A new po­lit­i­cal party in Bri­tain? WORLD VIEW

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - OPINION - BILL EMMOTT Project Syn­di­cate

Lon­don—We live in a po­lit­i­cally tur­bu­lent age. Par­ties barely a year old have re­cently swept to power in France and in the huge metropoli­tan area of Tokyo. A party less than five years old is lead­ing opin­ion polls in Italy. A po­lit­i­cal neo­phyte is sit­ting in the White House, to the pro­found dis­com­fort of es­tab­lish­ment Repub­li­cans and Democrats. So where will the po­lit­i­cal earth shake next? The an­swer could be—in­deed, should be—the United King­dom.

Even as the UK faces the up­heaval of Brexit, no­body is talk­ing about re­mak­ing, much less re­plac­ing, the es­tab­lished po­lit­i­cal par­ties. Many deny that they would even con­sider such a thing. For­mer Prime Min­is­ter Tony Blair, a pro-Euro­pean cen­trist innovator who won three gen­eral elec­tions for his Labour Party in the 1990s, took great care in a re­cent ar­ti­cle to stress that he is “not ad­vo­cat­ing a new Party.”

But Blair, or some­one like him, should be do­ing just that. Af­ter all, while the Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal sys­tem does put for­mi­da­ble bar­ri­ers in the path of any new party, the chances of suc­cess are greater now than at any time in the last 40 years. In a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem still feel­ing the af­ter­shocks of two ma­jor earth­quakes—the June 2016 Brexit ref­er­en­dum and, a year later, the hu­mil­i­at­ing elec­toral set­back of the Con­ser­va­tive Party that spear­headed it—there is a clear op­por­tu­nity for new­com­ers.

Al­ready, the Con­ser­va­tives are locked in an in­ter­nal bat­tle that they can only try to ob­scure. In the Labour Party, too, re­bel­lions are erupt­ing. Now is the mo­ment for a new party, styled af­ter French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron’s “La République En Marche,” to cap­i­tal­ize on the di­vi­sion, dis­ar­ray and dis­trust in the es­tab­lished par­ties. Now is the mo­ment for a pho­to­genic young Bri­tish man or woman to fol­low in the 39-year-old Macron’s foot­steps, mak­ing his­tory by cast­ing aside the old guard.

Of course, as Blair sug­gested, Bri­tain’s first-past-the-post elec­toral sys­tem, based on sin­gle-mem­ber con­stituen­cies, im­plies huge ad­van­tages for the es­tab­lished po­lit­i­cal par­ties. A new party could well find, af­ter spend­ing huge sums of money and en­ergy, and per­haps even se­cur­ing a siz­able chunk of the vote in its de­but gen­eral elec­tion, that its vot­ers are spread too thinly across the coun­try to de­liver more than a hand­ful of par­lia­men­tary seats.

That is what hap­pened the last time a new cen­trist party en­tered the fray. In the early 1980s, four de­fec­tors from Labour, alarmed by their party’s left­ward shift and anti-EU stance, cre­ated the So­cial Demo­cratic Party. Cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the un­pop­u­lar­ity of Prime Min­is­ter Mar­garet Thatcher’s early eco­nomic poli­cies, the new SDP—in al­liance with the small Lib­eral Party—won 25 per­cent of the na­tional vote in the 1983 gen­eral elec­tion. But they ended up with a mere 23 seats. It was all down­hill from there.

That mem­ory is dis­cour­ag­ing po­lit­i­cal in­no­va­tion to­day. Those in Labour who are deeply sus­pi­cious of the left-wing eco­nomic and for­eign-pol­icy stance of their pop­u­lar leader, Jeremy Cor­byn, still think the most sen­si­ble strat­egy is to be pa­tient and, when the op­por­tu­nity arises, to re­cap­ture their party. The same goes for Con­ser­va­tives who think Brexit is lead­ing the coun­try to dis­as­ter.

To­day, no ma­jor vic­tory looks to be in the cards for Labour or the Con­ser­va­tives. More­over, the re­cent elec­tion—in which the Con­ser­va­tives’ 20-point lead dis­ap­peared seem­ingly overnight, as vot­ers, es­pe­cially young peo­ple, threw their sup­port be­hind Labour—sug­gests that Bri­tish vot­ers are up for grabs.

The re­cent elec­tion held an­other im­por­tant les­son: Europe and Brexit is not the is­sue that Bri­tish vot­ers care about most to­day. Cor­byn’s Labour ran on the same Brexit pol­icy as May’s Con­ser­va­tives. But on is­sues like jobs, hos­pi­tals, schools, and the wel­fare state, their ap­proaches con­trasted sharply.

To de­feat the es­tab­lish­ment par­ties, there­fore, a new po­lit­i­cal move­ment would have to stand, first and fore­most, for restor­ing pub­lic ser­vices, re­viv­ing the econ­omy and re­build­ing trust. A strong re­la­tion­ship with the EU should be pitched as a means to ad­vance th­ese goals, not as a goal in it­self. In the next few months, an op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate such a move­ment may well present it­self.

———— Bill Emmott, a for­mer ed­i­tor in chief of The Econ­o­mist, is chair­man of the Wake Up Foun­da­tion.

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