A split in one of the two big British political parties has long been the subject of fevered speculation. Now it’s finally happened.
Pundits and pollsters are racing to weigh in on the decision of seven Labour MPs to leave their party and sit in the House of Commons as a group of independents.
Some are heralding the creation of the so-called Independent Group as the start of a new political era akin to the one started by Emmanuel Macron in France. Others are predicting that the bid to blow up Britain’s two-party system is bound to end in tears.
The truth is we’ll have to wait and see. While there are many reasons for doubt, there are also reasons to believe the Labour rebels stand a chance of redrawing the rules and battle lines of British politics.
Let’s start with cold water. To begin with, to pull a Macron — to come from virtually nowhere to win victory at the polls in the space of months rather than years — you need, well, someone like French President Emmanuel Macron.
In 21st century politics, leaders aren’t everything. But they still matter — a lot. At the moment, it’s by no means obvious who among the seven rebels would (or even could) be capable of becoming the face of such an insurgency, never mind its driving force.
And then there’s their putative pitch to the electorate. We don’t know what they’re for, only what they’re against: a party they believe has become institutionally anti-Semitic, and that is led by a man disliked and distrusted by many voters.
They consider Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to be lying to his own overwhelmingly pro-EU mass membership by effectively colluding with Prime Minister Theresa May to deliver Brexit. Going into bat for a second referendum on leaving the EU in the hope of convincing voters to overturn their previous decision might pay dividends in the short term — but in the long term it won’t be enough.
There may be a market for a party that is vaguely left-of-center on the economy, but there will be far fewer takers for a party spinning a defiantly liberal line on, say, immigration, crime and welfare.
Resources are crucial, too. Not only do parties spend millions of pounds at elections, they are also surprisingly expensive to run between contests. They need tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of members who can contribute at least some of that money, who campaign for them on the ground, who select their candidates and who ultimately help anchor them to whatever worldview they espouse. None of this can be conjured up out of thin air.
Nor, of course, can a proportional electoral system — the one thing that would presumably transform the prospects of any new party. As it stands, Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system constitutes the most hostile environment imaginable. Unless, like the Scottish National Party (SNP), your support is geographically concentrated, winning anything below around 30 percent of the vote means you’ll never win your fair share of seats in the Commons. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) that broke away from Labour in the 1980s found this out to its ultimate cost.
But while the parallels with the SDP are instructive, the Independent Group’s fate is by no means sealed.
For one thing, at least among voters, if not among party members, we live in a much less tribal society. As partisan as our era might sometimes seem, political identities are more fluid, and fewer and fewer people are “Labour (or indeed Conservative) through-and-through” these days.
Notions of what’s “left” and what’s “right” have been disrupted, even eroded, by a politics that revolves as much around culture as economics — and of course around Brexit, which is a heady brew of both.
That means there may be more voters up for grabs than many imagine, especially when we consider that many people are turned off by ideology and just want competence — something they don’t seem to be getting from either of the two main alternatives currently on offer.
Macron may be finding it tough to deliver on his promises right now, but it’s clear he sensed this dynamic. And it’s notable that he won the presidency without a change to France’s similarly non-proportional electoral system.
The French president also took advantage of the fact that we now live in a 24/7 media cycle with an insatiable craving for novelty. That means any new party, if it gets its messaging and its image right, can attract far more attention far more quickly than ever before.
If more MPs join the rebels — be they Labour MPs fed up or facing deselection or Tory MPs who are increasingly facing the same dilemma — things could snowball quickly.
Digital platforms might also be a big help when it comes to crowdfunding and recruiting new members. Absorbing the Liberal Democrats — a party whose brand may be bust and whose leader has made no impact — would obviously provide a massive boost, too.
The odds on this splinter group turning into a full-blown split seem pretty long right now, and the odds of it resulting in a successful party to rival at least one of the big established parties even longer. But we shouldn’t write off the seven — magnificent or otherwise — just yet.