What would a new “third party” mean for British politics and is electoral reform the only way to achieve it?
With the ongoing discontent within the Parliamentary Labour Party, it seems inevitable that at some point there will be a split. What has become apparent in recent weeks is that the ideological standpoint of the vast majority of Labour members is considerably different to the majority of the party’s MPs, and as of this moment, it does not seem likely that this can be reconciled.
Ultimately, the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell on the left of the Labour Party are never going to properly agree with those on the right of the party, the so-called ‘Blairites’. Given the influx of new members before and since the election of Corbyn as the party leader, it now seems highly unlikely that an MP considered to be from the right of the party will ever have a chance of being elected as the party leader in the future. Indeed it has been said that with the ideology of the new membership taken into account, no MP who voted for the Iraq War or air strikes in Syria will have any real chance of becoming party leader in the future.
Although there have been attempts to persuade new members to join the Labour Party in an attempt to vote against Corbyn in the event of a leadership challenge, it appears that these have been largely unsuccessful in altering the balance of power. It has been suggested that around eighty per cent of the new joiners are supporters of Corbyn as leader. From this evidence, it seems highly unlikely that those on the right of the party will ever be able to exert any sort of real control over the party’s policy platform in the years to come.
In order to remedy this somewhat, those on the right of the party are looking to promote a ‘soft left’ candidate to challenge Corbyn for the leadership, in the hope that this concession will give them a greater chance of winning. At the moment is seems as though Angela Eagle is the most likely challenger, with the name of Owen Smith having also been mentioned. Both resigned from Labour’s Shadow Cabinet following the raft of resignations which followed the EU Referendum. Although Eagle is apparently more high-profile, Smith would perhaps have a better chance of finding favour with previously pro-Corbyn members given that he voted against the Iraq War. However, from what Smith has said, it sounds as though he may only run if Corbyn is not on the ballot, which as of this moment is looking unlikely.
However, despite challenges to Corbyn’s leadership being prepared it seems highly unlikely that they will be successful. It has been suggested that in the event of a leadership challenge, then Corbyn will have a place on the ballot, no matter what. Given that the vast majority of Labour members (particularly those who have recently joined the party) seem to strongly support Corbyn, it seems likely that he will be able to defeat any challenger with ease. Given this situation, it seems highly likely that those on the right of the party will be unable to remove Corbyn in the near future and turn the party into an electoral force once again. There seems very little chance that Corbyn will be able to win an election in 2020 and therefore very little chance that the Labour Party will be able to regain power with Corbyn at the helm. However it seems that the party membership are not particularly bothered about this issue, and that they would rather retain Corbyn as leader at all cost, even if it means years in the political wilderness. Given this, those on the right of the Labour Party have no choice but to act now if they want to offer any resistance to what is already seeming like a near certain victory for the Conservative Party at the next general election, especially given that the Conservative Party will be reunited under the leadership of new Prime Minister Theresa May.
Therefore, there is surely a very real possibility of a split and the formation of a new party comprising those MPs who have been disaffected by Corbyn’s leadership. In the recent vote of no confidence in Corbyn, 172 MPs voted in favour of the motion. Therefore, it is difficult to see how the situation can be reconciled, making a split inevitable. If Corbyn wins then the right of the party will split off. But, if Corbyn loses then potentially the left of the party will split off, given that the whole episode has proved that the two factions cannot work together or even exist together in the same party.
In The Times on Tuesday, Rachel Sylvester wrote that there is a growing number of MPs, Peers, and advisers who “now believe that it is time to start again with a new party of the centre left”. Following the result in the EU Referendum it has been said that a former cabinet minister has talked of the possibility of a “party of the 48 per cent”. If the MPs on the right of the party were to split from Corbyn’s Labour and create a new centre left party which was: pro-Europe, pro-business, but also socially and economically liberal, then there would be great opportunities for gaining a strong share of the vote. It has also been reported that Tim Farron is keen for the Liberal Democrats to merge with any new party as he believes that the Liberal Democrat name has been tainted by the time spent in coalition and that a change is required if they are ever to gain power.
One issue for any new party would be the Labour name. The name of the Labour Party is so ingrained within the minds of the electorate that it would be expected that at least 20 per cent of the electorate will vote “Labour” regardless of the cricumstances, and simply because they always have done and don’t know anything different. By the same rationale you would expect there to always be at least a 20 per cent share of the vote for the Conservative Party regardless of the circumstances. This suggests that retaining the name of the Labour Party would be of vital importance to any ‘rebels’ wishing to break off and form another party more in line with their ideology. However, surely there is also an argument for completely breaking with the name. Arguably the policy changes enacted by Jeremy Corbyn will have damaged the standing of the Labour Party amongst centrist voters to such an extent that a clean break (i.e. the formation of a brand new party) may be better, or potentially a merger with the Liberal Democrats. A new party such as this could be rebranded as ‘The Democrats’ and organised similarly to their namesakes in the United States, with policies that appeal to those who are right and left of centre.
Any merger of the right of the Labour Party with the Liberal Democrats would allow a new centrist party to be formed. This would potentially attract people from across the political spectrum, Labour MPs from the right of the party as well as potentially MPs from the left of the Conservative Party. This could have been particularly likely if Andrea Leadsom were to be elected the leader of the Conservative Party, which would have put us in the strange situation of both major parties being led by someone only backed by a third of their party’s respective MPs. However, the leadership victory of Theresa May surely secures the continued existence and reunification of the Conservative Party in its current form.
The potential for splits in the major parties perhaps explains the recent push towards a support of electoral reform amongst MPs from across the political spectrum. Over the past few months, it has become ever more clear that the likes of Chuka Umunna and John McDonnell agree upon little. However one thing they do agree upon is that the UK needs a more proportional electoral system. On 2 June in his column in The Guardian, Owen Jones argued that these figures from both sides of the Labour Party were “uniting in order to divorce”. As Jones goes on to say:
It is worth asking the question. If Labour did not exist, would Corbyn and Peter Mandelson join forces to found it? If the Conservatives were founded tomorrow would it really be an alliance between Cameron and John Redwood? Britain has fragmented, and so has politics — but the electoral system makes us pretend otherwise. For both Labour and Tory warring sides, proportional representation would set them free.
The growing differences within the major UK parties highlight a need for a new party in Britain comprising those closer to the political centre ground. Although the adoption of a more proportional electoral system would be highly likely to lead to a greater chance of hung parliaments in the future, what it would also do is lead to more collaborative Parliament. Parties would be forced to compromise and work together which would lead to a Government which worked for the majority of people in the UK.
Wouldn’t it be better if those of the right of the Labour Party, and those on the left of the Conservative Party were instead standing for a party which better matched their ideology. It would be a move that could restore the faith of the public in politicians. Politicians could no longer be seen simply as careerists but as people who were truly standing for what they believed in. Overall, the main parties splitting would provide significant long-term benefit to the UK’s political system.
Tim Montgomerie has also previously imagined changes in the party system in December 2013 column for The Times. Montgomerie imagines the UK being made of of four new parties: the left-wing Solidarity Party; the centre-left Liberal Party; the centre-right National Party; and the right-wing Freedom Party.
Of course, the success of any new party may rely upon the adoption of proportional representation as the UK’s electoral system. Although the Liberal Democrats have shown signs of a resurgence with an increase in members following the EU Referendum and some wins in the council elections, there is little evidence that a centrist, third-party would be able to win a significant number of seats under our first-past-the-post system. The perennial problem of the Liberal Democrats was coming second in a great many seats but winning few, a similar problem that befell Ukip during the 2015 General Election. Therefore, for any third-party to properly flourish, electoral reform would be a necessity. Unfortunately as Jones rightly states, in any campaign for electoral reform, “voters would be subjected to a fear campaign portraying PR as a vote for 60 Ukip MPs.” Whilst this may have been the case during the 2015 general election, it remains to be seen whether Ukip will retain their popularity following the EU Referendum result, particularly given that they are a one issue party. In any case, whatever your feelings regarding Ukip, an electoral system where certain parties are unable to win seats due to their vote not being concentrated in one place is an unjust system. Rather than support a system which doesn’t allow the views of the whole country to be heard, a proportional system would allow people’s differing views to be properly and rationally debated.
Ultimately, a new party or a revamping of the Liberal Democrats would serve the UK extremely well, and there could be real appetite for a new party from the electorate. If a party could be created that was pro-business, pro-Europe and economically liberal, as well as being willing to act to reduce immigration and not totally opposed to overseas military intervention; then I imagine this party would garner a great degree of support from the UK electorate.
There looks to be no chance of Jeremy Corbyn stepping down in the near future. If he continues until the next general election then the Labour Party will easily suffer the worst electoral defeat of its history. Regardless of your political preference it can surely be agreed that continuing not to have a proper opposition to scrutinise the decisions of the government would be bad for the UK as a parliamentary democracy.
Therefore, if those on the right of the party want to gain power again and want to make a difference, then they would have no choice but to act now and form a new liberal party or defect to the existing Liberal Democrats. A party such a this may struggle without a proportional electoral system, but there is also a chance that they could flourish regardless. A “party of the 48 per cent” should be an exciting prospect for any potential defector, given that it would surely garner support from the electorate.
Overall, in order to make our democracy work properly, a strong opposition is desperately needed. It has become clear that this is not going to come from Jeremy Corbyn. Therefore, the moderate elements of the Labour must split in order for a new party to be formed that can properly scrutinise the actions of government.