Change UK is now the “Remain alliance”. But will the party win MEPs?

The Independent Group and its celebrity candidates will pitch itself as the party of a second referendum at the European Parliament elections. 

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Can anyone stop Nigel Farage’s march to victory in next month’s European Parliament elections? That, more than anything else, was the question that the artists formerly known as the Independent Group sought to answer at the launch of their campaign for the 23 May poll in Bristol this morning. 

TIG – now formally constituted as Change UK – is selling itself as the antidote. The group make a virtue of their internal divisions, which, on this morning’s evidence, extends to their name.

Interim leader Heidi Allen still insists on the old Tigger moniker, while spokesperson Chuka Umunna prefers the new branding. Anna Soubry, meanwhile, went belt-and-braces: “As people hear more about Change UK, the Independent Group, the Tiggers, they’ll know exactly what we are.”

That very chewy claim to clarity raised eyebrows in a room that had heard the same party go by no fewer than four separate names within the space of an hour, but more important than any dissonance between Change UK’s MPs and its MEP candidates was the one label they all used consistently: “the Remain alliance.”

Farage’s new outfit has claimed the Brexit mantle as its own. Change UK is attempting to do the same for Remain in a market they acknowledge is crowded by the Liberal Democrats, Greens, and Scottish and Welsh nationalists. “Our aim,” said Chris Leslie, who is running its campaign, “is to make sure the public have the choice to clearly and unequivocally endorse a ‘People’s Vote’”.

To that end, they will run a full slate in every constituency in Great Britain. Big names include Gavin Esler, formerly of Newsnight, Stephen Dorrell, the former Conservative health secretary, and Rachel Johnson, the broadcaster and sister of Boris and Jo. Elsewhere are former candidates and elected representatives from all three major parties and political neophytes. How much headway can they expect to make? 

A persistent criticism of Change UK is that it is averse to the sort of cooperation that, under the D’Hondt system of regional lists used to elect Britain’s MEPs, could lessen the chances of the Remain vote splitting and thus diminishing its parliamentary returns. 

That, as its new self-description attests, is a criticism they are alive to but robustly reject. Leslie, not a little witheringly, described the commitment of “the smaller ones” to a second referendum as “great”, but added: “if those parties at this point in time were the answer to fixing Britain’s broken politics, I think we would know by now.” 

Deliberate or not, there are echoes here with David Owen’s assessment of what the SDP got wrong: that it had too quickly, through formalised cooperation with the Liberals, cast itself as a centrist accoutrement to the existing political parties, rather than an attempt to supplant Labour as Britain’s primary party of progressive politics. 

For now, Change UK’s sights are set a little lower than that lofty aim – not to mention its own medium-term ambition of cementing itself as a permanent fixture of the British electoral landscape. The problem apparent from their single-figure polling figures is that, despite its novelty and insurgency, it is some distance from winning dominance of a crowded – and all together relatively small – market for voters who will accept nothing less than the UK remaining in the EU. 

The question it has yet to conclusively or convincingly answer is why it, and not the Liberal Democrats or Greens, deserves that dominance. If it can’t manage it by 23 May, then very few – if any – of the throng of candidates who took to the stage in Bristol this morning will end up as MEPs.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.