The decision of Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston to defect from the Conservative Party to join eight ex-Labour MPs in the Independent Group (IG) may indicate the start of a realignment in British politics. The IG’s MPs are centrist Remainers who became disenchanted with their old parties over Brexit (and antisemitism in the case of the former Labourites).
But the last major breakaway party in Britain, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which emerged following a Labour split in 1981, offers an inauspicious precedent. The SDP failed in its mission to “break the mould of British politics” and most Labour defectors lost their seats in 1983. If, as expected, the IG becomes a fully-fledged centre party, will it do any better?
Much attention rightly focuses on the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system. By requiring candidates to achieve a plurality of the vote, FPTP makes it hard, though not impossible, for new and small parties to win seats. Some IG MPs might hope to rely on personal votes, tactical voting and media publicity to achieve reelection.
Of the eight ex-Labour MPs, six hold majorities of over 30%. That means that splitting the Labour vote in their constituencies is unlikely to allow in the Conservatives (an important consideration for local centre-left voters). It is feasible that some could win again, although the odds must be against it. Of the ex-Conservatives, Allen and Wollaston hold majorities of about 25%, which allows them to split the Tory vote without letting Labour in and they could benefit from tactical votes from Liberal Democrat voters.
A big problem facing any centre party is that Britain’s party system offers voters a choice over not only who their MP will be but also which party will form the government. When voters cast ballots for Labour or the Conservatives, they are voting for Labour or Conservative governments. Even when they vote for a candidate from a smaller party, a voter generally knows which side that candidate is more closely aligned with at the national level. So, for example, they know the Scottish National Party and Greens lean to the left and would prefer a Labour government, while the right-leaning Democratic Unionist Party and UKIP would prefer a Conservative government.
Until 2010, the Liberal Democrats leaned to the left and posed as an anti-Conservative force, winning support from leftist voters as a result. But when they chose to enter government with the Conservatives, those voters deserted the party, feeling that it violated their trust, and they have not returned.
It was a cautionary tale for smaller parties believing that hung parliaments give them the right to be kingmakers. In Britain, it is voters who choose the government, not the leaders of small parties. Irrespective of whether small parties actively support the major party on “their” side of the ideological divide, they must not support the party on the “other” side. A centrist party adopting a strategy of “equidistance” between Labour and the Conservatives may think it is keeping its options open. In reality, it’s giving voters reasons not to support it. Voting for a small party whose preferred coalition partner is uncertain is to cede the choice of government to that party.
Positioning the IG
Despite the arrival of the three Tory defectors, the IG’s current dominance by Labour defectors is likely to mean it becomes a centre-left party. But then a further choice arises: does it seek a niche within the current two-party system or aim to supplant Labour as the centre-left governing alternative?
A centrist niche could be achieved by not fiercely competing with Labour but instead fighting the Conservatives in areas where Labour cannot win. It could seek tactical votes from left-wing voters looking to remove the Conservatives locally, as well as protest votes from Tory voters looking for a change. Over time, it could become the major local challenger to the Conservatives in these seats. Under this strategy, the IG’s success would depend on the ebbs and flows of major party competition, excelling when the Conservatives did badly nationally, but falling back when the Tories did well.
This strategy was precisely that of the Lib Dems until 2010. They surged on the New Labour tide of 1997, as Labour and Lib Dem supporters voted tactically for each other’s parties to remove Tory MPs. It was destroyed by the Lib Dems’ fateful decision to join the Conservatives in coalition.
The alternative strategy for the IG would be to replace Labour as the major centre-left contender for government. That would entail competing for Labour’s seats by taking over its voter base wholesale. That might risk splitting the centre-left vote in marginal seats, allowing the Tories in, but in safe Labour seats, there would effectively be a choice of two leftist parties – one radical and one moderate. This “supplanting” strategy does not succeed often, although the SNP achieved something similar in Labour’s Scottish constituencies in 2015.
These two strategic visions were evident in the original SDP. Some hoped to usurp Labour but others believed a centrist niche was more realistic. Sure enough, the SDP formed an electoral pact with the Liberals, running single candidates in each constituency in 1983. But it meant the SDP became an adjunct of the Liberals rather than a challenger to Labour. The SDP’s electoral performance in 1983 and 1987 was very similar to the Liberals’, doing better in prosperous Conservative-held seats where Labour had little chance. The Liberal-SDP merger in 1988 was the final admission that the SDP had failed to become an alternative to Labour.
A major challenge
Is that the inevitable fate of the IG? In all likelihood, it is. In the short term, equidistance may be a viable tactic given the Corbynite takeover of Labour and the Conservatives’ pursuit of Brexit. But looking ahead, being a free-floating centrist party picking and choosing between a Conservative or Labour government in a hung parliament isn’t viable as it removes the choice from voters. Electoral cooperation with the Lib Dems seems more likely but that is to repeat the choice of the SDP.
These suspicions are compounded by the IG’s dilemma over Brexit. Its likely demand for a second referendum will carry less appeal in Northern and Midlands Labour seats. It could be more popular in London but that is Corbyn country and likely to stick with Labour. Assuming Brexit goes ahead, the IG would need to decide whether to campaign for Britain to rejoin the EU, an even harder task given an electorate weary of Brexit.
The IG may come to resemble the Lib Dems, but if, like the SDP, its electoral strength were in constituencies of historic Lib Dem strength, the likely endpoint is another merger. The third party would not break the mould but resume its traditional subordinate role in Britain’s party system.