News came out this week that a nascent centrist party is in the works, guided by 50 million quid and a rich chap named Simon Franks. Hands up: I’ve known all about this for several months now. In fact, I know of several such schemes, all of them uncoordinated with each other, all of them centring around a moneyed bloke who is convinced he can be the next Macron, demonstrating in turn a lack of knowledge about politics and of Macron’s rise. They all think that politics is easy and that, having run successful businesses, they would obviously know how to run the country better than the fools sitting in the House of Commons as we speak. The old “run the country like a business” routine that Trump is currently in the midst of definitively proving doesn’t work in other words.
If you hang around Westminster, you’ll have heard all about a new centrist force before – so much so it has become a cliché. Yes, yes, we’ve heard all this before, I might go and start a centrist party for fun this afternoon, ha ha ha. Except, for what is supposedly a patently silly idea, a lot of people feel pretty upset by it all. HM official opposition felt the need to comment on it directly, as did about half the PLP. A lot of political pundits have also written articles about how stupid an idea this is, somewhat contradicting their point in the process.
The question really is, would such a centrist party work? Yes, but as ever, there is only one way: enough currently sitting MPs have to break off from the party they are now in and join together as a new party. Furthermore, said new party would need to be large enough (as in have enough MPs) to form at the very least the official opposition. This cannot be done from outside of politics, obviously.
The notion that the British public mistrusts all politicians and that you can smash the system from outside is always shown to be fallacious. When I worked on the Yes to AV campaign, the idea was that while the No side would put up politicians, we’d have “ordinary folk” as spokespeople. It was an utter failure: turns out people consider politicians rather informative when it comes to political matters. They may not like politicians, but they accept that they know a thing or two about politics, while “ordinary folk”, you know, like wealthy businessmen who have 50 million quid to wave around, might know somewhat less.
Problem is, the MPs seem to be waiting for something outside of politics to infiltrate it. Some sign that the whole venture isn’t as risky as it appears. Given that isn’t going to happen in all probability, we could be stuck where we are for some time yet. Unless, of course, the Tories do something ultra-stupid in regards to Brexit, but I highly doubt it at this stage. If you want to stop Corbyn, you might have to vote Tory at the next election; if you want to kick the Tories out, you may have to put up with Corbyn as PM.
Mark Thornton says
Great piece as always Nicky. The two party system is so baked into British political culture (in fact, British culture per se), even when we do ‘break out’ (as with the coalition in 2010) the system very quickly bounces back because of the weighted electoral calculus of FPTP.
As much as many ‘centrists’ hate them, UKIP (and to some extent the SNP) showed how you deliver real change: organise around a single issue, campaign over the long-term (10-20 years), and hollow out the vote of one of the two parties (to some extent, the Lib Dems did that around the Gulf War in the years leading up to 2010).
I would say the smart long-term play for any new ‘centrist’ party/movement is to set itself up around a laser-focused goal of achieving proportional representation (or some other ‘restructuring’ of the voting system/parliament, possibly including a wholesale physical gutting and rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament itself) with no hope for electoral victories (not that you tell people voting that) but would hollow out votes on both sides eventually leading to the promise of a referendum by one of the main parties for short-term electoral gain).
I’m not sure whether ‘proportional representation’ gets people’s juices flowing in the same way as Brexit, Scottish independence or disastrous foreign wars though…
Tony Blair’s biggest mistake wasn’t supporting the Bush invasion of Iraq, it was failing to introduce a PR voting system when he had an overwhelming majority.
Yes, it would have weakened Labour, but almost everything bad that’s happened since, from a Corbyn-led Labour to Brexit to the SNP landslide in Scotland, would never have happened in a world without FPTP.
Cory Bin says
Centrist party = austerity, vested interests and neoliberalism.
Jeremy Corbyn = Jesus Christ
When I worked on the Yes to AV campaign, the idea was that while the No side would put up politicians, we’d have “ordinary folk” as spokespeople
Except… you didn’t do that, did you? You had celebrities like Eddie Izzard, John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Tony Robinson… and people quite reasonably didn’t listen to them (the Remain campaign later made the same mistake with their ‘luvvies’ letter’, and even involving Eddie Izzard again — I assume no political campaign will ever let him even suggest that he might be in favour in public).
Not saying that ‘ordinary folk’ would have done any better, but there’s nothing quite so guaranteed to turn people off as hearing pampered celebrities tell them which way they should vote.
Paul W says
Hmm. Didn’t I read something about Eddie Izzard offering to save the Labour party from itself or some such recently? I could be wrong. It all happens so fast nowadays.
Paul W says
Whether we like it or not, in an adversarial political system and culture such as ours, a new centrist party is mostly likely to be successful only if it is one of two big catch-all parties of the broad centre-right or broad centre-left. The Conservative party is an example of a long-term successful party of the broad centre-right; the Canadian Liberal party is an example of a long-term successful party of the broad centre-left and, perhaps, Macron’s En Marche in France will turn out to be another. But should a vacancy occur in the UK’s political system in the near future, it seems most probable, as in France, that the gap will open up on the centre-left of the political spectrum rather than on the centre-right.
That said, what is clear from the historical record is that if a centrist party gets caught between two more powerful parties or blocs to its left and right, then it is quite likely to be reduced in size or pulled apart. That is what happened to the French Radical party, (the nearest equivalent to En Marche), after 1945 and the British Liberal party in the inter-war period, (albeit with the assistance of internal personality feuds and rivalries). Proportional representation of itself would not supply the answer to a centrist party’s left-right positioning dilemma, though it might slow and soften its political decline on the way down.
The key takeaways are these: Would the new centrist party have a coherent underlying political philosophy and aims and values of its own, or would it just split the difference between the other parties? Would it seek to represent a significant demographic of voters (and funders!) not catered for adequately by the established parties and, if so, how? How would its aims and values be translated into practical and attractive policies, presumably not already on offer elsewhere, and in what form? And how would the new centrist party relate to the existing old parties, if at all? The point is this: If the new party was unable to provide ready answers to basic questions like these from the get-go, potential supporters and voters would not stick around to find out while the new party’s leaders awaited feedback from their pollsters, focus groups, policy seminars and conferences to furnish them with the tested and approved party responses.
Nick Tyrone says
It appears that I happen to be your namesake, what a coincidence!! I must admit that I am not a great fan of a new centrist party either. I just think that all of these ‘centrists’ are really just rich elites who want to protect their wealth. Corbyn would be far better for the many, not the few.
Anyway, I don’t normally get involved in politics, it’s not really my cup of tea. I did mind join Labour in 1981 under Foot, left in 1983 when the elected that Kinnock chap and Tony Benn – my hero – lost his seat.
I’m really stoked to find a fellow Nick Tyrone. Perhaps we should meet up some time? We could create a Nick Tyrone society! It’s just an idea; you might be too busy anyway.