There are two fairly inevitable things about two-party systems. First, that there will be perennial discussion of the creation of third parties. Secondly, that in the end pretty much nothing will upturn the two-party status quo.
James Chapman, the former Special Advisor to the hapless David Davies, is the latest in a long line of people to have proposed such a party. Since parting ways with his former boss, Chapman has been announcing to apparently anyone who will listen that he intends to set up a new party – ‘The Democrats’ – which will function as a pro-European centrist party.
Chapman might be a slightly odd character (his Twitter feed suggests a man suffering the effects of too much Mediterranean sun and too little caution) but the concept of a new centrist party isn’t altogether a strange one.
The main stimulus, of course is Brexit, something which has altered – perhaps perpetually – the political calculus of the country. We are no longer a nation defined by our attitudes to economic issues; we are one defined by our position vis a vis globalisation. On one side sit the 52% – against the European Union, immigration and neoliberal politics. On the other are the 48%, supportive of international trade and the free flows of capital and people.
In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, however, a curious thing took place. In their haste to win votes, both Labour and the Conservatives positioned themselves firmly on the side of the thin majority who voted in favour of Brexit. Both parties deposed their leadership in favour of figures opposed to internationalism (Jeremy Corbyn, whatever his youthful fanbase might believe, is and has always been a trenchant nationalist and opponent of the European Union) and have enthusiastically courted former Leave voters.
But if Britain’s political realignment saw the creation of a political coalition united by its opposition to globalisation, the entailment of that was the creation of another one, one which defines itself in terms of a positive attitude to neoliberalism. Yet this demographic has been almost completely neglected by both major parties. Corbyn’s Labour Party professes a neo-socialist programme taken directly from the 1970s, while the Tories have opted to pursue a rock-hard Brexit (though whether they’ll get it, considering the sluggish state of negotiations and the reluctance of the European Commission to compromise, is as yet unclear.)
This leaves a large pro-globalisation lacuna in the political landscape. Who can fill it? Some have suggested the Liberal Democrats, but this seems unlikely. Their brand has been irreversibly tainted by their decision to go into coalition with the Tories in 2010, and the few electoral successes they enjoyed in 2017 came not from their pro-European agitation but from what they’ve always been best at – locally-focussed campaigns won through intense canvassing.
If not the Lib Dems, does this leave room for a new centrist party – of the sort suggested by Chapman – to enter the scene? Contrary to the somewhat febrile speculation of many commentators, some of whom seem in need of something to write about during the long hot summer, this seems unlikely.
Firstly, it relies upon the assumption that all of the 48% of the electorate who opposed Brexit are ideologically internationalist. This is as mistaken as presuming that that all of the 52% of the country who supported Brexit are swivel-eyed bigots. Whilst at least some of those 48% are, many more are the economically cautious; those who voted to Remain out of an innate reluctance to jump into the void. The small cadre of hardcore Remainers do not constitute enough of a pool to form a new party of.
Secondly, it mistakes internationalism for centrism. Indeed, this difference has been elided over by multiple commentators online, who assume that a centrist party is per se going to be internationalist. Genuinely centrist parties in the past have been grounded on economic centrism; that is to say, fairly high government spending and a fairly equitable tax burden.
None of this is compatible with the brand of internationalism being espoused by those encouraging a third party; returning to the European Union would, for a variety of reasons, require adherence to the ‘German model’ of economics, one which would see spending cut and foreign labour permitted entry to the country. Theoretically an internationalist party might achieve limited success in certain areas; but it would be unable to capitalise on the potential that true centrism holds.
This leads to the final reason for the likely failure of a new third party, namely the deeply entrenched political differences that transcend the pro-globalisation/anti-globalisation dichotomy. Profound differences exist between left-wing and right-wing internationalists, both in their attitudes towards internationalism and in their stances on various other issues.
Indeed, it could almost be argued that the gulf between right-wing internationalism and left-wing internationalism is almost as profound and impassable as the one between parochialism and globalism. A centrist party would have to find a way to reconcile wildly different positions on issues like defence, non-European migration, civil liberties and the environment.
This all highlights a problem with the basic premise of Chapman’s; that a party can be founded upon an issue. UKIP tried that, and it didn’t work – after essentially exhausting the mileage that could be made out of Europe, they’ve been reduced to a risible fringe movement of nutcases and Islamophobes. Parties shouldn’t be founded upon policies; they should be founded upon ideologies.
So it is with both the Conservatives and Labour (and indeed, to their credit, the Lib Dems.) The Conservatives are not a party of low immigration or monetarist policy; they are a party which believes in the concept of hierarchy, of the inevitability of inequality, and of the importance of incremental societal evolution. Similarly, Labour is a party which is rooted in a belief in the importance of trade unionism and of egalitarianism.
Deprived of such an animating spirit, a centrist or internationalist third party cannot hope to thrive. At best it will succeed in agitating enough to make its voice heard – which may well be enough to accomplish its goals – but in reality a third party of this sort has no hope. If James Chapman wants to stop or to mitigate Brexit, a new party isn’t the answer.