Friday, 5 December 2014

What happens next?

Nothing ever really changes in British politics. It’s always basically the same three groups having the same old arguments. Every now and then, someone declares a revolutionary upheaval in British party politics, and everyone gets up and dances round in a circle. But when the music stops, no one’s removed a chair, so everyone sits back down again. At the end of it, all that’s really happened is that one of the parties has changed its logo.

The biggest party realignment of recent decades was the SDP. In 1981, the right-wing of the Labour party snapped off and formed a new party. Before the general election in 1983, the SDP gained 29 MPs in defections from current MPs - as well as winning a couple of by-elections. All but one of the defections were from Labour - one left-wing Tory joined them too.

As the SDP ultimately merged with the Liberals to form the Lib Dems, there is now little sign that the SDP ever existed, except the invention and addition of the lovely word ‘Dem’. The SDP did not change the landscape, it has just left a few marks for the interested to uncover. The residual effects of the SDP are not seen in political tectonics, but in the occasional piece of palaeontology. The SDP have left behind fossils, not mountains.

But sometimes things really do change. When the Labour Party came along in the early twentieth century, that was a genuine novelty. It wasn’t just a new name for an old thing, a re-brand, or an adjustment. At a similar time - possibly as a pure coincidence - the Liberals faded to become a third party. That was the last time there was a meaningful changing of the guard of political parties.

It’s possible that things might actually be shifting around again. For the first time in a hundred years, British political parties might actually be on the move.

The main reason that things might change amongst major British political parties is that there’s a vacancy. The Lib Dems have filled in the form applying for the abolition of their party - or the coalition agreement, as it’s also known. It has taken five years to process their application, but it now seems to be going through on the nod.

At the same time, UKIP have decided to become a real grown-up party - though no one’s told them that means they should keep the same policies regardless of who’s talking or which day it is. Once they tie themselves down to something as tedious as a manifesto, and they can’t base their policies on what mood they’re in, they’ll lose some of their fly-by-night appeal. But they will still do well enough to become the third party - in England at least.

The laws of political gravity would suggest that the UK can’t survive long with two right-wing parties, one left, and nothing in the middle but a big gap. Especially in a country that hasn’t actually voted in a Conservative government for more than 22 years, and where right-wing parties have not attracted more than half the vote since the 1950s.

On economic matters, the Labour party are in their furthest-left position for a generation, and the Tories in the furthest right ever devised by non-American humanity. This leaves a very large centre ground. Economics aren’t everything, but they’re not far off. The huge gap in the centre of British economic politics must surely be tempting to any centrist strategist.

Anyone who thinks that the NHS shouldn’t be sold off to the highest bidder, but also thinks the government shouldn’t impose a price freeze on energy companies, now finds themselves in a middle ground unserved by any major parties. Admittedly, UKIP oppose NHS sell-offs, but only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and even then it depends on who answers the phone.

But that only answers the Why of a new British centre party - you also need a Who, How, and When, or else it never gets off the drawing board. The most likely moment is the post-election pre-coalition deal-making, and the most likely catalyst is UKIP.

It is very possible that neither Tories nor Labour will get enough seats to govern alone, and that the Lib Dem return will be so low that teaming up with them wouldn’t give a majority either. It could be that, to make the parliamentary maths work, someone might have to think the unthinkable and talk to Farage. The Labour leadership should be able to resist it, as they won’t want to drown in an avalanche of ripped-up membership cards.

But the Tories may not. They may look at the pure numbers of Tory and UKIP MPs returned, and conclude simplistically that adding those two numbers together gets the desired total. And then the changes start.

The left wing of the Tory party, currently the subject of an exhibition at the Natural History Museum, will reanimate. They will leave the party, loudly, and with righteous indignation. The striking thing will not be the number of defectors, but the quality. Ken Clarke, obviously, but Heseltine and Patten too, and many others who are Tories exactly because they have despised Ukippery since before it was invented.

The exodus won’t be reflected in the House of Commons. Very few current Tory MPs will feel affronted by a UKIP match-up because the parliamentary party does not closely resemble the country, even the portion of the country who might consider voting Conservative. The Tory party could alienate half its voters without alienating more than half a dozen of its MPs.

Clarke, Heseltine, and Patten would surely be branded as ‘yesterday’s men’ by remaining Tories. But people prefer yesterday’s Tories to today’s. This ‘class of 92’ got 14 million votes. The Cameron-Osborne generation couldn’t get 11 million when the alternative was Gordon Brown, who half the country hated more than athlete’s foot.

But if the ex-Tories will amount to any kind of political force, they will need allies. The most obvious candidates would be Blairites who find Miliband’s policy brew too strong. There would also be room for any Lib Dems disaffected with Nick Clegg’s leadership. Which, after the election, will be both of them.

With the anti-UKIP element in the Tory party gone, Tories and UKIP would be free to merge, and normal three-party politics will resume. The new ConUKIP party will be further to the right, and Labour minus its Blairites further to the left. In the middle, a different kind of centre party. Previously, the middle party has represented some kind of liberalism, claiming that the cause of liberalism over authoritarianism is more important than the battle between left and right.

But this new centre party would fight firmly on the left-right axis, by placing itself exactly in the middle. Instead of a traditional Lib Dem principle of swinging left or right depending on the liberal qualities of each proposal, a new Centrist Party would know exactly where it stood between left and right, and would define itself in those terms. It would embody moderation.

And that is potentially a powerful offer to the British people. A centrist party, a moderate party seems to be one very closely suited to the British character. What could be more appealing to British voters than a party whose main message is: ‘Let’s not over-react. I’ll put the kettle on’?

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