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
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