Where now for Change UK?

Chris Clarke
May 31, 2019 · 12 min read

That week in late February — when the ‘TIG’ achieved 18% in a one-off poll — must seem a long time ago now, if you’re a Change UK member or activist. Last week’s European election results saw them bump along the bottom on 3.5% — around the same level as Ukip.

There was an element of bad luck in this, insofar as the Lib Dems stole a march on Change UK at the local elections, and were able to become the party of Remain. And there are obviously all of the infrastructure and campaigning issues which new parties face.

But the true challenge, both electorally and ideologically, is the question of what Change UK stands for.

As a former Labour member, I lent my vote to them last week — mainly out of respect for the 11 MPs. I admired their courage in standing up to populism, and felt that they deserved longer to try and establish themselves. But deep, existential questions must be asked, if Change UK is to avoid bowing out with a whimper less than 6 months after being formed. The next few steps the party takes will be vital in determining their fate.

Speaking as a focus group of one, below are a) the three key questions Change UK must answer for those potentially sympathetic (along with my own thoughts on what the answers should be!), and b) the four coherent futures they could embrace.

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Question 1: Is Change UK a ‘centrist’ party?

I’m not a ‘centrist’, and my biggest reservation about Change UK was that several of their MPs identified in this way. No matter how many qualifications you put in front of the word — ‘progressive centre’, ‘radical centre’, etc — centrism feels to me like splitting the difference or finding the mean average. As a result, it has become a pejorative term — “‘neoliberalism’ with a fidget spinner,” as Helen Lewis put it — with connotations which are technocratic, elitist and economically unimaginative.

This issue is, perhaps, semantic, and the above associations may be unfair. But they reflect the fact that people want political actors to pull in a clear direction — even if they also want them to be sensible and pragmatic in doing so. Centrism, by contrast, implies that you wish merely to trim the excesses of left and right in equal measure; that you’re happy to stay still. (See Nick Clegg’s ill-fated 2015 manifesto speech for a textbook example of this).

As political psychologist George Lakoff argues in the quote below (which refers to US politics but applicable to the UK), most people ultimately fall on one side or the other:

There are moderates, but there is no ideology of the moderate… A moderate conservative has some progressive positions on issues, though they vary from person to person. Similarly, a moderate progressive has some conservative positions on issues… In short, moderates have both political moral worldviews, but mostly use one of them. Those two moral worldviews in general contradict each other. How can they reside in the same brain at the same time?

There are two groups who could be seen as defying this. The first is the large electorate bloc which positions itself in the centre when asked to self-identify. ‘Moderate’ politicians often point out the fertile ground that this bloc represents. Yet the truth is that these self-proclaimed ‘centrist’ voters tend to either be apathetic or left authoritarian in practice. In other words, they’re not centrists in the way that political observers tend to mean, and are not an obvious fit with Change UK’s ideas.

The second group is a sliver of the population — often employed as policy officers, civil servants, lawyers, economists, etc — whose lives are spent weighing up complex issues and processes, and who have become accustomed to thinking purely about ‘what works?’ These individuals are, perhaps, the true ‘centrists’, and some may have voted Change UK. But they’re a rare breed and a small electoral base.

Most potential Change UK voters fall on one side or the other, as Lakoff suggests: left or right. Hence, if they’re to vote for a party with no current hope of winning seats, some castle-on-the-hill is needed. Where are the sunlit uplands? Which are the core values? What are Change UK ‘borrowing from both left and right’ in order to achieve?

Question 2) How are Change UK different from the two main parties?

The word ‘centrist’ is, in fact, misleading. It assigns an ideological mid-point on the spectrum, halfway between Labour and Conservative, when the thing it’s really describing is a state of mind. What many who call themselves ‘centrists’ are trying to communicate, I suspect, is that they are pluralist, consensual, rational and open — not that they’re closer to the mean average.

I believe it was the absence of these qualities among the present Labour and Conservative leaderships — more than questions of values — which drove the Change UK MPs to form their own grouping. Thanks to Corbynism and Brexit, both main parties appear lost to populism, maybe forever. They have become backward-looking, tribal and dogmatic.

The reason I can’t vote for Labour, for example, isn’t because they want to nationalise the railways, but because of the conspiracy theories, the abuse, the isolationism, the ‘enemy’s enemy is my friend’ policy positions, etc. These approaches have contributed to anti-Semitism, the flawed Lexit argument, and to an internal debate which is devoid of reason. I don’t see things returning to normal any time soon.

You sensed that the same was true for the Change UK MPs, when it came to their relationships with their respective former parties. On austerity, for instance, one of the biggest substantive issues of the day, Labour and Tory ‘TIG’ MPs took divergent views. Yet they found it easier to have rational conversations with people they disagreed with than to have irrational conversations with many of those whose values they shared.

Thus, what unites the 11 MPs and their supporters, I believe, is a shared commitment to a pluralist, logical, forward-looking and honest form of democracy — not a shared set of values.

The problem is that, now Change UK are a registered political party, there’s a pressure to pretend this is not the case. The breakaway MPs have had to imply that their differences with Labour and the Tories were primarily about ideals — as if Mike Gapes’ problem with Corbyn’s Labour is that it’s too egalitarian — and that they now have more in common with each other on this front than with their former parties.

In doing this, Change UK are trying to identify a values niche which I’m not convinced is there, and to describe policy overlap among themselves which often doesn’t ring true.

Question 3) How are Change UK different from the smaller Remain parties?

This raises a third question. If Change UK’s issue with the two main parties was that they’d collapsed into isolationist populism, why didn’t they simply move over and join one of the smaller Remain parties.

This is especially pertinent for ex-Labour members. Why, for instance, didn’t I cast my European Elections vote for a Remain-leaning, left-wing party, like the Greens? Or why, back in February, didn’t Chuka Umunna and co just switch over to the Lib Dems?

I think there are two answers here.

The first point is about social class, and mainly afflicts traditional Labourites who are tempted by Change UK. Rightly or wrongly I associate both the Lib Dems and the Greens with fairly affluent, bohemian and post-materialist preoccupations — cut off, in some key sense, from ordinary communities. Both parties have traditionally failed to come up with bread and butter socio-economic policies, and have focused instead on issues like civil liberties and student fees, which I regard as fringe, middle-class preoccupations.

I’m aware of the hypocrisy of this, given I’m middle-class myself. Moreover, it’s clear to me that Change UK’s voter base and candidate list is, if anything, even further upmarket. There’s doubtless something very Dave Spart about my aversion to ‘bourgeois’ parties like the Lib Dems. But I suspect that, for at least some Labour members currently weighing things up, the fact that the Lib Dems and Greens have no working-class appeal is quite a significant factor.

The second point is much larger, and it’s about credibility and seriousness of purpose. Both the Lib Dems and the Greens, decent as they are, have always struck me as oppositionist and opportunistic; as quasi-populist parties, even.

You only need to look at the Greens’ policies in 2015 (compounded by a leader who could not remember them) to see this, or at their record leading Brighton council — which was fraught with infighting and industrial strife. Even more so the Lib Dems, whose policies throughout the New Labour years presented critique without alternative, and who only found out the realities of government once in office — most famously, of course, with their tuition fees U-turn. As far back as the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, their politics has been seen by Labour supporters as representing the cynicism of easy opposition.

This is clearly very mild compared to the rise of ‘populism proper’ in the last few years. And I accept that it’s largely a product of first-past-the-post — which means that smaller parties have no hope of getting into government, and thus no incentive to come up with costed, constructive alternatives. But it is a factor, nonetheless.

I suspect that many Change UK supporters are people who originally chose the big two parties over the smaller ones for a reason — namely that those parties took seriously the realities of office. Whether they opted for the Tories or for Labour, they accepted that change involves compromise, that politics is hard and that ‘to govern is to choose’.

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The thoughts above, if in any way representative, provide more questions than answers. They suggest that the real Change UK appeal, such as it is, is to politically engaged centre right and centre left voters, who: cannot find a broad overlap in terms of what they believe; who cannot return to their old parties, which are now riven with populism and extremism; and who can’t bring themselves to join smaller parties, who they associate with trivial, opportunistic politics.

Yet with all this said, I don’t think that Change UK is quite done yet. Below are four potential futures for the party, which clear shifts in emphasis might allow the to realise.

Future A) Change UK as the party of ‘open’

It has long been said that ‘open versus closed’ is replacing ‘left versus right’ as the primary political gamut. The problems with the two main parties — and part of the explanation for their confused positions on Europe — is that both want to have their cake and eat it in this regard. The Tories’ default is economic openness and social closedness; Labour’s current instinct is to be economically closed but socially open.

Change UK is essentially comprised of ex-Labour internationalists and ex-Tory globalists. It is in their shared commitment to genuine openness where there is the most genuine overlap between the Anna Soubrys and Chris Leslies of the world. It is difficult to be only partially open, and Change UK’s mission could be to unapologetically make the case for openness on all fronts — the truth being that a huge number of the present problems require multi-lateral or supranational solutions. Their stance would be emphatically pro-migration, pro-Paris Accord, pro-EU, pro-NATO, pro-Tobin Tax, pro-trade, pro-refugee, pro-TTIP, pro-UN reform, etc.

This would be a brave and important calling, essentially making the case for some form of world government, and attacking the nationalist, isolationist and protectionist positions of the other parties. It would appeal to a fairly specific electoral coalition, and the arguments involved — an EU wide policy on migration, for instance — are unpopular but valid. There might be opportunities to unite with the Lib Dems and Greens in making the case, with Change UK providing a degree of rigour about the realities of true openness.

Future B) Change UK as the party of liberal conservativism

Hugo Rifkind argued a while back that the pretence of wanting change inhibited ‘centrists’; that they’d do better to honestly present themselves as guardians of a liberal status quo. The second alternative future would be for Change UK to take on this role, arguing not for change but for stability.

Read the work of Steven Pinker or any other of the ‘new optimists’, after all, and you’ll find plenty of reasons for progressives to be positive — be it falling child poverty in Africa or rising social liberalism in the UK. It is the radical shifts championed by populists of left and right which undermine these advances, Change UK could argue. The status quo isn’t actually that bad.

This would clearly require a name change and a re-launch, and would essentially mean embracing small ‘c’ conservativism. Change UK could defend advances in living standards. They could argue for ‘continuity’ when it comes to the increasingly socially liberal attitudes of the population. They could uphold ‘establishment’ support for international human rights. They could champion ‘business as usual’ when it comes to the reduction of developing world poverty, and ‘more of the same’ when it came to EU membership.

This would be a curious mix of left and right: substantively left-of-centre, but conservative in its ‘this far but no further’, ‘don’t rock the boat’ approach. In reality, I suspect its appeal would be to socially liberal Tories on the centre right.

Clearly, the approach would generate anger, ridicule and accusations of ‘neoliberalism’ from several quarters. But you could argue that there is currently a gap in the market for an anti-change party, with the Tories having vacated this conservative ground. By embodying and owning their role as preservers, Change UK could find a role.

Future C) Change UK as the party of social democracy

Looking back at the SDP’s failure, its leader David Owen was of the view that (as Patrick Maguire paraphrases) the party had:

too quickly, through formalised cooperation with the Liberals, cast itself as a centrist accoutrement to the existing political parties, rather than an attempt to supplant Labour as Britain’s primary party of progressive politics.

Looking at Change UK, many would make the same argument. My own view is that Corbyn’s brand of Trumpian populism has moved Labour into a very dark place. It is not only politically authoritarian and anti-democratic, but is inadvertently reactionary on almost policy every question — from anti-Semitism to student fees. If proper Labour isn’t coming back any time soon then Britain requires a serious, economically redistributive socially democratic force, stripped of all the backward-looking, conspiratorial and hyper-partisan nonsense which Corbyn and his followers revel in.

So, the third option for Change UK — and my preferred one — would be for them to recast themselves as a left-wing party. They could explicitly challenge Labour on its own turf, making a clear alternative case for what it is to be left-wing in 2019. This would involve cosmetic changes: red branding, the retiring of the word ‘centrist’, and a strapline which emphasised social justice, equality and Labour values. Faced with accusations that they’re ‘Red Tories’ or ‘Conservative Lite’, this hypothetical party could retort that that they’re the true progressives.

Quite apart from the question of how Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston would feel about this, the above would be tricky. It may be too late to change tack in this way. But given the state of Labour, it would also render the best chance of increasing the size of the number of defections. With Corbyn now seemingly taking a deliberate policy of shrinking the size of the party, with the expulsion of Alastair Campbell, Change UK could encourage Labour MPs to resign the whip and join them, on the basis that they are the real Labour party. They could even say, quite overtly, that their values were Labour and that their aim was to re-join once Corbyn and his outriders are gone.

Future D) Change UK as a place of temporary shelter for pluralists

As I set out above, the chief difference between Change UK and the two main parties is about world view and approach to politics. Both Labour and the Tories have fallen into ways of thinking which demonise opponents, which rely on conspiracies, and which take refuge in the past. You don’t have to be a ‘centrist’ to think these things are damaging for democracy.

So, rather than try to act as a party with a manifesto and MPs, Change UK could re-style themselves as a ‘place of temporary shelter’ for left- and right-wing pluralists. It would act as a sort of parliamentary holding pen, demanding nothing in terms of values, ideology and policy, beyond asking that they sign up to principles of pluralism and democratic tolerance. The only commitment required to join the grouping would be that MPs:

a) did not see the political spectrum as a moral spectrum, or believe that people on the other side were less decent humans;

b) did not talk about powerful elites, promote conspiracy theories, or indulge ideas about plots by the powerful;

c) did not rely on decline narratives, or cherry-pick aspects of the past that suited their arguments.

The initial aim would be to secure a parliamentary majority of pluralists, and then to split into two separate parties. This would probably involve the MPs within the grouping supporting PR. It would require a large amount of coordination and trust, and would rely on more MPs leaving the Conservatives than currently look willing to.

With the two main parties dragged down to combined 38% of the vote by their respective leaderships, a mass breakaway isn’t unthinkable. Among MPs who can’t stand the directions their parties have taken, but can’t bring themselves to join another formal party, Change UK’s ‘place of temporary shelter’ could provide an important route out.

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The four futures outlined are not mutually exclusive. Change UK’s remaining supporters would probably like to see them do all four, to some degree. But the truth is that the party has very little to lose. A clear nailing of colours to the mast is the only hope.

Chris Clarke

Written by

Warring Fictions is a book-length essay by Chris Clarke. It critiques the core myths that drive Corbyn’s populist takeover of Labour: warringfictions.net

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