Andrew Adonis should ditch the pessimism and start a centrist party

The former New Labour minister is perfectly placed to lay the foundations for an En Marche! style revolution from the centre. 

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The idea that Britain might need and get a new political party has, within the space of about a year, gone from intriguing possibility to standing joke.

It doesn’t help, of course, that there has been a steady stream of people popping up to launch their own version, none of whom has had any serious public profile or backing from major political players. The Times published a chart this week showing 51 new parties were created last year. There have been 13 already in 2018.

And, as Lucy Fisher writes, the evidence from the last general election, at which the two big parties secured more than 80 per cent of votes cast, suggests there remains strong public support for the head to head that has defined British politics for decades.

There’s more: publicly, at least, there seems little appetite from the kind of politicians who would be needed to give a new centrist movement credibility and profile. Even as Labour and the Tories endure their own rancorous civil wars – with, one might add, the wrong side dominating in both cases – there’s no real indication that either might split. Many wise heads, including those who were involved with the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s, warn there would in any case be little chance of success.

One of those ex-SDPers is Lord Adonis, the former New Labour policy wonk and minister who seems to have found a new lease of life as the hyperactive social media scourge of university vice-chancellors, Chris Grayling and Kamal Ahmed, and as a campaigner for a second Brexit referendum.

If anyone might be expected to get involved in the creation of a new centrist party, it’s Adonis. He is, in many ways, the centrist’s centrist – originator of many of Tony Blair’s most audacious clothes-stealing policies, a “what works” purist. What attraction can Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party hold for him? With a gaping hole in the centre-ground of British politics, why not fill it? With a substantial minority of liberal voters looking for leadership, for somewhere to mark their x with any enthusiasm, for an alternative to the shrieking horror story that is modern-day Westminster, why not provide it?

During a recent discussion at Oxford Uni’s Blavatnik School of Government, which I helped to organise, Adonis explained why he is against any attempt to shatter the mould. I’d like to say he was convincing, but in the end his argument amounted to the same tired tropes advanced by other naysayers: I tried it with the SDP and it was too hard; we’re stuck with what we have and must lump it; let’s just try to get Labour back from the hard left (good luck with that). In short, computer says no.

Adonis’s pessimism was countered by the energy and experience of Guillaume Liegey, who worked on the 2008 Obama campaign and ran the data for Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! A former McKinsey consultant who has his own campaign technology company, Liegey was called in by Macron even before the new party was created, to help figure out how to build something that had a chance of success and was sustainable.

Macron, according to Adonis, is “an extraordinary fluke”. Liegey saw it differently: “You have to put yourself forward if you want to be lucky.”

In a UK political culture where cynicism and negativity have become the dominant operating practices, and where the only positivism to be found is in Boris Johnson’s vaudeville bluffing, Liegey offers some food for thought.

En Marche! Began with the Grande Marche: 300,000 doors were knocked across France by volunteers, each household was asked 40 minutes of questions, and Macron was able to build a “diagnostic” of the country based on what the voters told him. This info was then used as a source for his policy programme and positioning. Joining En Marche! was made free, and today the organisation has 400,000 members compared to the Front National’s 40,000.

Macron deliberately sought to unite centre-left and centre-right by going after the populists directly. By focusing on the hard-right Marine Le Pen and the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon as his enemies, he opened up a large space in the centre which only he appeared able to fill. The En Marche! Movement was built on volunteers rather than just a media campaign. When the party swept to power, many found themselves elected to Congress. “Human contact is still the best way of changing minds,” says Liegey. Technology is an enabler rather than an alternative to the traditional way of doing things.

There was much more, but the line that stayed with me was that “you have to put yourself forward if you want to be lucky”.

For all the naysaying, there are several untested arguments for a new party. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the centre must, one way or another, be represented. For all the votes cast last year for Labour and the Tories, voters may not behave in the same way if presented with different options (let’s set the Lib Dems aside as having little more than junk value). Meanwhile, 2018 is not 1981, and this Britain is not that Britain: our lives and our expectations are different now, the political tensions fresh, the demographics changed, the world of communication transformed. The possibility of the new is all around us at all times – so why not in politics?

And then there’s the SDP’s success, rather than its failure. New Labour emerged in its intellectual wake to become an extraordinary election-winning machine and a government that was given the space to modernise the country. A new centrist party might fail to displace the big two, but it would probably ensure that John McDonnell and Seumas Milne never get their grubby hands on the levers of power, and it would probably drag the debate back from the centre. It’s worth doing for those reasons alone. But who knows what might happen?

The thing is, the money’s there. There are obvious candidates with profile on the centre-right: Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan, Justine Greening and others. And on the centre-left there is a phalanx of disillusioned backbenchers and talented local politicians who are being ground under the wheels of Momentum. What’s the point of letting that happen?

You have to put yourself forward if you want to be lucky. The centre needs some heroes. Andrew Adonis should be one of them.

Chris Deerin is a consultant with the Blavatnik School of Government.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).