Over the weekend I was lucky enough to attend the Kings Place Politics Festival 2017 and saw a thought provoking talk by Gavin Esler, Ian Birrell, Tim Montgomerie, Philip Collins, and Ayesha Hazarika in which the panellists discussed an article written by Collins (read the article here) suggesting that there could be a gap in the market for a new political party. While none of the journalists were predicting a new party emerging any time soon, it was very interesting to hear them talk about the circumstances which would be necessary for that to happen.
Everybody agreed that if there was to be a new force in British politics any time soon, they would most likely need to occupy the centre-left which has been vacated by Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. It is certainly true that the Labour party have become increasingly socialist since 2015 and that, to a lesser extent, the Conservatives have moved further to the right under Theresa May than they were under David Cameron’s leadership. It could be argued that this leaves a window of opportunity for a new party to emerge as the real centrist option for the electorate. This raises another question, as Owen Jones declared while at the Festival that ‘centrism is dead’ which would suggest that, if a new party was to become popular it would probably need to be a more extreme right than the Conservatives to appeal to former UKIP voters. To an extent, even UKIP’s popularity has proven that there is a demand for a more extreme option in politics than that provided by the two traditional parties so it would be interesting to see how successful a new right-wing party would be, although personally I have my doubts and feel that they would simply end up competing on the fringes with the likes of UKIP, the BNP, and the National Front. Any new party would have the best chance of achieving electoral success if they positioned themselves as the centre-left as a sort of Blairite Labour ideology.
The obvious example of new parties emerging and becoming successful at the moment is in France, where the traditional parties in the supposed two-party system both found themselves knocked out of the presidential election before the final round earlier this year, allowing Marine Le Pen to contest with the eventual President, Emmanuel Macron. While Le Pen’s National Front had existed for years, previously under Le Pen’s father, Macron’s ‘En Marche!’ was created specifically for this year’s election and is named for Macron’s initials. Although Macron had been Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs before running for president, his youth and freshness was a huge reason for his success. This would suggest that, if a new party were to achieve electoral success in the UK, they would also need to be led by somebody with fresh ideas and a ‘man/woman of the people’ reputation. The names being bandied about by the panel at the Festival were as varied as David Miliband, J.K Rowling, and Gary Lineker as the person who could lead the next force in British politics, although they all clearly have their downsides. The most obvious of these is that two of the three I have mentioned have never worked in politics during their lifetimes, however much they like to use their Twitter platform – and how ridiculous it would be if someone with no political background ended up as one of the leaders of the free world!
David Miliband is a sort of man who would seem perfect to lead a new party: he has a well known name and reputation, has a good following among the wider public and could bring fresh ideas to the government as has rarely been centrally involved in previous governments. The only problem with Miliband is he has been tarnished due to being one of the driving forces behind the Iraq War under Tony Blair. If you think about the proportion of people – particularly the working class – who refuse to vote for Jeremy Corbyn due to his association with IRA, Miliband would have at least as great a problem with his past associations with Iraq. This would probably rule him out as the ‘man of the people’ to lead the country forward in an unconventional political party, so it would be difficult to see who would be able to gain the cult following needed to do so. Two of my own candidates would be Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees-Mogg, both of whom command an uncanny number of followers, especially young people. One only needs to look at Corbyn’s set at Glastonbury Festival and the numerous pages on social media dedicated to Rees-Mogg to see their popularity. However, the problem with the two of these is that their personal views would not lend themselves to leading a new party as Rees-Mogg is positioned on the right of the Conservatives while Corbyn leads a left-wing Labour so neither seems suitable to fill the centre-left gap in the market at the moment. It is clear that that kind of leader would be needed to head a new party, the problem would be finding somebody suitable.
I agree with the panelists that the two criteria for a new party would be a charismatic, ‘fresh’ leader and a centre-left core ideology, but I do find it slightly difficult to see how such a party could achieve electoral success. The big difference between Macron’s rise and anything which would happen in the UK is that Macron won a presidential election rather than a parliamentary one. While it is true that Macron’s hastily compiled party subsequently won a majority in the French parliamentary elections, it has to be noted that this was after he had been elected as President, meaning his mandate was a personal one more than one for his party. In the UK, general elections all happen in one go which would make it difficult for a new party to emerge all of a sudden like Macron, making it more likely that, if a new party was to gain power and influence, it would almost certainly take a number of elections for them to build up widespread support. However, one thing that could work to the advantage of any new party would be the current state of the nation with the hung parliament, which would mean that it might be easier for the new party to gain influence. For instance, in the current Parliament, a new party would only need to have between ten and twenty seats in order to enter into a coalition or confidence and supply agreement. Even so, I find it difficult to see a new party in Britain gaining any sort of influence considering general elections favour established parties in the UK.
This idea was also touched on in a talk by ex-Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who was complaining about the way the British system favoured the Conservatives and Labour, making it very difficult for newer parties to find a way into Parliament. The simple fact is that the first-past-the-post system massively favours the larger parties due to the fact that only a simple plurality is needed to win a seat in the House of Commons so for a new party to do well they would need to win more of the vote than all other parties in individual constituencies rather than simply winning a reasonable share of the vote across the country. This is why UKIP were so unfairly represented in the last Parliament as, although they won 12.6% of the popular vote across the country in 2015, they only returned one seat in Parliament. Therefore, it would not be enough for a new party simply to have a widespread appeal across the country, they would need to have concentrated support in specific areas. Obviously it would take time for something like this to happen as the party would need to gradually build up support and convince skeptics that they would have a serious chance of being elected. Therefore, even if a new party could rise and become a force in British politics, it would take years (and possibly decades) for them to emerge as a contender to win an election.
Therefore, however refreshing it would be to see a new party emerge in British politics, what with the current disenchantment with mainstream parties, I cannot see a new party gaining any proper success. Not only does the British system make it very difficult for anybody but the traditional two or three parties to win seats, but there is currently no standout person to lead the new movement in the way that Macron was able to in France. If a new party was to emerge over time, they would probably find it very difficult to win power because, by the time they had established themselves in the political scene, the dimensions in British politics would have changed so there would no longer necessarily be a gap for a centre-left party to grow into. If there was a new party to emerge I think the way it would happen is that the party would base themselves around a single issue, the way UKIP built up success over time, but I do not see any place for a centrist party in the coming years. For now, at least, Jeremy Corbyn is as close as Britain will get to a new, unconventional politician.