Over the weekend, Tim Shipman of the Sunday Times reported that allies of Tony Blair are in discussions about establishing a new political party if Labour falls to a historic defeat on June 8. According to a source, the “unthinkable is being thought” and pledges of funding have reportedly already been made, should a breakaway be pursued.
The stunning achievement of Emmanuel Macron in reaching the Élysée Palace at the helm of a political movement, En Marche!, which did not exist a little over a year ago, has inevitably prompted the question of whether a similar feat could be pulled off here in the UK.
It is not hard to see why many may wish it could be. Labour ‘moderates’ are dismayed by the party’s prospects in June and Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence that he will stay on as leader come what may. But it is not only Labour figures that might be tempted by a new centrist movement in the mould of En Marche!
Conservative Europhiles, disillusioned by the extent to which their leader has enthusiastically embraced the cause of Brexit, and Liberal Democrats, frustrated by the slow progress in undoing the electoral damage caused by five years spent in coalition with the Tories, might both be tempted to sign up. And then there are those who do not currently belong to any party, who may welcome the creation of a new movement which they could help to shape from the ground up. There is obvious appeal in the idea of bringing together the best of all traditions with the baggage of none.
It’s a nice idea. But is it workable?
There are a variety of hurdles that any new party or movement would have to clear in order to be viable.
The first (and perhaps greatest) challenge is illustrated by the fate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) – the last serious attempt at creating a new centrist party which aimed to re-order the British political landscape. The Limehouse Declaration in March 1981 saw four leading lights of the Labour Party breakaway to form the SDP. They would later team up with the Liberals to form the SDP-Liberal Alliance and for a time they took the polls by storm, hitting a peak of over 50% in a Gallup poll in December ’81. Their stratospheric poll rating fell back, but the Alliance still bagged an impressive 25% of the vote at the 1983 General Election. But alas, the spread of this quarter of the votes was not conducive to winning seats under a First Past the Post system, yielding just 23. One thing led to another and, before the decade was out, the SDP was over as a going concern.
The fate of the SDP continues to serve as a stark warning in the minds of many – especially in the Labour Party – of the perils of breaking away. Our Westminster electoral system makes converting votes into seats especially challenging for parties without long-established support in concentrated geographical areas. Overcoming this practical obstacle would be one of the toughest challenges for any new party.
Tim Shipman’s report notes that those in Labour exploring the establishment of a new party regard it very much as ‘plan B’ – the preference remains to wrest control of the party back from Jeremy Corbyn and his allies. Partly, this no doubt reflects the practical challenges outlined above, but there is also an emotional dimension. Whatever anyone on the left of the party might think, figures such as Peter Mandelson and others on the ‘Blairite’ wing love the Labour Party. To abandon it would be a gut-wrenching experience for many. The same is no doubt true for those Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who might otherwise be tempted by a new party – for people with often lifelong affiliations to a particular political tradition, it is no trifling matter to give this up in favour of pastures new. When push came to shove, would a critical mass of people really be willing to join the new party?
The next challenge is more personality oriented – put simply, who would be the Emmanuel Macron of this new party? In order to be viable, it would almost certainly need a figurehead who could enthuse the electorate and be presented as a plausible Prime Minister in waiting. Preferably, they should have potential appeal to voters from across the political spectrum and be relatively light on political baggage acquired in their previous political life. Needless to say, such figures do not grow on trees. Finding their Macron would be no easy feat.
Finally, it is worth bearing in mind that, unlike in France, there is not currently any evidence that the electorate at large is crying out for a new party. Across the Channel, the incumbent President and his party had abysmal approval ratings; Marine Le Pen and her Front National remained toxic to many; and the Republicans saw first Nicolas Sarkozy and then Francois Fillon fatally undermined by financial scandals. Not to belittle his achievement in any way, but Macron was in many respects pushing at an open door to the Presidency, when his principal rivals all appeared to be deeply flawed in the eyes of much of the electorate.
Can the same be said here? Theresa May’s Conservatives poll consistently between 45% and 50% and May enjoys strong approval ratings. Even looking at Labour, their support remains stubbornly in the 25% to 30% bracket – significantly ahead of the woeful ratings which the French Socialists enjoyed even prior to the emergence of En Marche! Indeed, as Will Straw today points out, current polling suggests the two largest parties may achieve their highest combined share of the vote since 1979, when it was 80%. A new party may not necessarily be operating in the most favourable climate therefore, and would run the risk of merely splitting the opposition to ‘Theresa May’s Team’ and widening her already substantial polling lead.
All of this is not to say that a new party will not be attempted; if Labour has a terrible night on June 8 the temptation will undoubtedly be strong – especially if Jeremy Corbyn is true to his word and opts to stay on as leader. But the challenges such a party would face would be significant, and the obvious comparison to En Marche! is not entirely applicable given the very different systems and circumstances here in the UK.
So what might be the alternative to a wholly new party for Labour ‘moderates’ if the doomsday scenario does play out? Well, one option could be for those Labour MPs opposed to Corbyn’s continuing leadership to sit as a separate group in Parliament – called, say, ‘Independent Labour’ – and seek to usurp Corbyn as Leader of the Opposition if not as leader of the party. Such a move could leave Corbyn little choice but to step down – though perhaps in those circumstances, it could instead be a breakaway from the left we’d be looking at.
However, we’re probably getting ahead of ourselves here. There’s the small matter of the General Election first. Only then will we really know the likelihood of our very own En Marche! getting on the move.
Main image by Official Le Web Photos.