Courtesy of the Times.
Everybody involved knows it is a long shot. They are all versed in the inauspicious history of new parties. Not one of them is unaware of the formidably high barrier posed by an electoral system that exaggerates victories and magnifies defeats. Nobody with any experience in politics is unaware that a significant fraction of the electorate, quite how much remains to be seen, will remain loyal to the established Labour and Conservative parties.
These truisms have been piling up this week as pundits have rushed to pour scorn on the prospect of a new political alignment in Britain. The entrepreneur Simon Franks has been outed for his entirely sensible desire to create an appealing political party and his venture has been greeted with the well-worn litany of cliché pretending to be wisdom. As if anyone prepared to embark on such a risky venture were not aware of the obstacles in the way. But, for the avoidance of doubt, and so there will be no need for newspapers to run such pieces ever again, or to quote veteran never-quite-made-its to the same effect, here are the conditions that a new party will have to meet. There are six tests and none of them can be described in the way Barry Gardiner dismissed Labour’s EU policy this week.
The first condition is that the new party should gather around a standard. It needs to define what it is for. There will be stupid attempts to pin on it the labels of “centrist” or “neo-liberal” and the terminally bare of brain even think those two insults are one. In fact the new party will be more socially liberal than the Tories but more fiscally conservative than Labour. It will share Labour’s stress on inequality but sound more like the Tories on enterprise. Its policy priorities will be work in the coming industrial revolution, housing, and technical education.
This would be a prospectus to attract people from all parties and none because, second, any new party would not be, ideally, the upshot only of a split in the Labour Party. It is clear from Ivor Crewe and Anthony King’s account of the rise and fall of the Social Democratic Party that a split in Labour is much less of a mould-breaker than a realignment of allegiance that takes in fugitives from other places. The Labour Party is in the dock at the moment and some of its MPs are in despair. For their Tory counterparts to follow suit will require the selection of a terrible leader to succeed Theresa May. The biggest barrier to reconfiguration is a Tory leader sensible enough to persuade the left of the party to stay put. If Boris Johnson gets the gig there could be movement. Likewise, the end of Labour’s Corbyn regime would change the calculation. The third condition, which has been mentioned in dispatches this week, is that a new party must have credible leadership. David Miliband writes a piece on global politics in the New Statesman and Nick Clegg suggests realignment is likely and the beauty parade begins to decide who is the least toxic possible leader. The truth is that there is no perfect answer to which everyone might assent. But the serious flaw in the Franks venture is that no move can succeed that does not carry political weight. And whoever emerges as the man or woman most likely, the question they have to answer is not “is this person Jesus?” It is instead, merely, “is this person a more credible PM than either Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson?” That said, the fourth condition demands something in tension with the third. The delicate balancing act of the Macron candidacy was that, en route to the presidency, Emmanuel Macron managed to sound like a novelty even though he had been a finance minister in the French government. He was simultaneously in and out, politics and not-politics. Macron was exciting and new and attracted people who had never before really looked at politics.
A viable new party will need this wind at its back. If a new party looks and sounds like an attempt to get the old band back together it will be stillborn. If it is all rooted in London it has no hope. It needs an organic sense that it is responding to the popular demand of the politically homeless. The most glaringly obvious way of ensuring that a new party is tarnished as an elite project is for it to be attached to the cause of Brexit. Any new party that looks and sounds like the latest attempt by the sore losers to revisit the European argument will have no prospect of success. Don’t hold your breath for any serious new party until Britain has left the European Union. Brexit could be the catalyst for a political upheaval but it is not itself the cause for which the new party would stand. The fifth test for a new party is that it will be the first movement to speak without illusions about Britain’s immediate future outside the EU. That is not because the new party would not regret the departure; most of its candidates and voters would. The tide, though, has gone out. This leads to the sixth test, which is to know where you can win. As the polling specialist Peter Kellner showed this week, the SDP came second in 313 constituencies in 1983. It won 25 per cent of the vote but its support was spread so evenly that it won only 23 seats.
There are reasons to suppose that affiliations are looser than they were in 1983, that politics is more volatile and that the two main parties are in a worse state. A serious new party will form only when its instigators are satisfied that they know where they might feasibly win 100 seats. It would then hold the balance of power and that would be quite enough success for starters. The Guardian columnist Owen Jones wrote recently that a new party was doomed to fail but might prevent a Labour government. He hadn’t noticed that the first half of his sentence contradicted the second. This is a checklist of the most hospitable circumstances but not all the conditions necessarily have to pertain at once. Perhaps only the first and the last would exercise any kind of veto. If enough of the conditions hold, then expect the political landscape to change before the next election.
In the meantime, let’s not have any more of the usual blather about how hard it is for new parties. Everybody knows the past. The question for the present is whether the past is any longer a guide to the future. If most of the conditions are not met then nobody serious is going to persist in the pursuit of a new party that would, in those circumstances, have been exposed as a fantasy.
For Britain is putting up candidates around the country for the forthcoming council elections.
The neoliberals will be spoilt for choice.
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