Big question: Does Britain need a new political party?

A panel of contributors share their views

July 22, 2016
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron gives a speech following Britain's vote to "Leave" the European Union. Is
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron gives a speech following Britain's vote to "Leave" the European Union. Is

Shortly after the Brexit vote, when asked if he was open to creating a new political party, Tim Farron replied “We shouldn’t put any construct or constraint on what might happen next. People could come to us, they could set up another party, who knows. But there needs to be a realignment.”

The comments from the leader of the Liberal Democrats (who appears on this panel) came in the context of chaos in the Labour Party—a chaos that persists. The party’s MPs are seemingly entirely at odds with its membership on the issue of whether Jeremy Corbyn should remain leader. It has been suggested that this may present an opportunity for disillusioned Labour MPs to form a new political party with other Europhiles—including from the Conservative Party.

On Tuesday, the Guardian reported that a new cross-party “progressive alliance” has the support of Paddy Ashdown and Jonathon Porritt (also on this panel). Should those involved go one step further and push for an entirely new political party? Would the emergence of such a party be to Britain’s benefit? Our panellists answer.

A rallying call

Tim Farron, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

As Lib Dem leader it is my job to build a rallying point for those in all parties, and none, who are serious about wanting to build a party that will enter government and deliver a fairer, more competent society than the one we have. A government that cares about delivering a new deal for our NHS, building opportunity for our future generations through properly supporting our education system and doing so whilst acting in an economically responsible way.

I will work with pro-Europeans across all parties in this post-referendum climate, and more broadly I think it is important to make sure to make sure this century is more progressive than the last. I enjoyed working with people from other parties during the European Union Referendum, and I have always said I will work with anyone in any party to deliver liberal outcomes. But I think ultimately if you want progressive, liberal policies you need to join the Liberal Democrats!

A big tent

Roberta Blackman-Woods, Labour MP for the City of Durham 

Britain does not need a new political party but it does need a renewed Labour Party.

I have always considered diversity to be a strength in every walk of life. Having a wide range of voices with different experiences and from a range of backgrounds can only ever be a good thing. That is why I believe it is not necessary for a new political party for progressive voices. They already have a home in Labour.

In the Labour Party we have a rich history of being a big tent, a broad church that has space for many perspectives and ideas. But we have always been bound together with a shared vision and goal of making society more equal, of ensuring that we have a strong economy and excellent public services, and that everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Successful political parties thrive on robust but comradely debate. This is needed if policies are to be developed that capture the public imagination and get Labour into power.

Don’t get run down

Ryan Shorthouse, Founder and Chief Executive of the Bright Blue think tank

Ah, that recurring dream of centrists: a political party stuffed with the “sensible” folk in all mainstream political parties. Surely, they say, this would be electorally omnipotent? Well, the Liberal Democrats tried to position themselves as the party smack bang in the middle of the Tories and Labour at the last election. And we know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road: as Nye Bevan quipped, they get run down. The most successful political parties need bigger tents.

In democracies, the public eventually get tired of the governing party and vote them out. A party with all the centrists, even if it was successful for a period, would lose power to parties with few or no centrists. This doesn't look so rosy after all, does it?

Centrists shouldn't want all their eggs in one basket. No, best to encourage and empower centrists in all of the main political parties, so they can pull their party—and whoever forms the Government—to “sensible” positions.

Two parties: one Toynbee, one Hitchens

Peter Hitchens, Columnist, Mail on Sunday

Britain needs two new political parties. The easiest way of describing them would be that one should be a Polly Toynbee party: globalist, socially and culturally liberal, and honest about it. And the other should be a Peter Hitchens party, keen on national sovereignty, protectionist, socially and morally conservative, and honest about it. Both could agree on liberty above all, a solid welfare state and health service, and a strong conventional defence. With a bit of luck we might even agree on renationalising the railways and restoring state grammar schools (Polly must realise in the end that they benefit the poor). Then we can once again have proper adversarial parliaments, and parties that learn from each other in fierce debate, and engage the loyalty of their members and supporters.

The winds of demography

Jeremy Cliffe, the Economist’s Bagehot columnist

Some 48 per cent of voters supported EU membership on 23rd June. And Britain is moving in a more cosmopolitan direction: it is becoming more diverse, more urban, more university-educated, more pro-market, more millennial, more socially liberal. Thus the country needs a party making the pragmatic case for openness. This need not be a hyper-liberal the Economist party unambiguously wedded to open borders and free trade. But it should at least go with the grain of social change. So the question is: does Britain have such a party? The Liberal Democrats move in this space, but their brand is tainted. Then there is Labour. Perhaps a liberal social democrat will end up running the party. But if neither outfit steps into the breach, it is time for a new force. This might be a breakaway from Labour, especially if Jeremy Corbyn remains leader. Or it might be a startup. Either way, such a party would be propelled forward by the winds of demography. It would only need to establish a foothold in 2020 to win a majority in 2030 or 2035.

A new system—not a new party

Jonathon Porritt, environmentalist and Green Party Member

The last thing we need in the UK right now is a new political party. What we do need is a new political system, based on fairness (with each vote cast in any Election worth as much as any other vote), transparent finances (getting “big money” of any description out of politics), and the empowerment of those who simply feel excluded from politics, be they among the millions of young people who do, or the so-called “left behind.”

We also need some urgent, coherent and unifying thinking about what “progressive politics” in the UK now looks like—on the economy, the environment, the future of the UK and our role in the world. And that's why a somewhat eclectic group of us have got together to launch the initiative “More United”—to help build that progressive political base between now and the next election.