The new Remain force could be merely a footnote in the history of British politics—unless it pulls itself together fastby Peter Kellner / May 14, 2019 / Leave a comment
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…