A century of domination of our political system by the Conservative and Labour parties could be ending. But the splintering of Change UK and Chuka Ummuna’s defection to the Lib Dems means that the movement for a new centre party to replace them is dead. The various initiatives to create one including Change UK, United for Change and Renew, which I was involved with, were built on the ideas that the Lib Dems aren’t viable and that a new centre party could replicate En Marche’s success in France. With the Lib Dems beating both major parties in the European elections and Change UK crashing out these ideas are dead.
That is a good thing. It is no coincidence that all three attempts at a new centre party suffered crippling splits: start-up parties are intensely vulnerable to internal crises, much more so than start-up companies. It is all too easy to just blame the personalities involved. Lacking a stable membership base and trusted constitution, leadership teams can be crippled by a lack of internal legitimacy and character assassination at the first sign of setback. Nigel Farage astutely solved this for the Brexit Party by avoiding a membership structure and deriving the internal legitimacy for his leadership by his personal credibility as a national media figure, ruthless planning and rapid electoral success. But the issue remains; perhaps the biggest risk for the Brexit Party is that its phalanx of MEPs start demanding more of a voice on policy and internal decisions and the power struggles unleash.
The Lib Dems do have the stable membership base and internal democracy that can only come with being a long-established party. This makes them far more resilient than a new party start-up, but far less agile. Since their near wipe-out in the 2015 general election and subsequent failure to harness the Remain vote in 2017, the Lib Dem brand has appeared too tainted to have a chance. Even Nick Clegg, the former Lib Dem leader, was advising people to join the Conservative and Labour parties instead to advocate for the centre from the inside.
The two years of parliamentary chaos since have finally broken voter allegiance to the main parties. This has given the Brexit Party and a new centre party a chance. Change UK’s MPs showed great courage in seizing this chance by splitting from Labour and the Conservatives. Unfortunately, the party blew it with a failure to maximise media coverage and a catastrophic decision not to cooperate with the other Remain parties in the European elections. It was punished by voters for its perceived arrogance and the Lib Dems benefited instead. Ironically by damaging the credibility of an alternative, Change UK has performed a service in rejuvenating the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems, no longer tainted, are a much more robust vehicle for centre ground success than a start-up. Their challenge is whether they can prove agile enough to adapt to the opportunity that they now have for major success.
So what does this mean for British politics? Our politics is paralysed because today’s dividing lines cut across the two major parties, not between them. The country now divides crudely between open and closed, globalists and nationalist, expressed by identifying more with either Leave or Remain than between left and right. These identities are likely to persist long after Brexit itself. Now that neither main party can represent their voters and are under assault from two sides, they are starting to capsize. The Lib Dems and the Brexit Party need each other. If the Brexit Party can hold itself together internally, I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of Nigel Farage in government. It is difficult to see how even Boris Johnson could out Brexit the Brexit Party. A Brexit-Conservative Party hybrid is more likely. In the unlikely event the Conservatives select Rory Stewart he could credibly reclaim the centre ground and annihilate Labour. But the opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to replace Labour as the official opposition or more is very real.
Chris Coghlan writes about new centre ground politics and tweets as @_chris_coghlan