Like many Lib Dems, I was underwhelmed by the formation of The Independent Group (TIG) of 11 defectors last week from both the Labour and Conservative parties. It had been a long time coming, and its members are undistinguished, except for the Conservative Sarah Wollaston and perhaps Labour’s Chuka Umunna. But now I am less sure.
This group isn’t the answer to British politics’ need for fresh ideas. But on reflection it poses challenging questions, and it already seems to have had some effect on the leaderships of both parties. For Labour, from which eight of the 11 come (plus a further defector, not part of the grouping), it challenges the party’s attitude to Brexit, and the way the party is now run.
Labour has been doing some determined fence-sitting on the issue that troubles Britons most. The leadership hopes that opportunities will arise out of the crisis, rather than doing anything to shape it. To their mind the acquisition of political power matters more, and the battle against “austerity”. And yet during the 2017 election, and especially in the part of London where I live, they courted votes on the basis that they would resist Brexit. Until these defections, and the threat of more, the leadership appeared not to care. Now they have been persuaded that a referendum of some sort should be held, if, as will surely be the case, the leadership’s favoured soft version of Brexit does not come about. This looks like too little, too late, but it is progress.
Admittedly this is a politically tricky area. Many of the party’s working class voters outside London support Brexit and would view a referendum as a betrayal. Still, if the party aspires to govern, it has to show more clarity on the issues people care about. And for most people that isn’t “austerity”.
The questions about how the party is run go deeper. It has been taken over by an ideological hardcore who speak only for a minority of voters. They are preparing to de-select MPs they feel are disloyal, and hounding them in the meantime. There has been a disturbing antisemitic edge to this. The antisemitism is by no means universal (I don’t think there’s much sign of it here in Wandsworth), and it is being played up by those not sympathetic to the party leadership – and yet many in the party say that the leadership doesn’t understand it, and is happy to let it go on. The attitudes of many Labour activists to the defections remind me of the sort of extremism that caused me to become involved with politic in the 1970s and 1980s. It is typical that such activists will say anything to voters in an election to shift them to their candidate (such as that it is the best way to stop Brexit – which is what they were saying here), and then to claim that all those votes were an endorsement of a manifesto that very few people actually read.
For Conservatives TIG also raises questions about Brexit and what the party is becoming. The party leadership has decided to own Brexit, and sees it mission to implement it regardless of what the public think. At least that isn’t sitting on the fence. But it means that the party is ceasing to be be the broad church of business-friendly middle classes that it used to be. What is left is a diminishing band of socially conservative older people, and an ideological fringe of libertarians, led by a Prime Minister with a deep bunker mentality.
And so a huge gap is opening up in the centre ground of British politics. A two party system, such as Britain’s in most of the country, works best when the principal parties are broad churches competing for overlapping spectra of the the public at large. The more ideological fringes provide edge and challenge, while the centre ground injects common sense and pragmatism. When the parties turn in on themselves, as both are now, and become ideological, most voters are left stranded.
But the establishment of TIG poses a huge question for the third of the main established parties: the Liberal Democrats. In spite of being liberal and broadly centrist, the TIGers haven’t given the Lib Dems more than a moment’s thought. The Lib Dem brand is weak and the party has been unable to exploit the gap at the centre of British politics. The party has seen its poll share creep up to 10%, but when offered the alternative of TIG, that share drops sharply.
Why are the Lib Dems so weak? The contradictions in the Lib Dem brand were exposed cruelly by its coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 to 2015. Before then its leaders thought that the party’s main weakness stemmed from the fact that the media paid the party little attention, and that it had little practical influence. The coalition solved both of these problems, but Labour inclined supporters saw it as betrayal, and then Conservative inclined ones saw the party as too weak to stop Labour.
It is now popular amongst Lib Dem activists to suggest that the real problem was a failure to sustain a “core vote” of cosmopolitan, liberal supporters, and that the party should rectify this by developing a more ideologically coherent programme. The party has been following that advice, with a clear focus on opposing Brexit, which unites such liberal types (whether the EU is in fact such a liberal institution is a topic for another day). This seems to have left the party fishing for voters in too small a pool. Perhaps it is making the same mistake as the other parties in being too ideological. Indeed many activists dislike the idea that the party should be chasing the centre ground, and look down on the TIGers.
Still, the Lib Dems have a lot of things that TIG do not: a party machine, councillors, activists, a history, and even a sense of mission. There is an opportunity for the party here, but it needs to ask how it can broaden its appeal beyond a small band of middle class cosmopolitans.
There is no single answer to that question. New leadership will clearly help. But, if they are to become a success in the British political system the Lib Dems will have to become a broader church. This sits uneasily with the wish of many activists to focus on a core vote, and to be ideologically more coherent. But this isn’t either/or: politics is not an easy business. Has-beens and Blairites the TIGers may be, but until the the Lib Dems can absorb such as these, among others, they will not make progress.