In the short term, the "Tiggers" will fail to gain support—and crucial media coverage—unless they stress their Remain stance. But longer-term success requires a different strategy entirelyby Chaminda Jayanetti / April 24, 2019 / Leave a comment
Those who don’t while away empty hours of meaningless existence scrolling through Twitter are likely to have missed yesterday’s European elections campaign launch by Change UK, the hurriedly-rebranded Independent Group of anti-Brexit defectors from the main two parties.
For all the sniping at the new party’s tortuous struggle to agree on a name, it is the lack of mainstream news coverage for its campaign launch that bodes most ill for the elections to come.
Whereas the launch of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party campaign dominated the airwaves, neither the BBC nor the Guardian gave significant coverage to Change UK’s launch amid the fallout from the Sri Lanka terror attacks.
Without heavy media coverage, the startup party will struggle to stand out from a crowded anti-Brexit field and implant itself in voters’ minds as the “party of Remain.”
Not that the ‘Tiggers’ are helping themselves. They claim to represent a change from politics as usual, and their candidates list reportedly includes nurses and teachers.
But instead of making an NHS-based candidate centre stage at their press conference to talk about the damage Brexit will do to the health service, pride of place went to ex-BBC frontman Gavin Esler, while most media attention focused on Boris Johnson’s journalist sister Rachel—at least until it emerged one of their apparently unvetted candidates sent a racist tweet.
The party has also adopted an inexplicable logo, consisting of four black bars that can be switched into any colour—reflecting either an inability to agree on one colour, or a branding strategy dreamt up by the kind of third-rate marketing twonk indelibly associated with latter-day Blairism.
But the biggest problem facing Change UK is that it is caught between two aims: fighting a battle and fighting a war.
The battle is stopping Brexit. This is an immediate aim that—partly—cuts across traditional left-right divides and was key to the party’s creation.
The war is ‘breaking the mould’ of British politics and supplanting one of the main UK parties – or failing that, at least superseding the Lib Dems.
Winning the battle favours a short-termist strategy. The branding would be fully pro-Remain—in fact, Remain should surely be in the party name—and the party would function as part of a formal alliance with the Lib Dems, and possibly the Greens, for the European elections.
But a big driver of the formation of Change UK was alienation from Labour over anti-Semitism and Jeremy Corbyn’s Bennite politics. This was never just about Brexit. The premise of the new party is that the two main parties are unsalvageable parts of the problem.
This long war to reshape British politics requires a completely different approach to simply doing well in the European elections. It requires other policies, and it requires a recognisable position somewhere on the left-right axis that might alienate parts of the Remain vote—most particularly the Greens. It needs a party name that will mean something after the Battle for Brexit is won and lost. And it means securing maximum bargaining power in any future merger talks with the Lib Dems—which entails first taking them on and beating them in an election.
This contradiction explains the difficulties the fledgling party is facing. Change UK are caught between two strategic paths. To have any viability they need large numbers of voters to identify with them—but they don’t have the overt Remain branding to secure one type of loyalist, and they don’t have the policies and clear positioning to secure another.
And above all, they don’t know how the economy should be run. After the centrist political economy—the profits of Big Finance funding a social safety net—collapsed in 2008, centrists utterly failed to find a new model. After Blairites tried to drag Ed Miliband towards a more pro-austerity stance, they have a huge, and deserved, trust deficit with Labour’s support base.
The party name isn’t the problem: many of those criticising ‘Change UK’ for being too vague are the same people who criticised Remain for allowing the Leave campaign to brand itself as the ‘change’ option.
After all, what did ‘Liberal Democrat’ ever mean? This amalgamation of two forerunner parties’ names allowed people to project what they wanted onto it. Only when the Lib Dems were forced to show what they really stood for did voters’ illusions collapse.
But that strategy was aided by headline-grabbing policies such as a penny on income tax for the NHS (1997), opposition to the Iraq War (2005) and the infamous tuition fees pledge (2010).
Change UK has no such policies beyond stopping Brexit—and anti-Brexit Labourites are at least as likely to lend their vote to the overtly left-wing Greens instead. Many Labour voters are alienated from the leadership and membership but will not switch to Change UK if it resembles a party of pro-EU privatisers.
Regardless of Change UK’s fortunes in the European elections, its clutch of MPs means it will have a future—at least in the short run. But the party is caught between names, colours, positions, objectives and strategies.
Most of all, they resemble a party being advised by the same people whose failures opened the door to the chaos they want to change.