat manifesto from the Change one, other than that the Change manifesto has a less ambitious target on carbonisation. There certainly are voters who both want to stay in the European Union and to build the third runway at Heathrow, but there aren’t enough of them who want it sufficiently badly to trade the certain prospect of electing MEPs with a Liberal Democrat vote for the highly uncertain prospect of electing MEPs with a Change one.
So if your aim is to “send a message” to the big parties over Brexit, or to elect MEPs who will defend free movement, seek a zero-carbon target for the European Union, then you are visibly better served by a vote for the Liberal Democrats or the Green Party.
Another problem outside of its control is that dealing with the Electoral Commission has been a source of several headaches that have further damaged Change’s hopes.
But then added to these problems outside of Change UK’s control are those of its own doing. The party has badly bungled every opportunity it has been handed. The difficulty for any new party without a pre-existing membership to select its candidates is that it has no ground army of volunteers to get voters out, and no organic way to build excitement behind its candidates.
But the advantage of having the party’s leaders select all of the candidates themselves is they properly vet them in a way that an internal election does not, then use the candidates to send a message about Change, and to secure many days of successive coverage.
All of the political parties have rules to prevent personalised campaigning against other candidates, which makes sense as they all have to pull together afterwards. This means that it is very difficult to let members know that an opposing party is selecting a vocally social conservative in the most socially liberal marginal constituency in the country, or picking a candidate described in legal testimony by a member of the shadow cabinet as an “obsessive” whose claims “cannot be true”, to take two real world examples of difficulties that the big two parties have faced.
In the event of an internal election to select your candidates, you also can’t slowly release the names of the winning candidates to build coverage, as that would be cruel and unusual to everybody involved and somthing of a liberty to the members who selected them.
Change UK didn’t face these problems. But it took none of the advantages of controlling its list: several of its candidates were found to have made statements that were highly embarrassing, and the party chose to announce them in one big bang, rather than dribbling them out over a matter of days. Most importantly, it did so in a way that meant it only got one day’s worth of headlines.
Change has shown no sign of understanding how different the political challenge for minor parties is – as one Liberal Democrat MP once described, by saying “Labour has to fight for fair coverage, we have to fight for any coverage” – right down to naming their manifesto the headline-repellent “Charter to Remain”, while the Liberal Democrats went for the colourful and eye-catching “Bollocks to Brexit”.
Its freepost leaflet arrived on voters’ doormats after postal votes did, meaning many voters would have already returned said votes. The leaflet itself does nothing to introduce voters to Change UK – most not only couldn’t pick the 11 Change MPs out of a line-up, but also don’t know anything about what Change is or why they should vote for it over the various eccentrics running as independents – and because it has next-to-no infrastructure, it cannot compete with the Liberal Democrats, Greens or Labour on the doorstep.
This is an election in which most people have not heard from Change, do not know who Change’s MPs are or what they stand for, and those who have heard about Change have largely not heard good things. This is also an election in which if you want to elect MEPs to send a message to the big two you are opposed to Brexit then you are obviously, demonstrably and objectively better off voting for the Liberal Democrats than Change.
The only compelling argument to vote Change is to avert its early extinction: essentially to use your vote as a charitable donation or a down payment on the future, rather than to shape politics in the here and now.
If Change can, after the launch it has had, secure anything close to 5 per cent of the vote, that is a remarkable endorsement of their future viability, a sign that if it can cut out the basic incompetence, learn how challenger parties succeed and repair its reputation in the bubble, it has a real prospect of genuine success. If it can do it while the Liberal Democrats are around the 15 per cent mark – which would equal their best ever showing since the switch to proportinal representation at a European election – then it will indicate that Change might also be able to bring over the voters that the Liberal Democrats cannot.
Or: it is a sign that the problem of oversampling the politically engaged, which contributed to the polling failure of 2015 and the exaggeration of Ukip’s vote in the run-up to the 2014 local elections hasn’t gone away, and that we should treat the findings of these European polls with a healthy dose of scepticism until they are confirmed at an election.