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The historian Richard Hofstadter once observed that “third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die.” The United Kingdom has just got itself a new party, Change UK. And in some polls, the new outfit comes in third place behind the Conservatives and Labour. The question is, who will feel the sting?
On February 20, seven MPs left the Labour Party. Another joined them that evening. The next day, three MPs announced that they were crossing the floor from the governing Conservative Party to join what was then called The Independent Group. In March, the group turned itself into a political party, Change UK. The new band had an early success when Labour announced that it would (hesitantly) back a second referendum on EU membership, one of The Independent Group’s main demands. But it has now been six weeks since the TIGs announced themselves as a new political force. Defections have dried up. If the issue that led most of them to leave their old parties in the first place—Brexit—reaches some form of resolution, that might draw Change UK’s sting without anyone else getting hurt.
Defections always captivate Westminster. Winston Churchill argued that the set-up of the House of Commons—two sets of green benches, each facing the other—makes changing parties extremely difficult. It is easy, he said, for MPs in semi-circular chambers “to move through those insensible gradations from Left to Right, but [in the Westminster design] the act of crossing the Floor is one which requires serious consideration.” So what considerations have gone into forming the new party?
Change UK’s rebel MPs are united chiefly by what they are not. They reject Brexit, and several of the former Labour MPs left their party over what they see as its institutional anti-Semitism. The one thing they unequivocally support is another referendum on EU membership. But like all centrist movements, Change UK is open to the charge that it is defined merely in opposition to the parties on either side of it. What exists of its platform—a statement of “values” and an anodyne call for “a stable, fair and balanced economy”—puts the party firmly in the centre of the traditional left-right division over economic policy. This has traditionally been a poor hunting ground for votes. But there are signs that the party aims to get around that problem by unashamedly taking the liberal side of the new cleavage over social values that is shaping British politics. By marrying centrist economics to social liberalism, Change UK likely hopes to set up a new fight in British politics, rather than sitting in the middle and splitting the difference.
Competing on both dimensions makes sense, since economic values still override social ones for most voters. It’s true that values lay behind the Brexit divide—80 percent of the most socially conservative voters opted to Leave, compared to 10 percent of the most socially liberal—but in the last general election, where a person stood on the left-right economic axis was still a much better predictor of which way he or she would vote.
Whether Change UK succeeds will depend on which cleavage—social or economic—comes to the fore in the next election. In the 2017 general election, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn effectively shifted the focus of the campaign from Brexit, where Theresa May wanted it, to austerity, where he did. A snap election called by May to break the Brexit deadlock might similarly end up being about living standards. In the (unlikely) event, however, that the poll were to take place on May 23, the same day as the elections to the European Parliament, then it could become a kind of proxy for another EU referendum. That framing would accentuate the United Kingdom’s division over social values and work to the advantage of Change UK. Even in the absence of a general election, the fact that these European elections are the only national ballot fought under a system of proportional representation will doubtless help the nascent party.
The best way of tilting the axis of the British political system might be to pledge to smash it up. In a divided country, voters are united in the belief that the government has handled Brexit badly: 80 percent of Leavers, along with 85 percent of Remainers, agree on that. Some 83 percent of voters agree that “the entire political establishment has failed the country on Brexit.” Only 19 percent of the public trust politicians. When the polling company YouGov asks voters which of the two party leaders they would choose as the better Prime Minister, “not sure” is the regular winner. The politics of anti-politics could be fruitful territory.
The idea that advocating membership in the EU and espousing a vague set of socially liberal values is counter-cultural would have seemed crazy a few years ago. And eleven MPs clubbing together in Westminster are an unlikely wrecking crew for the political system. But Change UK has emerged at a time when six million British voters signed a petition calling for Brexit to be cancelled. The United Kingdom’s largest political demonstration in nearly two decades was held on the streets of London last month in support of a further EU referendum.
Yet dig a little deeper and contradictions emerge. The core values of Change UK rest on a defence of parliamentary democracy and a rejection of plebiscitory, populist politics. Yet the group derives its political energy from the People’s Vote campaign for a second EU referendum. The party publicly rejects any alliance with the Liberal Democrats, whom they see as part of a discredited political system. But Change UK will have to co-operate with the Lib Dems if it is to survive; doing otherwise would mean splitting what votes there are in the political middle. And Change UK’s political rationale for avoiding the Liberal Democrats—their subterranean poll ratings, following their time in coalition government with the Conservatives—is hard to square with the views of some of Change UK’s members, such as Anna Soubry, the party’s Brexit spokesperson, who belives the coalition did “a marvellous job.”
Change UK is right that some Britons feel that the existing parties aren’t catering to them. Those people, however, don’t seem likely to vote for Change UK. As the data journalist Matthew Smith has illustrated, the issues on which large numbers of people feel unrepresented by the political parties are hardly those most amenable to a socially liberal crusade. It’s difficult to see the current bunch of rebels promoting a harsher justice system, for example, or tighter restrictions on immigration. Perhaps ironically, Leave voters are the ones who seem most likely to feel unrepresented. That might present an opportunity post-Brexit for someone, but not for Change UK.
So the new group will have to steal votes from other parties. But what does centrism mean, and to whose voters will it most appeal? The political scientist Paula Surridge has, using data from the British Election Study, generated three categories of voters on economic issues (left wing, centrist, and right wing) and on social ones (liberal, centrist and authoritarian).
Surridge’s evidence shows that if the electorate were made up of only those voters in the economic center ground, the Conservatives would have romped home in 2017. May won 60 percent of those who described themselves as both socially and economically centrist (Labour won 26 of this group), and 50 percent of social liberals who are also economically centrist (Labour took 31 percent). A party pitching itself to the economic center, therefore, is largely competing for Tory voters.
The greatest support for The Independent Group, according to polls by YouGov and Survation (taken before the creation of Change UK), could be found in London and the South of England, where there are several seats in affluent areas that voted Remain at higher rates than average. Most of these seats are held by Conservative MPs. The other places where a resurgent centrist liberalism might advance should also give the Conservatives reason to worry. Of the 16 constituences in England and Wales that the Liberal Democrats need only a five percent swing to take, 13 are held by Conservative MPs. If the Liberal Democrats and Change UK entered into some kind of electoral pact, those seats could be vulnerable. Forecasts predict another effective stalemate between the Conservatives and Labour in a general election. Even with no other seats changing hands, if the Conservatives lost a dozen seats to Change UK, their winning position could well turn into a losing one.
Yet it is the interaction between Change UK and the Labour Party that is likely to prove most significant. In the days following the creation of the new group, the Labour Party appeared emotionally stung. To ward off further defections, it shifted toward explicitly supporting a second Brexit referendum (although Labour leaders added caveats). That shift could turn out to be the new party’s biggest impact.
Change UK, then, might have already released its sting and be in the process of dying. The new party’s short-term future will hinge on whether a reluctant Corbyn, weighing the balance of risks, takes the painful political antidote and turns Labour into the party of Remain. The party’s longer-term success depends on a more fundamental realignment of British politics, in which the divide the referendum has created becomes permanent. If British politics really does end up as a battle over social values, this group of social liberals will not be the only party set to profit.