September 18, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith
During the August political news ‘silly-season’, James Chapman, former Chief of Staff to Brexit Secretary David Davis, started a one-man tweet storm, at the end of which he more or less announced he would be creating a new political party, ‘The Democrats’. Chapman has gone very quiet recently, but with the Party Conferences coming up, talk abounds of whether this party – featuring people in Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives who are pro-Europe and towards the centre of the political spectrum – will actually happen. People say it would be a waste of time, because under our electoral system it won’t win seats in Westminster. I say that the influence it has would be significant without winning seats, and in fact what it is trying to achieve is far more likely as a new party than remaining on the fringes of the current ones.
When Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader in 2015, the whispers about the forming of a new political party started. People on the centre-left feared they had no home anymore in the party. When the EU referendum ended in a vote for Leave, the whispers grew into a murmur as David Cameron left, Theresa May was installed as PM, and into this political void were thrown some centrist Conservatives, and the entire pro-EU firmament. With this Government on a firm course for leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union (a ‘hard Brexit’) and the Leader of the Opposition being disinterested in Europe at best, with his close team being more or less pro-Leave, there is proper talk of a new party being formed. But it remains talk, for what I think are the wrong reasons.
The new party’s aim would be to offer a centrist perspective on politics, giving the many people (voters and politicians) who feel that the Conservative and Labour parties are too extreme, but the Liberal Democrats too weak to vote for a. It would be pro-Remain, probably pushing for a second referendum, either to stop Brexit altogether or more likely to rubber stamp any deal going forward.
The main argument against points to what happened to the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which formed in 1981 out of the Labour Party, at a time when Labour had been captured by the far left and were incorporating policies into their programme such as leaving the EU (without a referendum), re-nationalisation and unilateral nuclear disarmament. The SDP were led by some ‘big beasts’ of politics, such as former Chancellor and Home Secretary Roy Jenkins and former Foreign Secretary David Owen. They formed an ‘alliance’ with the Liberal Party for the 1983 election and at one point were leading in the polls.
What happened instead was that the Alliance won 25% of the vote and got 23 seats, whilst Labour won 27% of the vote and 209 seats. This is because of the vagaries of our electoral system (First-past-the-post), where geographical concentration of votes is what matters. The Alliance’s vote was spread around the country, Labour’s wasn’t. The concern is that the same thing would happen to ‘The Democrats’ if they formed.
To which I say, so what? Winning seats in Westminster isn’t the be-all and end all in politics. Influencing politics is. The SDP didn’t win seats at Westminster, but its creation pushed Labour to begin a long rethink about its policies and programmes, seeing it embark towards a move to the centre, and towards a more amenable attitude to the EU. This meant that by 1997 people in the centre could vote Labour knowing they represented them too. This isn’t the case now.
Exhibit two is UKIP. People like to laugh at their 2017 electoral performance – going from 4 million votes to 500,000. But they forget that UKIP won. We are leaving the EU. They never once won an ‘organic’ seat in the House of Commons (both seats were from Tories who moved to them). Those 4 million votes led to one seat in 2015. But they were one of the main influences on David Cameron calling the referendum, and once that referendum was called, the only result was ever going to be Leave.
A new centrist pro-European party therefore could achieve far more than one would imagine. They would be very well funded by pro-European groups. They would get a lot of votes in pro-Remain seats. They may not win many actual Parliamentary seats but their mere presence in constituency races will make the major parties wary of moving too far towards a full hard Brexit platform. Even if their vote is in single figures, it would be enough for Labour to not be able to win the seats they would need to be in Government. If you think Labour don’t take this threat seriously, look at their softening position on Brexit. Indicating they might still stay in the Single Market is a way to give pro-EU Labour MPs less reason not to walk away. Should the new party start to pick off Labour and Tory MPs, either by enticing them away to be candidates or beating them in by-elections, they could force the leadership of both parties to change their policies even more and ultimately could even force a second referendum.
Some MPs tempted to move to this new party might be concerned about their seats. But there are some MPs who are very much aware that Brexit is simply not a party political issue.
Many who supported the Leave campaign knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve something. Well, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the same for a group of people becoming increasingly marginalised by their own parties.
I sometimes find myself in conversation with people about Nigel Farage. ‘He tried so many times to win a seat at Westminster, but he failed’, they chuckle. ‘Yes’, I reply, ‘and yet he is the most successful politician this country has seen over the past 30 years’. He won, going around the political system. So can ‘The Democrats’.