Is the UK political system too tribal and ossified to change?
Dr. Matthew Cole of the University of Birmingham writes for The Conversation:
Reports in the press claim that a new party is about to be formed in the UK. The party will “break the Westminster mold” by coalescing opinion in what former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg called the “gaping hole” in the center ground.
Looking at the success of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! movement, the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley suggests that “opportunity knocks for a new party”. But haven’t we heard all this before? The answer is that we have – most obviously with the launch of the Social Democratic Party in 1981. That doesn’t mean it cannot be significant but the chances of success aren’t great.
So far, there is scant detail about this centrist project. Simon Franks, founder of LoveFilm, has apparently joined with other multimillionaire donors – some former supporters of established parties – to build a fund of £50m for Project One Movement, a company which has been running with full-time staff for a year. The team is now considering whether to field candidates in the 2022 election. According to The Observer, it has developed policies “aimed at a liberal, center-left audience”. We’re also told candidates would commit themselves to limited terms of office. The group is not, at present, seeking defections of MPs from existing parties.
So far, so promising. The appeal of free-market wealth creation blended with guaranteed funding for public services to promote social mobility is potentially strong. These policies, coupled with a corporate-sounding non-political title sound reminiscent of Macron, and the glory days of New Labour. Disillusionment with the established parties has been growing for decades and their current leaderships are, on paper at least, further from public opinion than they have been for a generation.
It is a trope of electoral studies that “strong identifier” voters have become an endangered species. Voter turnout at general elections remains pitiful and the Hansard Society’s annual audit of political engagement reiterates that “underlying public discontent with the political status quo has been clear for some time”. Now Rawnsley says 45% of respondents are telling pollsters that “there is a need for a new center-ground party”.
But we should not underestimate the resilience of the British party system. Every new national party founded since the start of the last century has had to join or give way to those founded by 1900. The National Liberals the Common Wealth party and the SDP all emerged in the hope of offering an alternative to the establishment, but ultimately joined with other parties. Meanwhile the nationalists – the SNP, for example – and the Greens have only sought, or have resigned themselves to, their place on the periphery.
Despite their divisions and diversions, last year the main two parties secured their largest joint share of the vote since 1970. The Liberal Democrats, campaigning on a platform strikingly similar to that apparently proposed by Project One Movement, won their lowest share of the vote since before that date.
This Isn’t France and You’re Not Macron
Macron launched En Marche! in a French Fifth Republic whose half-century of existence had seen repeated changes of party identities and relationships. The British party system, by comparison, is ancient, tribal, and ossified.
The circumstances of the SDP’s birth in 1981 share many of these features: it offered moderation in a polarized party system and it was buoyed by polls suggesting a majority of voters would support it before it came into existence. Project One Movement has not yet fully emerged, but there are already tinges of the policy-light razzmatazz that characterised the SDP’s launch (including the much-mocked first opportunity to join a political party using a credit card).
For all the brevity of its existence and the suddenness of its end, it should not be forgotten that the SDP-Liberal Alliance, formed when the breakaway party joined with the Liberals, earned over a quarter of the vote and turned into a party which within little more than two decades was in government.
Yet the same comparison should give Franks cause to reflect. The SDP was led by four former cabinet ministers and dozens of MPs who defected. Even then, the electoral system meant that, with 3m votes, it was able to bring only three new MPs into the House of Commons in its whole life. It of course also had to recognise, work with and eventually merge with the historic Liberal Party. Franks, too, would surely have to conciliate with the Liberal Democrats at some point.
This new centrist movement reflects another episode in the struggle between the past and the future of British politics. Underneath the superstructure of parliamentary ritual and old party titles, there is an undercurrent of growing disillusionment and a desire for something else. But deeper, underneath that, lies a scepticism about what the “something else” would look like. The past has a strong hold on British politics.