Not this again. How many new parties have been proposed now? Andrew Rawnsley says 34 have registered with the Electoral Commission since January. A political party is for life, not just for a twitterstorm. Still, the Tories’ annexation by Ukip and Labour’s transformation into some hideous fusion of CND and the BNP has left those of us who mosey around the centre ground electorally homeless. Why shouldn’t we have a party that articulates our worldview?
That seems to be the thinking behind a new group touted on the front page of the Observer. In the works since 2016 (and still there, since there are no plans beyond a few meetings and some WhatsApp threads), the ‘Centre Party’ is said to have access to £50 million from wealthy benefactors. That should cover a lot of lost deposits.
The arguments against are well rehearsed:
1) The SDP already tried it.
2) The electoral system favours big beasts.
3) There is no obvious leader.
4) Without sizeable representation in parliament, it will struggle for media coverage after initial interest dies down and will probably have to sue its way into election debates.
5) Corralling shoeless tech millionaires, angst-ridden newspaper columnists, and Brexit-despairing celebs into a political party would end in hilarious, highly watchable disaster.
As a veteran of Jim Murphy for Scotland, Kezia Dugdale for First Minister and Liz Kendall for Labour leader, I’m a big fan of futile efforts to do the right thing that end in spectacular defeat and the selling of kidneys on the dark web to fund the final month’s rent on campaign HQ. Centrist Dads of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but whatever dignity an owner of signed Genesis merchandise can claim to enjoy.
The notion of a new party leaves me unmoved, though, and for more than just the reasons above. First of all, none of this was necessary. We wouldn’t be here if Blair had booted out the commies, IRA groupies and PLO fanboys. We wouldn’t be here without Miliband and his £3 revolutionaries. We wouldn’t be here if the PLP’s feckless moderates had half Corbyn’s gumption and had left en masse to sit as a separate Labour bloc. So, it’s hard to accept that those who were too frit to take any number of opportunities to fend off this morass are the people we should look to for salvation.
Moreover, the notion that the Tory left and Labour right are one and the same is the sort of risible nonsense that would barely pass muster in your Guardian column or on your podcast. ‘Anna Soubry has endorsed the Centre Party – and the Tories should be worried!’ Most of the names commonly raised as possible defectors are people you would struggle to imagine sharing a party. Perfectly polite to one another, even friendly, but on two different wavelengths politically. Take Liz Kendall and George Osborne. Kendall is a social democrat who believes in redistribution, the welfare state and trade unions. Osborne is a liberal Tory who likes low taxes, light-touch regulation and who put the country through six years of punishing austerity. The only people who think the two of them belong in the same party are Corbynistas and, bizarrely, centrists.
Political parties, at least successful ones, spring up from a class, interest group or idea. Their passion comes from struggle, solidarity, love of liberty, hatred of injustice, and a thousand other causes. From where can a Centre Party rouse the spirit that brings disparate people together in a common purpose, sustains them through sharp disagreements, and gives them the strength to get back up again after a stinging defeat? Centrism is not a crusade, equidistance hardly a turn-on. If you want to awaken a movement, your manifesto needs to be more than a Stealers Wheel chorus.
Before we get to the ‘But…’, it’s worth chucking in a few more hurdles. Yes, many voters profess themselves fed up with the two main parties and say they want more choice but they still give Labour and the Tories four-fifths of their votes. Britons are conservative kvetchers. We like to jaw but, good Lord, you don’t want to go changing things! Equally, if the Centrists are to be anti-Brexit, is it wise to set up a political party expressly in opposition to the will of the majority on the biggest issue of the day? Will they also take a firm stand on smacking, modern art, and the pronunciation of ‘scone’?
And here it is: But… while a Centre Party would likely be hexed from the start, would be lucky to get a handful of MPs elected, and everyone involved would lose their shirts, there is one very strong argument in favour of a new party. Maybe not a centrist but a centre-left faction that can appeal to moderate Labour voters. Such an arrangement would struggle to elect many MPs but it would likely block Jeremy Corbyn’s path to No.10. The man himself is unfit for office and he is making Labour a party unfit for decent people. If a new party could keep him out of power then, and only then, would it be a cause worth signing up to.