6 June 2019

How Change UK botched their chance to change British politics

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When you’ve split once, splitting again comes more easily. That’s one conclusion to be drawn from the short, ignominious, life of Change UK, the party formerly known as The Independent Group to which most of its parliamentary adherents have returned. There is a whiff of comedy about this as well as a certain measure of pathos.

The departure of eight of Change UK’s dozen MPs, including Luciana Berger, Heidi Allan, and Chuka Umunna, is a reminder that change is more difficult than it often seems. Those Labour MPs who, notwithstanding their sympathy with the defectors and their conviction that Jeremy Corbyn is not fit to be prime minister, decided that not-jumping was more prudent than jumping can claim some vindication this week.

It did not help that the Tiggers were hopeless at politics. They were not ready to be a new party and it showed. The necessary preparation had not been done before the group launched and, once it had, they failed to stage-manage their defections, the better to seize the media initiative. Instead of a drip-drip of defectors, most of the Labour members of the new grouping jumped at once. Three disaffected Tories followed but of these only Anna Soubry could claim to be a figure of plausible substance.

And, as some people wrote at the time, the recruitment of even a trio of Tories compromised the stability and message of the group from the start. A splinter faction that was born out of the conviction that Corbyn could not be trusted with power now included members whose defection could only be understood as a declaration that the Tory party was not to be trusted either. Now perhaps it is not, but if that is what you think there already exists an alternative to the Tories and to Labour. The Liberal Democrats are there for you in those circumstances.

Change UK was on a firmer footing for as long as it could be seen as an alternative to Labour. Or, at any rate, an alternative to this particular iteration of the Labour party. “Not Corbyn” was enough to be working with, but as soon as “Not Theresa May Either” was added to the mix, the message was muddied and watered-down and, in general, made hopeless.

At a stroke, Change UK was not offering something new, merely a variant of what was already there in the centre-ground of British politics. There are plenty of Labour voters who could have lent their support to an explicitly anti-Corbyn party of the moderate left, but that became a more difficult proposition as soon as Change UK embraced Tory renegades.

By doing so, the party needed to have something to say and, indeed, some actual policies. It had to be something more than a rejectionist sensibility even though it was founded as that, not as a coherent party. Fusionism worked within the left or the right; it does not work between them.

There are good, fundamental, reasons for this: left and right spring from different mindsets, different ways of viewing the world and its problems. They may on occasion share a diagnosis but their cures come from different traditions. So different they cannot easily be merged.

So Dominic Grieve and Yvette Cooper may be closer to each other than either is to their party leadership but that proximity should not be confused with agreement. They take different, incompatible, roads towards even their shared destinations.

Change UK had a chance so long as it could be understood as a temporary response to a single, weighty problem: the annexation of the Labour party by a far-left faction that by-and-large stands outside the party’s mainstream traditions. It was not a replacement for Labour but, rather, a guardian of what you might call Labour’s conscience. As such, it could have been a welcoming port for many voters.

Reinventing politics takes weight and requires bottom, however. The lesson of the SDP is salutary. The Gang of Four were all considerable figures. Even Bill Rodgers, the least heralded of them, had served as Secretary of State for Transport. And yet even the SDP is now understood as a force for helping to haul Labour back from its flirtation with the far-left more than as a party that was going to break the mould of British politics. Merger with the Liberals was both an admission of failure and the moment from which Labour SDP supporters could begin to drift back to the party of their birth.

The Tiggers, by contrast, were both lightweight and utterly unprepared for the breaking of any moulds. “Friends” of Chuka Umunna are the only people on record thinking he’s the man to embody and lead a new political era. The other members of the group struggled to be household names on Twitter, let alone amongst the general voting public.

And there was no plan, no manifesto for change, no clarion call for doing things differently. This mattered less for as long as the Tiggers were just a vehicle for disgruntlement but as soon as they pretended to be an actual, normal, political party, the game began to be up. Because even a new and vague normal political party has to have something to say.

None of which means there is not a thirst for something new and different. There plainly is. In their different ways the success of the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the Brexit party at the European elections demonstrates as much. The Brexit party is, as a practical matter, playing the role on the right the Tiggers aspired to play on the left: a party of protest shrieking NO.

It is working, too and there is no requirement to like or endorse the Brexit Party to appreciate that its role in British politics right now is to be a protest vehicle by which the Conservative party back to what is deemed its true destiny. This happens to involve hauling the party to the right, rather than towards the centre, but the logic of the position is similar.  Once – or if – Brexit is “delivered” the rationale for the Brexit Party ceases to exist; the party’s obsolescence is part of its DNA.

By then, however, Nigel Farage will have succeeded. The point of a protest party is lost if you seek to do more than protest. That is a truth Change UK ignored and by clouding their protest they removed the basis for their existence.

Improbable as it may seem, one day the Conservative and Labour parties will once again be led by people of some substance, equipped with some plausible vision for the country. Change UK could have played a role in hastening that moment; instead they botched it.

Worse, by failing so miserably they made it less, not more, probable someone else will have the courage to complete the job for which they were found so desperately wanting. There is never any such thing as a “new” politics; the job of those proposing such a thing is instead to make the “old” politics marginally better. That is both a less modest ambition than it may seem and, as current events make clear, an urgent one.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator.