When historians open their laptops and look back at the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, one of the key psephological trends they will notice is the decline of the two main political parties’ vice-like grip on the electoral system.
When historians open their laptops and look back at the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, one of the key psephological trends they will notice is the decline of the two main political parties’ vice-like grip on the electoral system. In 1950, the Conservatives and Labour split near enough 90% of the vote between them, leaving nothing but scraps for the Liberals and other fringe parties. In 2015, this had fallen to 67%, a vast reduction. We don’t live in a political duopoly any more.
Why has this happened? Partly it has been the rollercoaster which the Liberal Democrats have been riding. They climbed aboard in the early 1990s, when they started camping in the Tory shires (remember Eastbourne? And Newbury? And Eastleigh?), and they made the big breakthrough at the 1997 general election, when they won 46 seats. That broke the two-party system, and gave us what is often referred to as a two-and-a-half-party system.
More recently, other things have started to happen. Alarm bells should have started ringing at UKIP’s strong performance in the 2014 European Parliament elections, although they’ve never been able to transform that support into success at Westminster. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party the following year was another sign; in effect, it was a guerrilla takeover of one of the main parties. The strongly left-leaning Momentum group has seized the levers of power in Victoria Street now, and their loyalty to the leader and his radical ideas is complete and unswerving. We genuinely have a hard-left presence at the forefront of British politics. Meanwhile, in the Conservative Party, the European Research Group struts around wielding its influence, outflanked to the right only by a fading UKIP and, more importantly, Nigel Farage’s out-of-nowhere Brexit Party.
Inevitably, this flight to the margins has left a significant gap on the centre ground. Still clinging to the handholds of their rollercoaster, the Liberal Democrats have slumped again, and have only a dozen seats in the Commons. What would happen next? How would the tectonic plates shift? Where would realignment come from? Who would step forward to represent this broad mass of voters who felt not only disenfranchised, but repelled by the new extremes?
The Independent Group tried to answer that question when it was formed in February 2019. It drew centrists, pro-European Tories and social democrats from the Labour Party into a body which sought not only to represent different policies from the two major parties but to represent them in a different way. It initially rejected traditional internal power structures, having a “spokesman” rather than a leader, and emphasising collaboration and consensus. In April 2019, the group registered as a party under the “Change UK” banner, and Heidi Allen, MP for South Cambridgeshire, became the new party’s interim leader. Heidi is only 44, and has not yet been in Parliament for five years, so her selection sent a deliberate sign to the electorate that this was a break with the past.
So, is Change UK the answer to the question? It’s too early to tell. They have some reasonably recognisable faces – Heidi, Chuka Umunna, Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston – and they have drawn from both major parties in a way that the SDP did not manage in the early 1980s. But there have been missteps, which is only to be expected from a brand new operation; the rejection of their initial logo by the Electoral Commission should not have happened, and the transition from one name to another was not handled as deftly as it might have been.
On the other hand, in my opinion, the men and women of Change UK have understood a fundamental challenge to the existing political system. Brexit is growing in unpopularity, and both major parties are more or less committed to its prosecution as a policy. Change UK is unashamed in saying Brexit was a mistake and will prove a disaster. It is fully behind a 'People’s Vote,' which seems to me as it seems to many people the only way to cut the Gordian knot we’ve tied in the thread of our political discourse.
The European Parliament elections in May - the elections we had never expected to hold - threw up one extra twist: an extraordinary recovery by the Liberal Democrats. They won not far shy of 3.5 million votes (20% of the total cast), came in second, and rose from one solitary MEP to a solid phalanx of 16. It’s hard to believe that this new-found success owed nothing to their clear message on Brexit: rescind Article 50, or hold a 'People’s Vote.' Of course, they had hard-working candidates and activists, but which party doesn’t? It has to be Brexit that made the difference.
The truth is that, although it’s often said, we really are at a genuine crisis point in British politics. The landscape is open to change, and there are millions of voters whose old allegiances are fading, or whose voting loyalty is up for grabs. These aren’t the people on the margins, the nostalgic Marxists or the Union Flag-grasping empire-and-commonwealth romantics. They are broadly centrists, some tending to the left and some leaning to the right, who believe in calm, rational discussion, broad consensus and common sense solutions. It’s not a sexy platform - “sensible” never is - but it could and should be what makes people think in the voting booth. It’s also true that tribal party loyalties are loosening, particularly over Brexit. A lot of voters now look at someone’s stance on Brexit before anything else, and certainly before their party label.
Remaking the political centre isn’t going to be an easy task. It will need more than eye-catching words on Brexit, important though those are. It will need well thought-out policies on education, health, the economy, law and order. It will need a strong team, and a charismatic leader with that team’s full support. Have we seen it yet? I don’t know. But I’m cautiously optimistic. It’s the healthiest way to be.
Chris Wright, CBE is Co-Founder and Chairman of Chrysalis Group
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