A new anti-Brexit party: silly or serious?

by Nick Kent | 17.08.2017

Parliament is on holiday, the Cabinet isn’t meeting and even lobbyists are taking a break. That means newspapers haven’t got enough copy, which raises the curtain on the political silly season. There is no time quite like the middle of August for getting lots of coverage for a daft political idea.  

Suggestions that former special adviser turned PR man James Chapman might launch an anti-Brexit political party sound like a classic silly season story, but Tories in particular should take it seriously.

The 2016 referendum was a political earthquake. More than a year later, its aftershocks keep rumbling on. But, as seismologists might point out, just because earthquakes are infrequent in the UK doesn’t mean that two can’t occur one after the other. Britain’s two main political parties were in long-term decline before the referendum, struggling to win as much as 45% of the vote, never mind a majority. The revival of nationalism in Scotland, the success of the Lib Dems in the general elections between 1997 and 2010, and the damage done to politicians’ credibility by the Iraq War, the 2009 expenses scandal and the global financial crisis have all undermined both Tories and Labour. In other countries new parties have emerged to take on discredited incumbents, as Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Republique en Marche has done with spectacular success in France. But the UK’s electoral system largely prevents a challenge to the status quo.  

Still, Brexit may be the upheaval that brings down the decaying houses of Tory and Labour. Already unsteady and with falling levels of membership and activism, Brexit has dramatically undermined the two great coalitions of British politics. Because Britain is a country where we don’t have coalitions between parties but within parties. Labour is a coalition of socialists and social democrats. The Tories are a combination of market liberals and social authoritarians. The main binding agent of these unstable coalitions has been their fear that if they don’t stick together, the other party will take power. Better, runs the argument, to be in government with people who are your allies if not your friends than to be in opposition.

Periodically this coalition within a party comes under great strain. In the nineteenth century it was differences over how to deal with the demand for universal suffrage that nearly destroyed the Tories. In the late twentieth century the clamour for “proper” socialism from the extreme left wing of the party cost Labour three elections and gave the Tories an opportunity they seized with relish.

Brexit is producing similar strains because most MPs in the two main parties oppose it but their front benches are committed to making it happen. With the tectonic plates of British politics grating painfully against one another, could this trigger a second earthquake?

The difference with past divisions is that both main parties are going through convulsions at the same time and over the same issue. Supporters of leaving the EU in both parties are more extreme in their politics than opponents. So the Tory right’s agenda is not just about Brexit; it is about creating a smaller, deregulated state and in some cases dropping liberal social policies such as gay marriage. Within Labour, the supporters of Brexit are mostly on the left and want a revival of the Bennite agenda of the 1970s, with renationalisation, a bigger state and more taxes on the better-off.

These are dangerous times for the leaderships of both main parties. They could suddenly find themselves without followers because of a growing cross-party coalition against Brexit. This would be an even bigger earthquake than the 2016 referendum.

The obstacles to such a development are considerable – the inherent tribalism of the two main parties and their MPs; the absence of clear-cut media support; the difficulties of financing such a venture; the failure of the SDP in the 1980s; and the way in which the electoral system favours the established parties are all reasons why it might never get off the ground, let alone succeed. But so profound are the consequences of the seismic shock that is Brexit that no wise pundit would say it could never happen. It just might.

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Edited by Alan Wheatley

8 Responses to “A new anti-Brexit party: silly or serious?”

  • I support the idea – as do many others in the Remain movement. However the name – the Democrats – carries far too much baggage in my view. Also lacks imagination. Something 21st century like alt-centre. We could even get a bit geeky and make it [alt] centre or alt [centre] or something.

    Or how about Common Ground?

    Yes, I do know it’s Infacts own campaigning group (I was at the Jugged Hare back in October).

  • Vince Cable said:

    The government is offering two ways forward but won’t tell us which it prefers. That’s no doubt because cabinet ministers can’t even agree amongst themselves.

    These plans are more concerned with papering over the cracks within the Conservative party than protecting our economy.

    All those industries that depend on membership of the customs union, from the car industry to aerospace, still have no clear idea what is coming down the track.

    All they know is that instead of jumping off a cliff in 18 months, the government now wants to do so in a few years’ time.

    The government must come clean over the real costs of these plans for British businesses and consumers.

    And on to the six questions:

    The government has outlined two future approaches, a streamlined customs arrangement or a new customs partnership. Has the government decided which would be its preferred outcome, and if so why was this not specified in the paper?

    How does the government expect to be able to negotiate new trade deals with non-EU countries before the terms of any future deal between the UK and EU are known?

    The government says that in the case of a ‘no deal’ scenario, it would treat trade with the EU as it currently treats trade with non-EU countries and customs duty and import VAT would be due on EU imports. Have ministers modelled what the potential costs of this scenario would be for UK consumers and businesses?

    Has the government considered the impact that lowering environmental and consumer standards, e.g. the ban on imports of chlorinated chicken, could have on future customs arrangement with the EU?

    Has the government estimated the financial cost to taxpayers of setting a new streamlined customs arrangement and how long these will take to put in place?

    Can the government confirm that every member of the cabinet, including Liam Fox, has endorsed this paper?

    Earlier, Alistair Carmichael had taken David Davis to task over his use of the phrase “constructive ambiguity.”

    It’s clear that ‘constructive ambiguity’ is code for ‘we don’t have a clue.’

  • I’m an avid remainer, and have felt totally deflated since last June’s referendum, and would love the discussion to go forward on a new centralist party, or even a revival of the Liberal Democrats. Either of these options would a positive move and give some of us 48%-ers a sense of hope, as well as starting another seismic discussion that isn’t reliant on either of the main two parties, neither of whom seem to actually see the effect that Brexit is having on the general public, or to care.

    Look at the effect that Macron has had in France. Now France is looking to take over where Britain left off, as the second country of the EU, and from my experience in the summer over there, there is a real renewed feeling of self-worth and optimism on the streets. Why have we thrown all this away?

  • The article relies on seriously outdated data to make its point. Membership of both the Labour party and the LibDems has virtually doubled since 2015, although not back yet to 1950’s figures, it is true.

    Despite nearly double the number of activists, the LibDems 2017 results were disappointing, albeit improved. Labour’s increased activists numbers did make a material difference but failed to win them a majority.

    Indeed, a vast majority of grassroot Labour members want the party to be firmly anti-Brexit, but Corbyn is ignoring that for now. It will be very interesting to see how that is dealt with at party conference.

    A new “centrist” party would currently primarily be a single issue party, a kind of reverse UKIP. The same internal conflicts would arise as it tried to develop a cohesive policy.

    The success of En Marche relied primarily on the lack of viable, morally acceptable alternatives, and a record low turnout for the run-off. France, as many other PR countries, normally relies on coalitions of smaller, cohesive parties, but the obvious conflicts arise in government between coalition parties, so the actual end results of stultified or rival policies aremuch the same as the UK system. Republic en Marche is just starting to see the same cracks.

    There already exists a Centrist party in the UK, called the LibDems. Many will not yet forgive its apparent past faults during the coalition. It was a government of compromise, but LibDem voters felt betrayed. Nonetheless, membership has doubled since 2016. The Gang of Four showed that a new centrist party has a mountain to climb despite its short-lived success. If centrist Labour voters can forgive Iraq, and moderate Tory voters can forgive the Referendum, I cannot for the life of me understand how the LibDems cannot be forgiven for their historical black sheep. Somehow, they are expected to consistently deliver a higher moral plane than any other party. A dilemma for those of us hoping for a coalition of the sane against Brexit.

  • At the beginning of June it seemed likely that a three-figure Conservative majority was coming, but the breakthrough never came.

    So, in the last 7 general elections (including the 2017 one) the best performance that the Conservatives have managed is the 21-seat majority that John Major won in 1992.

    The UK’s first-ever majority Labour government was elected in 1945. If the ConDUP government lasts until 2022 we will have had, in the 77 years since 1945, 47 years with the Conservatives in power and 30 years with Labour.

  • Quite agree with all the above comments. The two main political parties seem incapable for different reasons to be able to propose any sensible alternative to jumping off the cliff. The internal contradictions within both paries is paralyzing them. The emergence of a new party of the Centre incorporating the middle ground politicians of both parties would be the ideal solution, a serious one not silly. But who would be the leaders of such a movement?

  • This could work – but in my opinion ONLY if sufficient numbers of MPs from the two main parties join. Otherwise tribalism and the notion of the ‘wasted vote’ will defeat it at the polls. This, again in my opinion, is the main reason the Lib Dems failed to make significant gains as the party of the 48% in June. For all the talk of tuition fees and the coalition, the LDs WERE increasing their vote share at every by-election since the referendum, but when it came to the crunch in a General, voters reverted to type.