How to Make a New Party Succeed in Britain
A centrist movement can win, but it needs to build a base in cities first.
Starting new parties is hard in Britain’s adversarial political culture. Public debate is structured around alternative tribes. Voters are supposed to put one in office and kick the other out. Even Britain’s Parliament is arranged into separate government and opposition benches, whose members main function appears to be to shout louder than the other side’s speaker so nobody can hear what they’re trying to say. During a relatively boisterous budget debate in Spain’s parliament recently, the chair of proceedings had to admonish the country’s elected representatives: “Esto no es el Parlamento británico.” “This is not the British Parliament.”
Anyone thinking of setting up a new grouping in Britain tends to be dismissed as a foolish idealist, and the 11 defectors who left the Labour and Conservative parties to form a new bloc, currently called the Independent Group (TIG), have faced the same charge. They are warned constantly that they are repeating the failure of the Social Democratic Party (SDP)—the result of a 1980s split within Labour. The SDP won a quarter of the national vote but less than 4 percent of the seats in Parliament, thanks to Britain’s first-past-the-post system, and eventually merged with the Liberal Democrats.
A psephologist so eminent that he has been knighted, John Curtice, dismissed their chances. The Kent University professor Matthew Goodwin makes a different argument in these pages: that the new party is likely to have more influence in pushing the Labour Party to adopt its policies than it is to win a large number of seats and become a genuine electoral threat. That may have been true before Jeremy Corbyn ascended as Labour’s leader. But the party’s room for maneuver is now limited by the more extreme membership Corbyn has recruited.
The defectors who formed TIG—such as Labour’s Mike Gapes, with whom I visited the Kurdish front lines with the Islamic State in northern Iraq, and the Conservative Party’s Anna Soubry, with whom I sit on the advisory board of the Migration Matters Trust—are proud advocates for migration. Other Labour defectors, including Luciana Berger, were motivated to leave by growing anti-Semitism in the party.
Here are 11 things they need to do—one for every TIG member—to give it a chance of success.
First, avoid being boxed in as a new centrist party. Too many people see a centrist party as a revival of the Tony Blair-era “triangulation” strategy—but triangulation only worked because Blair and, later, David Cameron were able to retain the support of their respective bases while also reaching out to centrist voters. But the voters who would initially support the TIG are not voters to be triangulated to: They would be its core vote.
Second, the political axis is tilting: Centrists on the old axis are liberal, cosmopolitan true believers on the new one. TIG could take advantage of that shift to become the party of the cities and university towns. Britain’s first-past-the-post system may hurt some third parties, as Goodwin argues, but it helps geographically concentrated identity, as demonstrated by the hugely successful Scottish National Party, which now dominates Scottish representation at Westminster. To win seats in Britain’s system, a new party doesn’t need to win more than 50 percent of the vote: It’s enough to be the single biggest party. As little as 35 percent of the vote can be enough; more than 40 percent is rarely necessary. These city and university seats, which number between 70 and 100 out of the 650 in the House of Commons, would not be enough to form a government but would form a base from which TIG could expand in subsequent elections, just as the Labour Party was able to expand on its results in the early 20th century.
Third, present yourselves as an insurgency. The new party’s central message cannot be splitling the difference between the old parties; the pitch must be that TIG will replace their failed way of doing business. It needs to define both the Tories and Labour as the establishment and run against them.
Fourth, let Brexit happen. As long as the debate over Brexit continues, the old parties will retain coherence. But once its disastrous legacy is plain to see, voters will look for someone to blame, and the Tories and Labour will both be easy targets. For this to work, TIG needs to try very hard to stop Brexit but ultimately fail to do so.
Fifth, build local infrastructure. Local councilors don’t just control budgets and run services. They become foot soldiers at election time and a potential stock from which parliamentary candidates should be selected. They knock on doors, stuff envelopes, and can be a vital early warning system about how communities think.
Sixth, avoid celebrity candidates. Politics is hard, and people need time to learn to do it well. None of this is to say that someone like J.K. Rowling could not eventually lead the party, but she would need to learn the ropes first.
Seventh, don’t worry about picking a leader yet. TIG’s bench will get bigger as it attracts more people. The group’s candidate for prime minister when the next election comes could easily be someone who hasn’t joined yet.
Eighth, create a small- and medium-sized donor base. The new party will have no trouble whatsoever getting the initial funding it needs to get going—about 20 million pounds ($26 million). But sustainable independence is bought by large numbers of medium-sized donors.
Ninth, don’t overdo the policy. People don’t tend to vote on policy itself (though they often like it to be there). A statement of principles, plus some long-term policy ideas to get ready for the next election, scheduled for 2022, should be sufficient. Reject all attempts to be defined as Tory or Labour or to be associated with the failed politics that caused Brexit.
Tenth, build up your own in-house campaign expertise. This sector is full of slick and expensive consultants, but you need people committed to the cause.
Eleventh, cultivate outriders: Think tanks can float radical ideas from a safe distance; new media sites can get the message out and attack the new party’s many enemies. Ignore Michelle Obama’s advice “When they go low, we go high” even if you pretend to follow it. As her husband was fond of saying: “Politics ain’t beanbag.”
The new party’s longer-term success will depend on the Tory and Labour parties’ continuing to fall under the sway of extremist members. But they could indeed be forced into a self-reinforcing spiral, as their extremism drives people away to new parties, leaving the extreme left and hard right to wither together.
It is a long shot. But as the example of the German Green Party shows, it’s not just populists who know how to organize. A party by definition composed of mavericks will have to work hard, however, to develop the discipline necessary to break the mold of British politics.
For an opposing argument by Matthew Goodwin, click here.