Politics this summer has been dominated by Brexit paralysis, Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and the backlash to Boris Johnson’s Burqa article. Against this depressing political backdrop, speculation about the formation of a new political party has continued. Could this be anything more than a silly season story?
Any political strategist or commentator will outline the considerable hurdles facing a new party: the electoral system, two party dominance and the experience of the SDP in the early 1980s. How would a new party build an organisation from scratch? Who would lead it? All true and in normal political times this would mean the status quo would hold. However, these are not normal times.
Last month William Hague argued that a new centrist party could not succeed because it would have no ideas beyond opposing Brexit. Indeed, many commentators have also assumed that the purpose of a new party would be to oppose Brexit. But what if this assumption is wrong?
The EU Referendum and its result has meant that politicians have talked, campaigned and made friends across party lines, opening up conversations that might not otherwise have happened. The Referendum has turbo-boosted changes in voter behaviour and party preference, but those have already been underway: driven by globalisation, the impact of new technology, generational inequity and the fall-out from the financial crisis. Whatever happens with Brexit, the two established parties have struggled to deal coherently with any of these issues. Indeed, some would argue, they currently offer little more to the country than a choice between returning to either the 1970s or 1950s. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are on the sidelines, a damaged brand with marginal impact.
While Brexit may have created the conditions that mean that political realignment is possible, it is unlikely that is enough on its own to create the conditions for a successful new party. To be viable, a new party would need to have a coherent argument and set of values to inform policy and political strategy beyond the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Even pro-European politicians are aware that a one issue party would fail.
A new party would have to garner support from across the political spectrum (both by party and remain/leave), bring in new people and address those issues and concerns that in part led to Brexit and the alienation from politics that so many people feel across the country. To leave the launch pad it would need people to not only believe that politics is broken, but that there is no chance of a fix within the existing parties. A new party would need to be more than the old politics re-packaged or a London based endeavour.
It is true that frustration, anger and despair can currently be found in all of the parties, but it is most acute within Labour. Many wonder whether their party, currently in the grip of the hard left, can ever return to the mainstream position it has held for most of its history. For now, the status quo prevails. But pressure is building. Traditionally, Britain’s political system has been very stable, but we are not immune to the political trends that can be seen around the world. A new venture may be a “leap in the dark” with little guarantee of electoral success. But if the events of the last two years in the UK and around the world have told us anything, it is that the old rules of politics no longer hold. And that what once seemed unlikely, can quickly come to pass.