By Callum Mansfield
On Sunday the 11th of February, Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna, the co-chairs of the All-Party Group on EU Relations and two of Remain’s loudest voices, did a joint interview on the Andrew Marr Show. During the interview Marr made an interesting observation, “you are closer to each other politically, you (Anna Soubry) are closer to him than you are to Jacob Rees-Mogg and you (Chuka Umunna) are closer to her than you are to John McDonnell.” This highlights a long-standing problem of our political system, MPs from different parties can often be closer ideologically to one another than they are to members of their own party. The two major parties, Labour and the Conservatives, are often characterised as broad-churches, meaning they encompass a large range of views and policies are often somewhere in the centre of that. However, the biggest current issue – Brexit – threatens to divide the two main political parties. When an issue as big as Brexit becomes greater than other party issues, will we see a shattering of the party system? Or, as both main political parties seem to be polarising (moving further to right and left respectively), how will those in the centre respond?
Britain does not have a great history with third parties, the last time a third party gained power they were subsequently destroyed and had to prepare for ‘fifty years in the wilderness’, according to Matthew Holehouse. The Liberal Democrats gained fifty-seven seats in the 2010 General Election, which made them the Kingmaker in deciding who they would join in coalition – the Conservatives or Labour. After thirteen years of Labour ruler under Blair, and later Brown, Nick Clegg’s team decided to become the Conservative’s coalition partner. Once the coalition was over, many Liberal Democrat voters felt betrayed by the party, as they had supported an austerity government, which cut public spending. Simultaneously, the Conservatives made all governmental failures appear to be the fault of the Liberal Democrats. This destroyed their ability to attract votes in 2015. As a result, after the 2015 election, the party held only eight seats. Before the Liberal Democrats there was the SDP in the 1980s, which was formed by the Gang of Four – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rogers and Shirley Williams – who left the Labour Party, as they believed it had become too left-wing, as it supported EU withdrawal and unilateral nuclear disarmament. What is interesting about the SDPs formation, is that it occurred under similar circumstances as the ones we face today. The Gang of Four left their party because of complications over Europe and fears that their old party was too polarised. As the comments by Marr suggest, Britain’s two main political parties are heading to the extremes. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, backed by Momentum, is likely to become more left-wing, and the Conservative Party with talk of the ‘Brexit dream team’ and a Rees-Mogg leadership (21% of those polled on ‘Conservative Home’ would like him to be the next leader), is turning towards the right. As such, MPs like Soubry and Umunna are left closer to one another, than they are to their party leadership. Surely, as Brexit is destined to change our country irrevocably, it is time for a breakdown in old party alliances.
The issue with new political parties is this: they fail to gain enough support to win enough seats to make a difference. At their height the Liberal Democrats won sixty-two seats in 2005, but this still wasn’t enough to enter government through coalition as Labour won three hundred and fifty-five (326 is required for a majority). In 2010, although they won fewer seats, they were in a greater position of power because neither of the two main parties gained a majority. This displays a large issue in our electoral system, how can a party have fewer seats, but greater power in the legislature. First Past the Post (FPTP) is a majoritarian voting system, meaning the individual with the most votes wins. Since General Elections are won by parties gaining the most number of seats in the House of Commons, parties must gain the most number of votes in each constituency contest. The system favours large parties who are guaranteed to win a large number of seats, there is no prize for second place in our system. Whilst FPTP is successful in creating parliamentary majorities which lead to single-party governments (before 2010, there hadn’t been a coalition since 1950), they don’t benefit smaller parties, unless in a situation where neither major party can gain a majority. Even then, coalitions are not guaranteed, in 1977 after the Labour party lost their majority, Callaghan negotiated the Lib-Lab pact, where the Liberals offered their support to Labour but did not join the government. More recently, after Theresa May’s Conservative Party failed to gain a majority last year, she entered a supply and confidence deal with Northern Irish DUP.
The main issue with third parties is credibility and broad appeal. Unlike the notions of left and right, which the Labour Party and the Conservatives embody, the notion of centrism is far harder to define. As a result, parties in the middle tend not to attract as many voters. I would argue, in the possible case of a new party, they would be able to overcome both of these issues. Firstly, in terms of credibility, if this party was led by Labour and Tory defectors, they would already individually have track records in government to assure the public of their competence. Secondly, if they clearly established themselves as the pro-EU party (in a way the Lib Dems have been unable to do), they would already have support from 48% of the country. Calls for this new party begun as soon as Brexit became an inevitability. In the summer of last year, James Chapman, former Communications Director to George Osborne, began a twitter cascade calling for a new party to be formed to oppose Brexit – called The Democrats. Similarly, MPs are placing ‘lines in sand’ against their own parties, to warn them of a possible split. Heidi Allen, a pro-Remain Moderate Conservative, has already said she would leave the party if Jacob Rees-Mogg was leader.
After the “success” of Jeremy Corbyn – who did better in the last General Election than people expected, but still failed to win – it seems as though many Labour MPs are not in a hurry to jump ship like they were before the election. Whilst, the Conservative Party continues to be bullied by its right-wing Eurosceptic members, it seems unlikely that moderate Tories will leave the party. After all, where will they go? As the Lib Dems struggle to find their identity in this new Brexit era, it is an unappealing place for already established MPs to go. Remainers who are still in anguish over Britain’s withdrawal from the EU may feel disheartened with knowledge that a new centrist force is unlikely to take over Britain any time soon. But Brexit is coming, and the emergence of a new party will not change that, as both Soubry and Umuna argued the only people who might stop Brexit “are the people of this country”.