Ayesha Hazarika: Why a new centrist party will never succeed in UK

The SDP's founding 'Gang of Four', Bill Rodgers, Dr David Owen, Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams, in Perth (Picture: PA)
The SDP's founding 'Gang of Four', Bill Rodgers, Dr David Owen, Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams, in Perth (Picture: PA)
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It’s a story which has had more comebacks than Kylie Minogue. It’s the old new centrist party ruse.

I was actually at a centrist party on Saturday night with some of my nearest and dearest Blairite loving/Red Tory scum/slugs/melts/insert own insult when the overnight headline dropped about the prospect of a new party with a massive £50 million behind it. Centrist dads, mums, uncles and aunties gathered round. There was a dramatic pause as we read our phones and Things Can Only Get Better started playing ominously.

But the crowd was split. Half were cheering, and the other half looked crestfallen. The Labour Party is so divided that even in a room of one now-minority faction, we can’t agree on anything. I should say that all the other the non-political folk quite rightly ignored us geeks, freaks and losers and enjoyed the free bar.

For what it’s worth, as someone who loves the party but despairs of what it’s become – especially with the anti-semitism problem – I do not think it’s the answer.

The first hurdle is obvious. Our first-past-the-post voting system would not favour a new party. This is not France. Our system works for the more established parties and it’s recently narrowed down to Labour and Conservative in UK terms, although Scotland famously bucked that trend in 2015 with the SNP landslide which wiped out everyone else. Those seismic electoral episodes happen rarely and at that election Labour in particular paid a heavy price for the Scottish independence result although there are signs of life in both Labour and the Conservatives north of the Border even if the SNP is still dominant.

It takes time for a new party to build a brand and get heard. Despite the hours spent slaving over what we columnists think are blistering hot takes and deeply insightful opinion pieces, the truth is most people think about politics very little in their busy and stressful lives. Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s campaign manager, famously said voters only spend four minutes a week thinking about politics. It’s hard for a new party to get through in that sliver of time. It’s true that more people get more politics through their social media feeds these days, but older, more reliable voters tend to still get the bulk of their political news through traditional forms of political communication, especially television news, and it’s hard to see how a new party would break through to the public and by that I don’t mean the London-centric media bubble, which I am of course proud to be part of (I’m pre-empting my own trolling these days to save us all time).

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Two new parties have been set up recently. The Women’s Equality Party and the very recently created Renew Britain, a pro-European party. Heard much about them? Probably not unless you are a feminist and very anti-Brexit. The Women’s Equality Party has, to be fair, done pretty well on media coverage but has not converted this into electoral success.

Again, this is due to our first-past-the-post system and even though you may hate that, them’s the rules.

Who would this new party have as its candidates? For it to have any success, it would have to attract some high-profile MPs away from Labour and the other parties – like the SDP did back in the 1980s. I don’t see this happening – despite all the turmoil in both Labour and the Conservatives right now.

People fail to understand the level of tribal and emotional connection that MPs have for their party. They don’t just rock up and say they want to be an MP. They often have deep personal, family and community connections to the values and history of a party. Those roots go deep. That moment when they hear their name announced at the count at some ungodly hour and they hear the roar of their supporters never leaves most of them as one the proudest of their lives. There is a powerful sense of standing on the shoulders of others who have gone before you – of being part of a meaningful political tradition – whether it’s on the right or the left, but it’s particularly deep with Labour. It’s hard to walk away from that. Especially, to join a new party with no history, no proper leader and no real story other than everyone was really pissed off right now.

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And that’s how many voters feel, too. Commentators like myself can get very involved in the nuances of ideology, who’s up and who’s down and obsessed about mini Twitter storms and spats between factions within a party. But voters often just see the bigger picture and even though they may not like, love or have much time for our current political leaders, they still have an allegiance to a brand. I found this recently when I was campaigning in Nottinghamshire. Many didn’t have a good word to say about May or Corbyn but they were still sticking with their party.

Many commentators also say that people feel politically homeless – I certainly know that is true in my world – but a lot of people also feel really politically invigorated right now and love the fact that there is political definition in way that there hasn’t been in years, whether it’s on big issues like Scottish independence, Brexit, austerity or foreign policy.

People also forget that there is a third, centrist, anti-Brexit, pro-European party. They are called the Liberal Democrats and their vote fell at the last general election after the 2015 collapse. We are living in divisive times and people do quite like their political parties to stand for something clear – even though things are polarised. I have real dismay for how divided our country and political discourse is right now, but it hasn’t happened by accident and it’s not going away for a while sadly.

Any new party would also tend to split the left and would benefit the Tories. And as someone who wants to see a Labour government and who wants to get rid of the Tories, that prospect has no appeal and is supremely self-defeating – but let’s get real, that’s the true purpose behind this new idea. Its main aim is to stop a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn at any cost. The guys – and I gather it’s a bunch of very wealthy chaps in London – behind this need to come clean. That would be their only political mission and they should be loud and proud about it instead of making up some cringey, meaningless set of platitudinous fake values which no-one will believe. If they want to fight Corbyn at his own game, they should take a leaf out of his book and opt for some straight-talking, honest politics.

However, just because I don’t want to join another party, that doesn’t mean I don’t want mine to get its house in order – but that’s a whole different column.