If a new anti-Brexit, centre-left liberal movement can’t inspire voters like Viney, what chance does it have? It almost feels a truism to say the old left-right, class-based political cleavages have gone, and the party system that’s based on them is creaking arthritically. Across the West, populists are making hay on both the left and right fringes, drawing the main parties inexorably into new and unfamiliar identities.
A logical consequence of this would seem to be a vacuum at the centre – and a centrist, liberal party could fill it and prosper, as French President Emmanuel Macron seemed to do in 2017.
But maybe, as the left-right linear axis erodes, that’s not where the gap is any more. The demand seems to be for something different.
Economically left, culturally right
“There is space for something new in British politics, but the evidence is that it’s for a very different type of party to this [Independent Group]. It’s for a party that is economically on the left but culturally on the right,” says Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent and author of a recent book on populism.
He says this party would actually be in favour of Brexit, and would advocate lower immigration and a tough approach to crime, but would also be committed to “spending more on public services, regulating business more closely, and making the economic landscape a bit fairer”.
“Corbyn is a divisive figure but his message is quite popular, especially his economically populist message. Any new party needs to circumvent that, and also the instinctive conservatism of the British electorate on social issues. So I’m sceptical about the prospects for a party that promises more liberalism.”
Professor Tim Bale, from Queen Mary University London, agrees: “There may be a market for a party that is vaguely left-of-centre on the economy, but there will be far fewer takers for a party spinning a defiantly liberal line on, say, immigration, crime and welfare,” he wrote on Tuesday.
Viney, meanwhile, would be looking for a leftish take on the economy – not as free-market as the Independent Group, but not as radical as Corbyn’s – twinned with a liberal outlook on social issues.
“The populist parties all have one thing in common: they believe the state can do more for people,” says John McTernan, senior vice-president at PSB Research in London and a former adviser to prime minister Julia Gillard.
Even Theresa May’s Conservative Party seems to have figured this out. She launched an industrial strategy – an act of blasphemy to a true free-marketeer – and last year declared an end to fiscal austerity. She is unafraid to spend money on healthcare and welfare.
The secret sauce of today’s politics
This might be the secret sauce of contemporary politics: activist state intervention in the economy is the sine qua non of political success. It’s how you dress it up, and what social policies you garnish it with, that mark out where you are on the political menu.
In the US, the Democrats seem to have embarked on a similar journey towards this consensus.
The Republicans are yoked to President Donald Trump, after his comprehensive hostile takeover of the party’s moderate wing, but the Democrats have no obvious leading contender amid a huge field of hopefuls.
Those on the left – Elizabeth Warren and putative independent Bernie Sanders, who announced on Tuesday [Wednesday, AEDT] that he plans to run next year – have focused their pitch on major social welfare spending promises, primarily for healthcare, as well as dramatic increases in taxes on higher income earners and the wealthy.
The centre-right names include Kamala Harris, one of the current front-runners, and lesser-known fellow senator Amy Klobuchar, who formally joined the race last week; but they are tiptoeing around the youthful activist base, exemplified by first-term congresswoman from New York Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
AOC, as she’s known, has just launched a so-called Green New Deal – a long list of vaguely defined big-ticket calls for the complete end to US carbon emissions, free university education for all, and universal healthcare.
Klobuchar, from the midwest state of Minnesota, on Monday became the first Democrat running for the White House to challenge the party’s left-wing drift. She has dismissed most of the spending plans as “aspirational” and unrealistic, and has tried to paint herself as a fiscal pragmatist. In the current anti-austerity climate, it will be interesting to see if this fires up the faithful.
It’s the same in Britain. The first post-rebellion poll to include an option of a new centrist party, such as the Independent Group may become, suggested support for their effort – many people backed the split – but not any real inclination to vote for them.
As Bale points out, the movement lacks policies and a leader, so it’s hardly surprising it hasn’t set the world on fire. But Britain already has a centrist party, the Liberal Democrats, with a well-known leader – yet its poll ratings barely escape single digits.
Perhaps the challenge for parties of the centre, and of a liberal bent, is that they struggle to avoid being tarnished with the brush of being mainstream – part of the now much-maligned “establishment”.
Those who feel left behind
The pitch that both left and right are making these days is to those who feel left behind, or anxious, or unsettled – by globalisation and its concomitant ills such as immigration, erosion of settled values, and economic inequality.
Brexit was an issue that precisely captured this group: the outsiders, the “people of somewhere”, who resented the elite, the establishment, the “people of nowhere”. And now the noisiest parts of the Conservative Party, although pandering to the desire for more economic intervention and support, frequently borrow the populist rhetorical clothes they tried on during Brexit.
In the US, as in Britain, both left and right are trying, in their different ways, to identify with people who feel forgotten or overlooked. It’s just a question of which buttons to push, and how.
“What this means for investors is that elections now bring with them more unorthodox policy debates, and a change in tone and tenor of policy debates,” says Stephanie Kelly, senior political economist at Aberdeen Standard Investments’ ASI Research Institute.
So this is not a fight for the centre ground. The political mileage seems to be in trying to win blue-collar voters, and scuffed white-collar voters, through empathy with their preoccupations alongside policies to match. But this same target voter group might warm to both, say, Corbyn’s railway nationalisation policy and also the Tories’ fusillades against political correctness.
But it’s clear voters can get fired up by social issues: culture wars, immigration, crime and sometimes the environment. These are issues that divide parties internally as much as create clear battle lines between them. And Brexit is the most divisive issue of all.
“The political party system has fragmented across European countries and, in countries where you can’t actually fragment easily – for example the United States – you are seeing fragmentation within parties instead,” Aberdeen Standard’s Kelly says.
Australia a bit different
Australia is a bit different: compulsory voting gives the parties some incentive to compete for the centre, whereas in Britain and the US it’s about getting out the base on polling day. And preferential voting gives the party system a bit of flex, whereas in first-past-the-post it’s boom or bust.
The Independent Group knows it has a near-impossible task ahead. In a voting system stacked against small parties, they have to reinvent centrist liberalism as something that “outsiders” can relate to, and believe in.
“You can’t have this cooked up by seven people in Westminster,” rebel Labour MP Chuka Umunna said on Tuesday. “If we just do things the same old way and announce things at podiums and tell people how it’s going to be, then we are just behaving like the establishment – and we want to be different.”
Macron seems to be having some success in rebuilding his anti-establishment credentials – and political popularity – in just this way, by holding town hall meetings across France.
Whether he, and his new potential bedfellows in Britain, can sustain this and still cleave to a liberal, centrist agenda, is perhaps the big political question of 2019.
– with Mark Mulligan