We can't even agree on what centrism is—so let's stop talking about a new "centrist" party

Creating new, smaller parties every time we are confronted by a major issue is a pointless, ego-driven exercise. It's time for the commentariat to move on

August 14, 2017
Being anti-Brexit isn't enough to bind a new party together. Photo: Prospect composite
Being anti-Brexit isn't enough to bind a new party together. Photo: Prospect composite

The notion of a new political party is the idea that never dies. This time it’s spurred on by James Chapman, one-time political editor of the Daily Mail and advisor to David Davis at the Department for Exiting the EU, who seems to have had something of a Damascene conversion and realised that Brexit is, in his words, going to be a “catastrophe.” Invited on to Radio 4’s Today program last Friday to talk up his wish for a new party, called the Democrats, he claimed that cabinet ministers had “been in touch” to say that agreed with him. An initial rally has been organised for next month; slogan-filled apparel is being flogged online.

Would a pro-European, anti-Brexit political party be a success? Thankfully for Chapman, he doesn’t have to guess. Instead, he can turn to the results of a real-world experiment: they’re called the Liberal Democrats. Just two months ago they won eight per cent of the vote. A new party, even one that cut and paste the Lib Dems’ remain policies, would struggle to reach such dizzying heights, unable as they would be to rely upon the residual loyalty that many Lib Dem supporters feel for their party.

Yet Chapman believes his party, which doesn’t actually exist yet—it’s just a man on a Greek island with a Twitter account and some cabinet phone numbers—has a fighting chance. So too, it seems, do many in the media who are gleefully reporting the possibility that Tory and Labour MPs alike will switch.

The press enthusiasm shouldn’t surprise us. There is a constituency in the media that believes there is a need for a new “grown-up” political party of the centre. The problem is that no two people can agree on what ‘centrism’ actually is.

In the Times earlier this year, Hugo Rifkind argued that there is a centre “struggling to form in British politics. It would draw George Osborne from one side, and Sadiq Khan from the other, with room for Nick Clegg, Yvette Cooper and others in between.” This is, with the greatest of respect to Rifkind, who is otherwise insightful on such matters, simply not true.

Khan and Osborne may both be socially liberal and pro-European, but that’s where the similarities end. Osborne was responsible for some of the most vicious cuts to the public sector the UK has ever suffered, cut income tax for the rich and oversaw a dramatic shrinking of the state. Khan, like the rest of the Labour party, opposed him every step of the way.

This goes to the heart of the problem for any new “centrist” party. They will come together over Brexit, and fall apart over everything else. What happens when the Democrats discuss education? Would they back free schools like Anna Soubry, or oppose them like Yvette Cooper? What about public sector pay? Would they back the freeze imposed by Osborne, or support an increase like the Labour party? The right to strike? The minimum wage? The list goes on—encompassing pretty much every issue that isn’t Brexit.

Before Chapman’s gang of one starts hiring a headquarters, it might like to consider the challenges faced by another new political group that promised to shake-up Westminster, the Women’s Equality Party. Launched with much fanfare—and much media attention—in 2015, the WEP quickly discovered that it couldn’t even agree on how much equality they should fight for.

When some members argued for the WEP to oppose the Tory government’s austerity cuts on the not unreasonable basis that research had showed the highest burden was falling on women, the leadership backed away. At the most recent general election, the WEP stood in just seven seats out of 650, with its best result in Shipley where part-leader Sophie Walker won 1.9 per cent of the vote.

Or maybe he could look at the example of that other new party created amid a fight over Europe, Veritas, the ego-vehicle for former talk-show host and immigrant-basher Robert Kilroy-Silk, which won an average of 623 votes per seat in the one general election it fought.

The same is true on the left. Since the days of New Labour there have been various iterations of left alternatives, including the beautifully-named Left Unity, none of which have ever come close to winning a seat.

New parties are always going to attract media attention, particularly in a quiet news month, but they are an unhealthy obsession. Mass political parties will never be pure; there will always be compromises. That’s as it should be: in order to gain widespread appeal, they have to be broad churches. Splitting off into smaller groups every time we are confronted by a major issue is a pointless, ego-driven exercise. 

Political parties don’t have to win elections to make a difference as seven-times loser Nigel Farage can attest to. Some of Chapman’s supporters have claimed that as long as the Democrats have an impact on the debate, that will count as a success. But real change still comes from established political parties. Chapman is, or was, a Tory. He should become an active member, stand for election, and change his party from the inside. There will be fewer headlines to bolster his ego; but he might actually make a difference.