Will a Centrist Party Solve Anything?
Westminster could be welcoming a new party into its walls in the coming weeks, with discussions about a possible centrist party being formed by disaffected Conservative and Labour MPs escalating in recent days, with possible support from the Liberal Democrats.
This follows ongoing tensions within both major parties over their respective party positions on Brexit, as well as internal divisions within the Labour Party over anti-Semitism and the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, in particular over the recent treatment of Labour MP Luciana Berger. Notable figures at the middle of the discussion include Labour MPs Chukka Umunna and Angela Smith, as well as Conservative MPs Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston. The flashpoint for such a party to form will likely be the upcoming return of Theresa May to the Commons on the 26thof Februaryon the issue of what happens next with Brexit negotiations, with possible defectors from both sides basing it on whether Corbyn decides to back a second referendum or not, and if May rules out a no-deal.
The question is whether such a party could make an impact on the issues it would raise, let alone the wider political climate? I do not believe it will make an impact; it will be a lesser version of the failed Social Democratic Party.
Misguided over Europe
The primary issue that this party will likely advocate is staying in the European Union. Its key leaders, such Chuka Umunna, are prominent figures within the People’s Vote Campaign, and make no secret of their resentment towards the positions their parties stand for. In the case of the Conservatives, Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry are unhappy with Theresa May’s insistence on not ruling out no-deal, whilst pro-Remain Labour MPs are frustrated with Corbyn not accepting a second referendum as the official party position, despite accepting the prospect of it should a General Election fail to trigger, at the Labour Party conference in September of last year. Three years on, however, public opinion towards Brexit has not changed as significantly as some might suggest. Indeed, many polls are currently indicating that staying in the European Union is the preferred option, but it is difficult to definitively argue this when the margins are so close. The campaign itself might produce different results and given that the image of elitism has never seemed to disappear from the Remain campaign, it is possible it would be criticised for the same reasons it did in 2016.
So back to the point – a breakaway party would almost certainly promote staying in the EU, but the appeal for this will be difficult to muster, especially when it cannot be guaranteed that all pro-European members of the electorate will defect to this party. Therefore, their impact could be remarkably limited. Especially if not many MPs decide to defect. That is not to say they would not have any impact at all, as a split could force the major party leaders to rethink their position, especially if the MPs who defect win their seats in a by-election. But in terms of establishing themselves as a major challenger to the current system, it is unlikely that this will happen.
Lacking a manifesto
Besides staying in the European Union, what else is there to promote? Not much. Support for Jewish communities will be a focal point in the party philosophy, given the ongoing controversies of anti-Semitism cases within the Labour Party, including towards Labour MP Luciana Berger. And as history shows with the SDP, breakaway parties will often fail to make any sort of impact beyond the issue they initially focused on. The SDP broke away from Labour out of opposition to Michael Foot and his left-wing tendencies that were influencing a general shift in party policy at the time, instead promoting middle-of-the-road policies. After some initial success in the 1983 General Election, the party failed miserably and disappeared. What makes this new party different? It will likely have similar high profile-figures – namely Chukka Umunna and Anna Soubry, it will oppose the tribalism of both parties, similar to the 1980s, possibly have some success on a single issue, and then fall apart afterwards. The same happened to UKIP, which saw immense success in 2014 and 2015, but after Brexit was decided, they quickly fell apart and are largely irrelevant now compared to previous years. Single-issue parties do not work, national manifestos that balance each issue out are needed. Of course, Brexit is very important, but long-term this party will not work unless it goes beyond wanting to stay in the EU. Unless the aim of the party is to force the hands of the major parties, then slowly reintegrate into their respective parties as their objectives are met – if said parties want to even listen.
We must stop talking about breaking away because new parties will likely fail and be a waste of time and resources. Brexit has, is, and will continue to be a prominent issue, but this option is extreme and unnecessary. Perhaps it is a blunt but obvious message to the main parties that there are a number of MPs and members of the electorate that oppose Brexit altogether, but its impact will probably be more limited than the SDP in the 1980s. Labour might still accept a second referendum, and because of that these MPs and members must continue to express their views through the party. If Labour is weakened, it will solve nothing for anybody. If pro-EU Conservative MPs defect, extreme Brexiteers will get stronger because there will be less opposition within the party to their ideas. Centrist parties will fuel the polarisation.