Show Hide image

The European elections and Britain’s political earthquake

What the struggles of Change UK – and the success of Nigel Farage’s insurgent Brexit Party – reveal about the limits of reshaping our politics in this time of upheaval.

 

When the Gang of Seven – the disaffected former Labour MPs who formed the Independent Group on 18 February – resolved to break away from their old party, they knew that supporters would need somewhere to register their allegiance and to send donations.

Their solution? A holding company, registered at Companies House, in the name of the Luton South MP Gavin Shuker. Shuker was the obvious choice for two reasons. He was among the first to decide that the Labour Party was irrevocably lost and was instrumental in persuading others to join him. Second, he lacked the media profile of some of his fellow defectors. A company founded in his name was less likely to be spotted by the media than one registered by Chuka Umunna or Chris Leslie.

Shuker loves space, and that inspired the name he chose: Gemini, Nasa’s call sign for its second set of spaceflight missions. Gemini was followed by Apollo, the successful missions that put a man on the Moon. The political equivalent of the lunar landing was, in Shuker’s imaginings, the successful realignment of British politics, creating a new centrist force that could defeat both Labour and the Conservatives.

The reality of the journey taken by the Independent Group – now called Change UK – has been less inspiring. Instead of the Apollo missions, it feels more like the fate of Laika, the small dog sent into space by the Soviet Union in 1957, who died some 1,200 miles above the Earth.

Change UK’s miseries are a combination of the external and the self-inflicted. The timing of its breakaway was driven by two things: the determination of Luciana Berger, the MP for Liverpool Wavertree, to quit the Labour Party before she went on maternity leave, and a shared belief that the United Kingdom would leave the European Union on 29 March. It hoped to use Remainer anger to shake up our politics. That was the thinking behind a series of pro-Remain amendments tabled to various Brexit votes, which enabled it to attack Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn for failing to prevent Brexit.

The analysis of Change UK’s founders was not too different from that of Nigel Farage, the former Ukip leader who has established the Brexit Party. Its remarkable rise in the opinion polls has spooked both the major parties, but the Conservatives in particular. Both Farage and the founders of Change UK believed that the divide between Leave and Remain supporters could be exploited to rewire British politics.

The thesis is well-founded: polls consistently show that people tend to feel a greater connection to, and a stronger sense of loyalty towards, their referendum vote than their party preference. That makes a lot of sense. The choice of one political party or another is constrained by the limits of first-past-the-post; outside marginal constituencies, most people’s votes matter relatively little in shaping the final election result. But in the 2016 referendum, every vote had the same worth. That is fertile territory for a new party to exploit.

Yet while Change UK and the Brexit Party share an analysis, they have divergent interests. For Change UK, its best hope of success would have been if Brexit had happened, facilitated at least in part by Labour. Instead, Britain’s newest pro-European party started life with a victory from which it may never recover: Theresa May announced two delays to Brexit and a fresh set of elections to the European Parliament.

The European elections use the proportional D’Hondt electoral system in England, Scotland and Wales. That presents an opportunity and a threat to newborn political parties. A proportional system removes the barriers to new entrants presented by first-past-the-post, where the small size of constituencies makes it hard to break through, and where voters are reluctant to experiment with an unknown quantity.

At the same time, fighting a national election only a few weeks into a new party’s lifespan is a big test. It is one that Change UK has largely failed.

****

The Independent Group was born after more than half a year of covert plotting. It then had to become a fully fledged party, Change UK, in a matter of weeks. The hurdles to doing that were formidable – so much so that the seven MPs decided they were impossible to clear in secret. They also guessed that wrangling with the Electoral Commission over everything from logos to funding sources would be a lengthy and painful process.

For many of Change UK’s founders, that fear has been realised. One of their number complained to me at the time that they had been rushed into revealing a logo and a name and were given unclear guidance about whether they would be able to contest the European elections at all. That said, all the original seven – plus the three Conservative defectors and the Labour MP Joan Ryan, who joined later – expected that they would. One of their MPs described it as a “challenge that had to be met”.

The necessary speed encouraged blunders. The party received more than 2,000 applications to become candidates for its European campaign, with the shortlisting conducted by all 11 Change UK MPs. Several candidates, it turned out, had controversial past opinions or histories of eyebrow-raising tweets, which blighted the party for days after its unveiling. And by announcing all its candidates at once, Change UK denied itself the days of coverage that a drip-feed approach would have generated. As it was, few of its candidates – who include a former deputy prime minister of Poland, the father of the pop singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor, the former Conservative health secretary Stephen Dorrell, and the ex-BBC journalist Gavin Esler – attracted much attention.

By contrast, Nigel Farage essentially picked his list of candidates himself, consulting a small circle of trusted advisers. He released the names day by day to maximise his share of the spotlight. That is a vital achievement for any minor party, which has to fight for every second of coverage.

We should not, however, succumb to a simple story of Change UK’s tactical failures and the Brexit Party’s success. In reality, Farage’s group is not a new party in the same way that Heidi Allen’s group is.

Change UK is the work of 11 MPs who have never founded a party before and who share a distaste for the established parties, but are divided on many other topics. The Brexit Party is effectively Ukip reborn, with all the lessons that Farage took from the first venture. Its key-behind-the-scenes personnel –  Farage’s communications director Gawain Towler and his young aide Dan Jukes, and the party’s chairman, Richard Tice – are well known from Farage’s time as Ukip leader. They are respected as operators by the other parties as much as they are loathed for their impact on British politics.

That know-how underpins everything the Brexit Party does, from its careful cultivation of the broadcast media to its unique structure. One insider joked that in Ukip, the party had a detailed written constitution supplemented by an unwritten codicil: “Nigel decides”. In the Brexit Party, the written constitution has been junked entirely, leaving only Farage’s will.

By contrast, Change UK is a genuinely new political party. Heidi Allen, its leader, does not decide policy or lines in the way Nigel Farage does. And it tries to make a virtue of plurality on issues other than Brexit.

****

That now feels like a tactical mistake. When the Social Democratic Party was created in 1981, it attracted 28 Labour MPs and just one Conservative. By contrast, Change UK presented itself as a home for disaffected Conservatives as much as Labour politicians. It embraced three pro-European former Conservatives: Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry. All three are popular among opposition MPs: Wollaston because of her work on abortion rights and her chairing of the health select committee; Allen for her opposition to welfare cuts; and Soubry for her strident opposition to Brexit.

Several Tory MPs believe that Change UK’s Labour contingent underestimated the ideological gap between Soubry and the rest, with one former ally describing her as a “classical pro-European Thatcherite in many ways”. Soubry used her unveiling as a new member of the Independent Group to declare her support for George Osborne’s programme of austerity. That gave Labour MPs – many of whom were nervous about risking their careers in a new venture – a reason to stick with the party they know.

The bigger error was Change UK’s attitude to Vince Cable’s Lib Dems. The ex-Labour contingent in particular believed the Lib Dems were incapable of becoming the vessel for pro-EU anger and general distaste at the two major parties. When the seven launched the Independent Group, they vowed not to countenance pacts or deals with “the old parties” – a label they made clear was applied equally to the Lib Dems, who were tainted by the coalition government.

The local elections in early May showed, however, that the Lib Dems were far from finished as an electoral force – they were the biggest winners by a thumping margin, posting the best results in the party’s history. That victory established them as the best vehicle for Remainers to punish the two main parties in England. In Scotland and Wales, the two nationalist parties, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, offered the same promise as the largest pro-Remain forces. Politics may well be being rewritten on the Remain-Leave divide but the outcome is not what Change UK expected.

Laika the dog’s doomed journey into space was not pointless or without consequence. It demonstrated that leaving Earth’s immediate orbit was not inevitably fatal. The knowledge accrued helped the Soviet Union’s attempts to reach the lunar surface. But just as the Soviets had to endure America’s ultimate triumph in the space race, Change’s UK attempt to reorder British politics looks likely to benefit its opponents most of all in this era of extraordinary political turbulence. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 24 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake