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A crack in the mould of British politics

February 18, 2019

Roy Jenkins was a man of many metaphors. My favourite was to liken a delicate and perilous political task to “carrying a valuable Ming vase across a highly polished floor.” But his most famous was the description of the mission of the party of which he was the founder leader as to “break the mould of British politics.” Jenkins was one of the Gang of Four who broke from Labour in 1981 to found the Social Democratic Party.  The SDP won a string of by elections, hundreds of council seats and brought tens of thousands of people into political activism, including me.

Political commentators can’t agree whether the SDP did break the mould, with those that support Labour usually claiming that the break from Michael Foot’s Labour Party was a boost to Thatcher in the 1983 election.  Historians haven’t formed a definitive conclusion but I think it’s fair to say the SDP-Liberal Alliance actually held back the Conservatives in many seats.  The Alliance lives on as the Liberal Democrats and it is undoubtedly true that a strong liberal force in politics is bad for the Tories, while a weakened one helps them, as the 2015 election showed.  But at the moment the political successor to the SDP (led by former SDP member Vince Cable) is slowly getting back on its feet after being knocked over and left for dead by the voters in 2015.

Will the new ‘Independent Group’ launched today be a greater success than the SDP?  An obvious observation is that the 2019 Gang of Seven are political pygmies compared the 1981 Gang of Four.  Roy Jenkins is one of the few 20th century figures to be remembered as one of the “best Prime Ministers we never had” and his place at the head of the SDP gave it massive credibility with the journalists and opinion formers of the time.  Shirley Williams was possibly the third most famous political woman in Britain, after the Queen and Margaret Thatcher.  Chuka Umanna, the Independent Group’s likely leader, is no Roy Jenkins and none of his three women colleagues come close to the public appeal of Shirley Williams.  For the new group to gain traction it will need more prominent Labour figures to climb aboard.  Failing that they will need to be joined by dozens of fellow MPs and members of the Lords and devolved parliaments – quantity over quality.

But in other ways 2019 is much more fertile ground for a break-away group to thrive.  The voters are much more volatile. In the early 1980s the tribal grip of the Conservative-Labour duopoly was still very strong.  When I started canvassing in the mid 80s I would find that voters at home in the Cynon Valley voted Labour because they and their family always had and in my student home of Bristol West the tie to the Tories was just as strong.  Now, certainly in Bristol, it is more common to find people who have voted in the last decade for three different parties.  In Scotland the Labour party was the political giant until it was felled by the SNP in 2015.  It is now the third party north of the border. Labour cannot claim the ownership of a block vote of millions of English or Welsh party loyalists anymore.

Political campaigning tactics have also moved on enormously in the last 38 years.  After the blast of media publicity of the launch of the SDP it had to move on to the hard slog of building up a party. It was a trail blazer in terms of having a computerised database of members but apart from that building up support depended on door knocking and leaflet delivery by new activists on the ground, a process that was still developing years after the launch.  Any group can now pick up a band of followers who can be organised quickly and efficiently via social media. Within hours of its launch the Independent Group had over 50,000 Twitter followers and it’s not yet a fully formed political party.  Crowd funding campaigns is now a lot easier than waiting for cheques to arrive in the post. If a wave of new defectors gives the group some momentum (no pun) then thousands of volunteers could be marshalled to support a new party.

This leaves two questions – what does the new party actually stand for and what will be its relationship with the existing progressive parties outside Labour, most obviously the Liberal Democrats? The group have published a very brief statement of principles (https://theindependent.group/statement ) all of which could be said with conviction by Liberal Democrat candidates.  But there’s a glaring omission. While there’s a positive commitment to more devolution and strong local government there is no mention of a reformed voting system.  If there is one glaringly obvious historical lesson about the fate of the SDP and the struggles of the Liberal Democrats (and the Green Party and UKIP) it’s that first past the post can crush the growth of parties even if they get millions of votes.  A commitment to PR must surely be made if the new party is to have a chance of working with others on the centre-left.

Working with others is likely to be the key to success. In the short term I believe that should mean an electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats and possibly the Green Party. It would be madness for the parties to fight each other, particularly in seats where the Conservatives are vulnerable or seats that are currently Labour but have a Lib Dem heritage (cough!) or voted heavily Remain in 2016. The Liberal Democrats are also in much better shape than the 1981 Liberal Party. They have a hundred thousand members and almost 2,000 councillors, providing a significant grass roots base.

Back in 2016 I wrote another blog in anticipation of this day, which has been longer coming than I thought at the time.  I advocated a joint platform, the Common Ground between progressive parties to which their candidates could jointly subscribe. But the top joint commitment must be a reformed voting system. Read more here https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2016/07/16/the-common-ground-how-a-progressive-alliance-could-transform-our-politics/  

I’ve said and written many times that Brexit is a meteorite that will shatter British politics.  The Liberal Democrats have climbed back into double figures in the opinion polls and are doing even better in weekly council by elections.  The Conservative Party is creaking at the seams and there may well be a breakaway of moderate pro EU MPs.  But today was the first major crater on the surface of our politics and the cracks that spread out from it may well break the mould after all.

UPDATE 20 February

The Independent Group now has 11 members, following the defection of Labour MP Joan Ryan and the Conservatives Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston. If they were a formal party they would now have equal Commons strength to the Liberal Democrats and would be bigger than the DUP.

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