h1

The prospects for The Independent Group

February 21st, 2019

So, is The Independent Group going to break the mould of British politics? The general consensus is that it will be doing well to scrape off the top of the jam. In fact, it seems to me that it is the wrong question.

We are all bewitching ourselves with memories of the SDP. This breakaway is not like that breakaway. First, we need to ask ourselves what the group is trying to achieve. Breaking the mould does not seem particularly high on the agenda.

At present this split looks much more like the breakaway of the Adullamites in 1867, when a centrist group split away in opposition to the main policy of the Liberals at that stage (electoral reform) or like the division of the Liberals in 1916 over personality. TIG’s founders’ aims may be quite different from the Gang of Four.

What are their aims? I’m a firm believer in looking at what people say they want to do. So this is what the Labour defectors said:

“we believe that none of today’s political parties are fit to provide the leadership and direction needed by our country.

Our aim is to pursue policies that are evidence-based, not led by ideology, taking a long-term perspective to the challenges of the 21st century in the national interest, rather than locked in the old politics of the 20th century.”

This is what the Conservative defectors said:

“We believe that there is a failure of politics in general, not just in the Conservative Party but in both main parties as they move to the fringes, leaving millions of people with no representation. Our politics needs urgent and radical reform and we are determined to play our part.”

Both identify a failure of politics. The Labour defectors’ letter is better, in my view, because it focusses on pursuing policies (things that make a difference to people) rather than reforming politics (which is more of a procedural matter). Whatever, both have identified that they hate something and so they want to change something.

As chance would have it, they could not have chosen a better moment to seek to make a difference in the short term. Parliament is not just hung, the main parties have coalesced into coherent factions that are blocking progress on everything, including the touchstone of the generation, Brexit.

The DUP have shown just how much influence a small grouping can have in such a hung Parliament. If centrists hope to find a method of wrenching the steering wheel in a different direction, TIG might be it.

What do people mean by breaking the mould anyway? If they mean redefining the party system, I agree that TIG’s chances don’t look good. While there are a fair few metropolitan citizens of nowhere, they are thinly spread outside a few areas and outnumbered in most constituencies. Unless they can yoke their cause to another grouping, they look unlikely to break through. There is no sign of that yet.

If, however, by breaking the mould people mean making important changes to major policies in the here and now, their chances are excellent, especially if there are more defections from either or both main parties, as currently looks likely.

This is not 1981, when the government had an overall majority of 40. The current government is a minority government with a majority of minus 11 and a flighty partner offering confidence but not much supply. The government is scrabbling around seeking to create majorities for its policies.  

A disciplined grouping offering substantial numbers of votes will attract the Prime Minister’s attention and potentially obtain substantial concessions.

What of the longer term? To survive and thrive, TIG will need to show that they not just against something – Jew-hating, Brexit, dismal leadership – but that they are for something too.  They are going to need to offend some groups with their own vision, not just oppose the visions of others.

It is, however, entirely possible that the long-term aim is not inevitably to found a new party but rather to refound one or both of the two main parties. The Adullamites were soon reconciled with the Gladstonian Liberals and Lloyd George and Asquith patched up their differences. The Liberal Unionists and the National Liberals both (at a distance of over 40 years) were eventually absorbed by the Conservatives. Third parties are more normally absorbed by one of the original two than survive indefinitely.

If either main party can build a bridge to TIG, they may well choose to walk across that. They would certainly be wise to do so. If in the meantime TIG have managed to re-establish the voice of metropolitan pragmatic centrism in British politics, they should regard that as a profound success.

Alastair Meeks