14 September 2018

A new centre party could hack British politics if it looks beyond Westminster

By Ben Glover

Languishing in the polls with a leader determined to stay on past his sell-by date, Liberal Democrats descending on Brighton this weekend must feel tempted by talk of a new centrist party. Yet most will stay because of a misguided belief that electoral annihilation awaits any such an initiative. For whilst the road to parliamentary centrism remains a rocky one, centrists willing to look to next year’s mayoral contests could find an alternative route into Westminster.

The argument in favour of a new party usually goes as follows: our two main parties have veered to the extremes and thus there is an electoral gap for liberal, centre-ground politics, which the Liberal Democrats are too weak to fill. Sceptics then reply that broad support across the country isn’t enough. To break into Westminster you need deep roots in lots of seats, something a new party can’t achieve – just look what happened to the SDP! At this point the new party advocate normally scratches their head and graciously concedes.

Yet the assumption at the core of this rebuttal – that our political system is unchanged since the days of the SDP – is false. Yes, first-past-the-post remains and the two main parties received their highest combined share of the vote for some time in last year’s General Election. But whilst Westminster has proven resistant to change we have seen important political reforms elsewhere in the country. Most relevantly, we have seen the creation of directly elected metro-mayors across England – contests which seem ripe for a new party looking to hack their way into our politics.

For a new party to succeed, Britain’s usually tribal voters will need to be lured away from their unwavering support for existing parties. Encouragingly for new party advocates, there are signs that the public are less faithful in mayoral elections. For example, in 2012, voters in Bristol opted for an independent mayor whilst Labour-leading London opted for Boris Johnson. This makes perfect sense too – in an election where every vote counts, people are more at ease voting for who they really want. Tactical voting for the ‘least bad option’ is less urgent.

Moreover, many of the cities represented by metro mayors might seem well aligned with the values and agenda of any new centrist party. These are places that are younger, more diverse, and more at ease with modern Britain. They contain, in London and Cambridge, some of the most pro-Remain polling districts in the country. Or, to borrow David Goodhart’s taxonomy, they are cities of economically and socially mobile “anywheres” – voters that might be more interested in a supposedly liberal new vehicle.

Britain’s new political fault line appears to be between cities and everywhere else. But today’s political discourse, with its focus on the need to represent ‘left behind’ towns and rural areas, has left some in cities feeling ignored – witness the unwillingness of either main party to oppose Brexit. A new political movement willing to exploit this division could prove a powerful force.

Yet presume I am right and a new party gains a mayor here and there. All in all, their powers are limited. Even in London, the mayor only has real control over transport and the police. Wouldn’t a new party remain on the fringes of British politics?

Not so fast. Success in mayoral elections would crucially give a new party the vital regional strongholds from which to build parliamentary victories. Canvassers, resources, local intelligence and profile could be built – making fighting incumbent MPs a much more winnable battle. High-profile defections, a number of which are likely to be essential for success, will come more readily when the new party holds elected office and jumping ship is less of a leap into the dark.

It is true that our electoral system remains the biggest barrier to a new party breakthrough. But our political system looks hackable for centrists willing to look beyond Westminster. They should ditch Parliament and look instead to next years mayoral contests. Incumbent political parties would be wise to prepare for such a challenge.

Ben Glover is a researcher at Demos.