Has Change UK blown it?

The new Remain force could be merely a footnote in the history of British politics—unless it pulls itself together fast

May 14, 2019
Change UK interim leader Heidi Allen speaks at Church House in Westminster. Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire/PA Images
Change UK interim leader Heidi Allen speaks at Church House in Westminster. Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire/PA Images

Has Change UK blown its chances? Unless its support surges over the next few days, it will stumble badly in next week’s elections to the European Parliament—syphoning enough votes from other anti-Brexit parties to deny them perhaps five or six seats, but winning too few votes to pick up more than one or two of its own.

Two weeks later, Change UK will be absent from the Peterborough by-election. Any chance of securing early momentum to build on its dramatic birth will be lost.

That is not all. With the semi-proportional European Parliament elections out of the way, Change UK faces the ferocious headwinds of first-past-the-post for all other nationwide elections. It is hard to overstate the pain this inflicts on parties trying to break into the big time. Four years ago, Ukip won 13 per cent support but won just one seat. Back in 1983, the SDP/Liberal Alliance did twice as well—26 per cent—but secured only 23 seats (4 per cent of the total).

It’s not just that first-past-the-post punishes small parties. If you can concentrate your support in particular kinds of seat, you have a chance to fight back. The most obvious examples come from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Parties that are small in UK terms can sweep up seats in their own territories.

For Britain-wide parties, however, the task is harder. For decades the Liberals, and subsequently Liberal Democrats, struggled to break through. They had to wait until 1997 to make significant gains. In fact, their share of the Britain-wide vote (17.2 per cent) was down slightly on the previous general election in 1992 (18.3 per cent). But they emerged with more than twice as many MPs (46, compared with 20). This was largely because they had built up local strength in council elections, and also benefitted from ferocious anti-Conservative tactical voting in seats where they had previously come a strong second. Each of their successes in 1997 can be traced back to a recent local history of semi-success.

Change UK has no such history of local strength on which to build. It may be that some of its MPs will successfully defend their own seats. However, the record of the SDP in the 1983 election—four of its MPs held their seats held while 23 lost—warns against expecting much success for politicians who seek re-election under new colours. Elsewhere, it is hard to see Change UK, lacking any record of local success anywhere, gaining any seats.

So is Change UK doomed?

Yes, unless…

Here are the ways in which it might be able to bend the arc of politics in its favour (once the European elections are out of the way).

A Remain pact

Negotiate an electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. The Liberals and SDP negotiated such a pact in 1983. It covered every seat in Britain. It did not help either party storm to success, but without it both parties would have done much worse. In fact the pact was over-engineered. There was much painful haggling over which party would fight which hopeless seat.

A pact next time should cover only those seats where the choice is fairly obvious: MPs defending their own patch, those where the Lib Dems or Greens have established a local base, and some Labour seats with left-wing MPs that Change UK might reasonably hope to challenge. This strategy cannot guarantee success.

But if the three parties between them end up with 30-40 seats, this might be enough to hold the balance of power in a hung parliament—and also provide a platform for future elections.

Convince Labour MPs

Attract more Labour MPs. The current seven is two few. Four times as many joined the SDP, and they included former cabinet ministers. The SDP still failed.

If 40 or 50—or more—Labour MPs were to join Change UK in the coming months, this would change the party’s narrative. It could claim plausibly to be the real heir to Labour’s centre-left traditions. That narrative would be helped if Jeremy Corbyn remained Labour’s leader (or if he were succeeded by a like-minded left-winger). Again, this would not guarantee success, but it would improve the odds.

Pray for a Tory split

Pray for a split in the Conservative Party. Goodness knows what state the party will be in in a year, and possibly a month, from now. But it is plainly possible that the Brexit drama will break it apart—for example, if its local members elect a hardline Brexiter to succeed Theresa May. I doubt this would lead many Tory MPs to switch to Change UK; but a significant minority might part company with the Conservatives and stand for re-election under a more moderate centre-right banner. This could open the way to a broader non-aggression pact with Change UK and the Lib Dems, opening up the possibility of a broad, moderate coalition having real influence in the next parliament, perhaps as a prelude to a fuller realignment after the next election.

A catalyst, not a beneficiary

To those three possibilities can be added a fourth way forward, in which Change UK acts as a catalyst rather than a beneficiary of change. Labour might also split. A clear majority of Labour MPs are both pro-EU and anti-Corbyn. If the current leadership is seen to screw up the politics of Brexit and alienate large numbers of Labour voters (who, like most of the party’s MPs, are pro-EU), then it is possible that a majority of Labour MPs could insist on their own leadership in the Commons and become the official opposition. Corbyn would remain the leader of the national party while, say, Tom Watson became the leader of the parliamentary party.

Such a development would be seriously unstable. Writs would fly. Local activists would be caught up in a nasty civil war. Life at Westminster would be desperately unpleasant for many MPs. But, when the dust eventually settles, Britain would once again have a substantial centre-left force. And maybe the ex-Labour MPs who set up Change UK would rejoin their former comrades.

Those, then, are some of the ways in which Change UK might be more than a footnote in British politics. There might be others. What are the chances of any of them succeeding? Search me. I have never known a time when the trajectory of our nation has been less certain, or my crystal ball less clear.