JANE MERRICK: Time for a new bloc party?
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Brexit is going to blow a hole in the centre of politics. Could a new party fill it? JANE MERRICK analyses the prospects.
Whatever happens with Brexit over the next few weeks and months, British politics will never be the same again. Political parties that used to celebrate being broad churches have found that diversity of opinion has become a focus for entrenchment and bitter infighting. Pro-European Conservatives have been dismayed at the way Theresa May has, at every opportunity during the Brexit negotiations, tacked to the hardest possible version of EU withdrawal instead of seeking consensus across the Commons.
Hardline Tory Leavers have portrayed their party colleagues as traitors for campaigning for a second referendum, or even simply for parliament to have a greater say over Brexit.
On the Labour side, Brexit has been a less entrenched fault-line but, nevertheless, Jeremy Corbyn's equivocation has only fuelled disillusionment among those MPs who were already concerned over other aspects of his leadership.
After Brexit happens – presuming it does – there will be a lot of talk from politicians about a need for unity and healing. But given the extent of infighting within both main parties, could a new political party emerge as the dust settles in Westminster?
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The appetite is certainly there. Both May and Corbyn have spent their time as leader appealing to their membership base, shifting their parties ever rightwards and leftwards respectively. In both cases, this has been a shift away from their broad voter bases and many of their own MPs.
Both Labour and the Conservatives frequently hit 40% in the opinion polls, which, when British politics was a three-way battle, used to be enough to win a general election outright. Yet, with the collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats after 2015, the 40% landmark is no longer a sign of soaraway popularity. 'Don't know' has increasingly become the party of choice for voters.
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In behaving as they have over Brexit and other issues, both leaders are letting down millions of their voters. There will be Remain-voting Conservatives in Tory constituencies wondering whether they can support a party and leader who has allowed her Brexit strategy to be dictated to her by Jacob Rees-Mogg and the European Research Group. Similarly, there will be lifelong Labour voters, on both sides of the Brexit divide, wondering whether they can back a leader who has presided over creeping anti-Semitism in the party and who appeared to give Russia a very heavy benefit of the doubt during the Salisbury poisoning scandal last year.
Last week, the Conservative Brexiteer MP Mark Francois caused dismay among many moderate Tories when he attacked the 'Teutonic arrogance' of Airbus boss Tom Enders for warning about a no-deal Brexit. The one-time Conservative activist Nick Mazzei, who was selected by the party for their parliamentary candidates list in 2017, announced in an article for the Times Red Box newsletter he was quitting the party because it no longer accommodated moderate, socially liberal Tories like him who were drawn to join under David Cameron.
As Brexit has unfolded, he said, the Conservatives have become 'obsessed' with euroscepticism and it is now the party of 'ideology, of liars and cheats'. His lament was echoed by Matthew d'Ancona in the Guardian this week, who wrote that Francois' outburst 'would be easy to dismiss were it not the tip of a nativist iceberg', adding that 'Brexit has summoned the very worst demons that lurk in the Conservative psyche, liberating Tories to bellow nonsense about the Second World War'. To declare my own interest, I left the Labour party last summer over anti-Semitism, a party I joined in 2016 to try to rescue it from Corbyn's leadership but also one I have voted for in every election since 1992 and which I will not vote for again until there is a change of leader.
I know that we are not alone – but also that our sentiments are not confined to journalists and political figures in Westminster. I also know that claims by some commentators that centrism is an outdated concept because of the 2008 banking crisis and the 'failure' of 'neo-liberalism' are misreading the rise of populism.
There does not have to be a stark choice between fascism and socialism, or far right and far left. Nor is 'centrism' a splitting the difference between those two extremes, but a moderate balance of social justice and recognition of the welfare state with an acceptance of a market economy.
This is not to say, however, that there aren't huge barriers to a new party. First, anyone toying with the idea of realigning British politics should not underestimate the extraordinary centripetal forces in both parties that kick in at times of crisis and pull warring MPs together.
Just witness the way Conservative MPs rallied to May's side in the vote of confidence in her government – when dozens of those same MPs had tried to oust her in a vote of no confidence against her leadership just weeks earlier. And this week, the sudden emergence of the plan hatched by Tory MPs from all sides of the Brexit divide, known as the Malthouse Compromise after the MP who brought them together, shows how eager they are to put party unity ahead of the pragmatism of Brexit negotiations.
What's more, no one from any party has – so far – been willing to put his or head above the parapet, presumably because they cannot be sure how much support they would receive. A new party would not just be about having the right leader but creating, from scratch, a grassroots infrastructure and funding base. There would have to be enough time before the next election – which is, for now, still three years away – to select parliamentary candidates, not to mention persuading voters to desert their traditional parties in favour of something totally new.
And, for the sake of argument, let's just say this new party brings together elements of centre left and centre right, would those old left versus right dividing lines cause disharmony before they were even out of the blocks? A centre right ex-Conservative would still have a Tory attitude to rigorous fiscal discipline which would sit uneasily with his or her centre left ex-Labour counterparts. And while there may be some agreement over social justice, what about the defence of the welfare state, which any current Labour politician would want to continue under a new party?
There would be challenges but there is still – to borrow from the Queen – common ground for MPs from all sides to find a way forward in British politics. Seeing MPs from different parties working closely together on tabling amendments on Brexit legislation, or indeed campaigning together for a People's Vote, is good news for anyone who wants to see a moderate, progressive future in British politics. A new party would be a huge risk to anyone considering it. But maybe, after the turbulence of Brexit and a gaping hole in the centre ground of British politics, it is a risk worth taking.