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by GK Strategy 18th September, 2017

The rise of a new centre-left party? Don’t count on it… yet

Is Britain on the verge of a political earthquake? Are the tectonic plates of politics about to move? Judging by the number of people who seem to be asking this question, the time might seem ripe for a new political force to emerge.

Labour has moved decisively to the left – to what used to be regarded as the unelectable, political wilderness. Many Labour MPs clearly have little enthusiasm for either their leader or his policy agenda. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party seems to have been captured by its more Eurosceptic wing – to the extent that yesterday’s right wing hardmen (Mr. Hammond – that’s you!) are now made to appear quite moderate. Certainly the days of Mr. Cameron’s ‘Liberal Conservatism’ seem long gone, and economic liberals such as George Osborne are consigned to overseeing grumpy editorials.

In some people’s fantasy world, a new party emerges which unites everyone left of George Osborne and right of Ed Miliband. That sounds like it should occupy an awful lot of political space – surely such a party could reign supreme in the centre ground of British politics? Even without the liberal ‘left’ of the Conservative Party, the story goes, the Liberal Democrats could unite with the ‘sensible’ part of the Labour Party to craft a new, progressive, party of the centre left. A re-made British politics would pit the new Conservative party of May against a centre-left party, with Corbyn, the greens and UKIP competing for the 15%-20% of ‘fringe party’ votes.

There must be so many ‘moderate’ people of all persuasions who feel un-represented by today’s main political parties that this realignment seems in an abstract sense quite plausible. But is it a serious prospect? Sadly, for those craving change, the current outlook seems unpromising – for three or four main reasons.

Firstly, new parties aren’t easy to create, and those who leave established parties to create new structures don’t always thrive. Remember all those MPs who left Labour and even the Tories, in the early 1980s, to join the SDP? No? That’s the point – nobody does. Most of them lost their seats. Labour MPs might recently have been emboldened to leave their party, had the result of the 2017 General Election not been such a boost for Mr. Corbyn. Of course, he lost. But he clearly did far, far, better than almost anyone expected, him including. Suddenly Labour MPs who expected to be leaving a sinking ship are having to contemplate leaving a party which could soon be sailing on to power. No wonder most are thinking again. And what of Conservative liberals and moderates? Do they want to leave Britain’s most successful ever political party to join a venture which has yet to emerge and which might not even represent their centrist/centre-right views?

Problem number one might be more manageable, were it not for problem number two. The supposed ‘new party’ has no leader, and no obvious leader. A Blairite? After Iraq, that brand is rather tainted. And David Miliband, having flunked a few leadership opportunities, may not be up for trying again. A former Lib Dem Coalition Minister, then? Same problem. George Osborne? I think not. How about a young, new, fresh faced, inspiring figure then? Yes, but who? Leaders are important – even more so for new ‘breakthrough’ parties. The blunt truth is that a credible, inspiring and uniting figure has yet to emerge.

Then there is problem number three. A rather important one – policy programme. Of course, it would be easy to unite most supporters of a new party around a more internationalist and pro-European/EU policy, and around a more liberal economic agenda than that of Mr. Corbyn. However, a new party cannot rely for its existence only a policy prospectus based on a few issues – not all of which are popular with a large swathe of the electorate. A new party must inspire more centrist voters about ‘bread and butter’ issues, such as education, tax, healthcare, pensions and jobs. A new party cannot afford just to look like the creation of a Westminster elite. And so, where is this new thinking? Where are the original, fresh, exciting, ideas that have developed over the last decade? The truth is that Labour was exhausted by 13 years in government – not just emotionally, but in terms of policies and personnel. Arguably, the Liberal Democrats and moderate Conservatives have failed too to set out a post Coalition policy agenda. New parties need new ideas, preferably ones that voters like. This needs much more work.

Finally, there is point four. My sixth form history teacher used to talk about the evolution of political upheaval in terms of ‘distress, discontent, demands for change’. In other words, economic adversity leads to public dissatisfaction, which leads to political pressure for change. Arguably, that same process has helped drive some voters in the UK and US into the hands of Brexit/Trump. But in spite of fears for the possible economic disruption of Brexit, significant economic turbulence has yet to emerge. Indeed, it’s simply too early to know just how disastrous Brexit might be – it all depends on the deal we must strike with the EU. For now, the public has registered large votes of support for the two largest UK political parties, and it may need an unravelling of their strategies – and serious economic calamity – to create the discontent which could propel a new party towards power.

Those who want to see the emergence of a new force in British politics will be disappointed by this analysis. Though a political earthquake seems presently far off, there is no doubt that the tectonic plates are moving and grating up against each other. There is a void in the centre of British politics which will surely one day need filling. Perhaps today there is a recognition that there is more that unites moderates in all three main UK parties than divides them. An earthquake isn’t imminent, but these powerful forces will one day need to be released – and that will require either a major realignment of one or both large parties, or the eventual emergence of a new party to align 21st century politics with the views of 21st century citizens.

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