Those of you who’ve been following my blogging and blathering on social media for a while will know that I’ve generally been pretty sceptical about the prospects for success of any of the myriad new centre party proposals that have been put forward recently. In short, a lot of people have looked at the success of Macron in France, ignored all the elements of the French system that allowed him to happen and decided that they can do the same in Britain. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that people are standing up for what they want to see in politics, I just think they generally expect a short cut to victory, not a long haul of dedicated campaigning.
That being said, I do think there is now a possibility of something happening that could shake things up quite dramatically, but it is still just a possibility, not a likelihood. For want of a better name, we’ll call it the Brand New Centrist Thing (there are obvious reasons why I never sought a career in marketing). Generally up to now, the assumption has been that any new centre party or centrist movement would follow one of two models — the political entrepreneurial model of En Marche!, where something entirely new run by apparent outsiders storms the system from the centre, or the SDP model where a split in one of the existing parties leads to the creation of a new party around a group of defecting centrist MPs, hoping to take a chunk of that party’s supporters and voters along with them.
The Brand New Centrist Thing, however, would combine elements of both these approaches in that it would be created on the back of MPs defecting, but to a movement that would be explicitly new and different. The main problem the SDP faced was that while it purported to be a new way of doing politics and was going to break the mould, the circumstances of its creation meant it was always seen in relation to the Labour Party. Its chief public faces and leaders were all from Labour, all except one (Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler) of the MPs who joined it came from Labour and its reasons for existence were always presented as being because of splits in the Labour Party.
The possibility for the Brand New Centrist Thing, however, is that we’re in a situation where there are dissident groups of MPs in both Labour and the Conservatives, who are both rebelling over the same issue (Europe), who both see a slim-to-zero chance of them being in control of their parties again and are both of a similar size. The possibility (and it is only a possibility still, not a likelihood, so don’t get too excited yet) exists that they could jointly and simultaneously break away into a Brand New Centrist Thing which could then launch on a narrative about transcending the old party labels for something new, rather than being seen as just a split towards the centre from one party.
‘Ah,’ I hear you say, ‘isn’t that just reinventing the Liberal Democrats?’ Partly, yes, but I think any expectations of defections, especially mass simultaneous defections, to the Liberal Democrats is unlikely for three reasons. First, the Liberal Democrat brand remains a very tarnished and weak one, and while a sudden influx of new MPs might freshen and strengthen it, it could just tarnish and weaken the new MPs instead — would any of them be willing to take that risk? Second, there’s a big fish, small pond problem in that once more than a handful of MPs defect, the dozen or so existing Liberal Democrat MPs will be outnumbered by newcomers which is a situation ripe for strife. Thirdly, any defectors are going to want to bring along supporters and members with them, and it’s a lot easier to persuade someone to come along and join something new than it is to get them to join a group they’ve treated as a rival for years.
There also seems to have been an acknowledgement of this within the Liberal Democrat leadership over the last few months. While Vince Cable does mention the possibility of defections to the party — which the press laps up — he also stresses the importance of working with others opposed to Brexit in whatever form co-operation necessitates. If the Brand New Centrist Thing was to come about, it feels he’s preparing the ground for the Liberal Democrats to seek a way to work with it — and perhaps provide some immediate organisational and structural backbone for it — rather than taking a confrontational and hostile approach to it. For the MPs and others who might be considering the possibility of creating it, the idea that they might be welcomed in the centre, not immediately challenged over it, would be the sort of inducement that makes them more likely to take that step rather than stay in their existing parties or just give up and do something else instead.
While I think the Brand New Centrist Thing is still just a possibility, not a likelihood, the conditions do exist for something new and different to emerge that we can’t assess in terms of the old models and expectations. There’ll still be lots of interesting ways in which it could fail, but there are a few ways in which it might just manage to succeed.