Political breakaways are no easy option

Whichever way any sensible person thinks about Brexit, a disaster looms at the end of March. Nearly three years on from the Referendum and the decision to trigger Article 50 Parliament and the country are no clearer as to what they want from leaving Europe, and why they want it, than they were in 2016. Division is everywhere. Unhappiness, uncertainty and disillusionment are as rife today among electors as they are across the political spectrum.

When asked by the pollsters, a significant majority of UK electors now say they favour not leaving at all. That does not necessarily mean they would actually vote that way in a new referendum if there were to be one but it is worth noting. Meanwhile in Parliament the Conservative Party is split in three directions – leave at any price: leave but keep as many of the advantages as possible; or….don’t leave at all. But it is not even as clear as that what Brexit package they really want because they also see themselves inextricably bound by a referendum vote cast outside parliament in which ‘the people have spoken’. Thank you, David Cameron for that 1930s or South American instrument of so called democracy!

As for the Labour Party, to oldies like me it is beginning to look like 198O all over again as a ‘Gang of 14’ (or thereabouts) senior Labour MPs threaten to walk away from their long time anti-EU leader Jeremy Corbyn and his Socialist /‘Momentum’ colleagues to form a new more ‘centrist’ grouping of their own. Unlike 1980 the group does not contain any very obvious leaders of the stature of, say, Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams, but it could be a viable entity and, if it kept away from that unpopular word ’centrist’ it could find that it had more in common with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens than most Labour MPs like to pretend to have now.

However this approach raises two important questions: (a) whether such a breakaway would make a halfpenny’s worth of difference to the attempts to achieve a remotely acceptable Brexit deal and (b) whether a breakaway of Labour MPs would, without the help of any other grouping or party, make any serious impact on voters in the general election that would almost certainly soon follow the outcome of March 29.

The answer to the first question is a very quick ‘No’. If this group of mostly sensible Labour MPs has not managed to carry Jeremy Corbyn and the rest of his party in votes up to now, they are hardly likely to do so as breakaways within the remaining few weeks. They will still be occupying seats in the Commons but they will have no parliamentary status as speakers unless it specially granted. In fact in most instances the Speaker will be obliged to ensure that they maintain a vow of silence.

When it comes to performance in a general election, the 1980s experience of the Liberal/SDP Alliance and the ultimate merger in 1988 of the Liberal Party and the Social Democrats are of far more relevance.

In the second part of this two part article, Adrian turns to the history of the last time a group split from the Labour Party.

* Adrian Slade was President of the Liberal Party at the time of the merger with the SDP in 1988.

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12 Comments

  • Bill le Breton 19th Feb '19 - 9:06am

    Adrian asks, “However this approach raises two important questions: (a) whether such a breakaway would make a halfpenny’s worth of difference to the attempts to achieve a remotely acceptable Brexit deal and (b) whether a breakaway of Labour MPs would, without the help of any other grouping or party, make any serious impact on voters in the general election that would almost certainly soon follow the outcome of March 29.”

    And answers “No”.

    If anyone doubts the harmful effect this ‘campaign’ led at the moment by the 7 and their out of sight backers, they should look at Survation’s polling on VI yesterday.
    Con 39
    Lab 34
    “A new centrist party opposed to Brexit 8%
    LDEM 6%
    UKIP 5
    GRN 2

    I thought Jonathan Calder best summed things up in his blog, “Rather than the launch of a new movement, I see seven individuals who have succumbed to the hard left’s perennial tactic of making life so unpleasant for those who oppose them that they eventually walk away from the fight.”

    Even more sad, I see our Party as a victim of collateral damage in that process.

    Do not be seduced into thinking this is a new dawn for us. It spells potential ruin.

  • Helen Dudden 19th Feb '19 - 10:08am

    For sometime, there has been great unhappiness with the amount of crime and terror on our streets. Lack of housing, for those who have waited for so long. Often, housing within the council not meeting Decent Housing Standards. Some have brand new housing, some don’t.
    Ask me, if there was an election in two weeks time, who would I vote for. The first time in my life, I could I won’t bother.
    Today I’ve been listening on line to an account of serious failings in Children’s Services. Cut to the bone, things are failing badly.

  • Bill, you are right to signal concern. It seems that Labour lost 2% of their vote to the new group while the Lib Dems lost 4%, nearly half their vote. Why do you think this is?

  • John Marriott 19th Feb '19 - 11:32am

    All this talk of 1981 and the SDP reminds me, for some reason, of the remark made in the Veep candidates’ debate between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan ‘Potatoe’ Quayle. When the latter compared himself to JFK, the former replied to the effect; “I knew Jack Kennedy. You’re no Jack Kennedy”. Well, I could say something similar to the Gang of Seven today.

    There is no getting away from the fact that any ‘new Kid on the Block’ party will come up against the massive hurdle of FPTP. If you don’t believe me, try asking UKIP. That’s why we basically have a two party system where the furniture in Parliament is arranged accordingly. Both Labour and Tory parties are what experts call ‘broad churches’. The difference between them is that the latter hasn’t really split since the 1840s. If you remember the halcyon days of the SDP, only one sitting Tory MP, one Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler, actually joined them, and he lost his seat not long afterwards.

    What I see this move as is possibly the start of common sense returning to the House of Commons, where individual MPs will start acting as representatives and not as delegates of their constituents in order to find a deal which would be a acceptable not only to the EU and Parliament and which could, if necessary be put before the people for endorsement.

    If we can find common ground on Brexit then we might then be able to argue the case again for electoral reform to reflect the political pluralism in our society. If we do reach that point, let us please have a proper proportional system to consider and not the watered down non proportional system we voted on nearly ten years ago.

  • Brexit is clearly a factor but I doubt if the breakaway will have any impact on what happens in five weeks. It has to be a long term strategy. They have made the judgement that the Marxists will control Labour for the foreseeable future and there is an opportunity for a more centrist party. The Lib Dems do not seem to feature in this thinking in the minds of the seven or indeed in the minds of those taking part in the poll.

  • GWYN WILLIAMS 19th Feb '19 - 12:14pm

    Labour was on over 50% in the opinion polls in the months following Michael Foot’s election in the Autumn of 1980. At the beginning of 1981 we Liberals were on 11%. Following the Limehouse declaration we rose somewhat unsteadily. The polls showed as 2 separate parties we hardly had any shared support above the 14% the Liberals won in 1979. It was the idea of the 2 parties working together which caught the public imagination and caused our support to rocket to a peak in a couple of polls in December 81 to January 82 of over 50%. 30 years later, as we all know too well when 2 Parties actually work together in a coalition government it is the smaller Party that gets trashed. Let us learn the lessons of history. Work with the Independent MPs in their constituencies not just in Westminster. First seek points of agreement, then common policies and only then put forward a joint manifesto. Unlike 1981, the Green Party needs to be included from the start and we probably only have a few weeks to sort out all of this before the Election.

  • It’s worth pointing out that Labour were already down 3% and we were up 1% from the last Survation poll on a “normal” poll without the option of a new party. So some of our drop, say 1%-3% is from those who had come recently from Labour and indeed are from the same wing of the Labour party.

    Clearly of all the current parties. We most closely occupy the position of a “centrist party that opposes Brexit”. People may quibble with the term “centrist” and I appreciate that – but in general it is the public perception of us. And to that degree such a new party is obviously an electoral threat to us. I think in the very short term it will be useful electorally. The new group is not going to be fighting the local elections.

    And the Labour party is facing some challenges. Corbyn’s approval has plummeted to below that he had before the 2017 General Election. Just under 50% place them at 4 or 5 (the highest levels) as being anti-Semitic. 56% agree that Labour has been taken over by the hard left.

    As Mark Pack has said on his blog the local elections do now present a massive opportunity if we work hard at a local level. Winning support from unhappy Labour supporters. From “soft” Conservatives who are remainers and are troubled by the ERG. And having strong local campaigns against incompetent Tory and Labour councils.

  • Bill le Breton 19th Feb '19 - 1:50pm

    @Michael1 seems to have answered @Peter’s question.
    There are two inter-party relationships in politics; your opponent and your competitor(s) – that is all ye know in politics and all ye need to know.

  • They will still be occupying seats in the Commons but they will have no parliamentary status as speakers unless it specially granted. In fact in most instances the Speaker will be obliged to ensure that they maintain a vow of silence.

    Just an indication of just far the party system has corroded our democracy, another is how people seem to think that this is okay…

  • @Roland

    I THINK that Adrian Slade overstates the position – they would I believe be in as good a position to be called by the speaker as they were as Labour backbench MPs – probably better. And it will improve if and when they form a party as they say they will.

  • Of interest is the sky data poll which has:
    Con 32%
    Lab 26%
    Ind Group 10%
    Lib Dems 9%
    UKIP 6%

    Compared to the Survation poll that is pretty much no change for the Lib Dems – with the Tories and Labour heavily down. Indeed those figures would see the Lib Dems picking up a significant number of seats. Labour would be below their disastrous 1983 result.

    Some of the difference between Sky and Survation may be on the wording. Sky described TIG as “former Labour MPs who have split from the Labour Party,” against Survation describing it as a “centrist party that opposes Brexit”.

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