The Remain Alliance of MPs is a better idea
London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg argues that The Independent Group should have stayed as a movement. It should have campaigned for Remain and proportional representation. That would have given MPs the opportunity to work out what new parties were needed.
Although I am a member of an established political party I am unwilling to join in the glee about Change UK’s latest difficulties, as half its MPs leave to sit again as independents.
Change UK’s analysis of the main parties was right
They correctly held that both Conservatives and Labour had left the centre ground; and that the Liberal Democrats were contaminated in voters’ minds by their participation in the Coalition.
Both main parties are coalitions and contain many MPs, members and voters who are impeccably centrist.
But Jeremy Corbyn, while cagey about what he really wants, is offering a socialism-in-one-state that requires exit from the EU to realise; so not anything that is on offer in the social democracies of Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, France or Spain.
The Conservatives are obsessed by a Brexit driven by fantasies of English exceptionalism, and by immigration.
It was a mistake for Change UK to form a party
The statement of values of the Independent Group, now of Change UK, was bland. It did not even say they wished to stay in the EU. The biggest challenge it offers the reader is to stay awake to the end.
That statement of values is something that almost every politician would have signed up to in the 2015 or 2010 elections, before the radicalisation of British politics under the stress of Brexit. One could see Corbyn and Rees-Mogg resisting. But every one else would have said “Yes, yes of course. Now let’s argue about the real issues”.
Cut the deficit? Cut spending or raise taxes? Prioritise defence or housing? Protect spending on pensioners or children? What is the right rate of Capital Gains Tax? Should we throw our lot in with China or be cautious? How to regenerate the North? What level of devolution to local authorities?
One could easily exaggerate how far the parties had ideologically coherent views across these issues. For most of the electorate what works is more important. Practical centrism, if you like: where a political party should operate.
But still, the members of Change UK disagreed with each other on many of these questions. It was not the traditional parties’ different answers to these questions that just a few years ago were the stuff of political debate that drove the MPs to leave the Conservatives and Labour.
Brexit of course was the biggest single policy driver for their departure.
But there was something about the tone of main party politics that repelled them – lack of tolerance and respect for others’ views, heresy hunts, interpretation of policy debate as a personal attack on the leader, a willingness to take short-cuts across constitutional boundaries. That was epitomised for some by the failure of the Labour Party effectively to tackle anti-semitism.
Still, the Change UK MPs had too little in common on the traditional Left/ Right axis to form a party.
The new divide is closed/ open
Perhaps that should not have mattered. The new divide is open/ closed. People vote more on identity and social attitudes than on the old economic paradigm – though that is still important.
Brexit/ Remain is of course the salient closed/ open divider.
For all the talk of Global Britain, the Conservatives are moving themselves towards a position as standard bearer of the closed society. This is actually where there is fertile ground for a “new” party because these are the subjects where large numbers of voters do not believe the existing parties reflect their views: tougher sentences; more immigration control; more control over social and sexual mores; cut social security benefits; regulate business more. All these views exist within the party, and it could easily hoover up new votes by emphasising them. Whether the new votes would outweigh the lost votes is harder to say.
Jeremy Corbyn is being urged to become leader of the open society movement. But he thinks in terms of left/ right. His rejection of freedom of movement – for all his fine rhetoric about not blaming immigrants - puts him firmly in the closed society camp. And, to say it again, you cannot be for Brexit and an open society.
The Liberal Democrats are an obviously open society party. In policy terms, that was the market that Change UK aimed at.
In party political terms they gambled on the appeal of being new and not having the Liberal Democrats’ coalition years baggage. However, the Liberal Democrats had an established party machine. When members of the old parties wished to lend their votes they did not support those who had followed the consequences of that thinking. The local government and European Parliament elections showed that many voters have “forgiven” the Liberal Democrats - though there is still some way for them to go.
The Remain Alliance
It would have been better to see The Independent Group as a loose grouping of MPs en route to a new alignment of parties. For the time being they would have adhered to a limited set of beliefs:
- Remain, because it is the one issue that absolutely unites them all and that is the dominant and urgent open society/ centre ground issue.
- Proportional Representation because in order to re-make the party system voters will need to be offered more of a choice of parties without having to worry about “wasting their vote”.
- Policies of the centre ground in the plural because there is no need for these MPs to agree on anything more than that they should all adopt centrist policies. Pre 2015 both Conservative and Labour stood in the centre ground.
The Remain Alliance could then be a holding area for MPs who did not wish to stay in the failed extremist parties and who wanted time and space to work out what parties to form and join.
Change UK committed itself to being a party before it was clear what unique space it would occupy. It should have stayed a movement calling for Remain, proportional representation, and civilised non-violent debate.
The London4Europe blogs page is edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the view of the author, not necessarily of London4Europe.