One of the most long-lasting impacts of Brexit will be the way it has shaken up traditional political allegiances.
The weakness of the Lib Dems since the 2015 election has already spawned a dozen or more would be ‘centrist’ parties to compete in the ever-widening ground at the heart of British politics.
The formation of The Independent Group, drawing MPs from both Labour and the Conservatives, is by far the most significant such initiative. Its founders, however, have immediately had to confront the harsh realities of the first-past-the-post system, which treats third – let along fourth or fifth – parties so unkindly.
As a result the TIGgers and the Lib Dems have immediately found themselves under pressure to form some kind of alliance. The impending likelihood of EU Parliamentary elections has only heightened the pressure, so why is nothing happening, and does it matter?
First, in practice, an alliance is probably impossible to do legally: to register a political party – a Centrist Pro-EU Alliance – so you could run a ‘joint list’ for EU elections would take eight weeks, but nominations close in two.
The only alternative would be for the Lib Dems to stand aside completely in some regions and TIG to do the same but, even then, the two parties wouldn’t be able to indicate the alliance on the ballot paper. And Change UK – as TIG is now calling itself – will face difficulties selecting any candidates at all, having not completed its registration process or put in place any party procedures, let alone vetting them.
Second, an alliance would be hard to do practically: selecting candidates is tough enough in such a short time. Trying to do it against a backdrop of forcing selected candidates to stand aside for people who may have been until very recently fierce political opponents (or even worse, allies!) would probably lead to more division not less.
Even with the best will in the world from the centres, at a grassroots level one could imagine a plethora of disgruntled independent TIGs, Lib Dems and others lining up to challenge official candidates – unity is just not deliverable.
And third, even if the first two obstacles could be overcome, quite simply Change UK don’t want to align themselves with the Lib Dem brand, which they regard as toxic, especially before they have established their own independent identity. Indeed, if they had wanted to do that some of them would probably have joined the Lib Dems in the first place.
The lack of political will on behalf of Change UK – if not the Lib Dems who have been reaching out hard – is probably the greatest obstacle.
But do these obstacles mean that Change UK and the Lib Dems will have to fight to the death for the centre ground or indeed that something else might yet emerge (like, for example, United for Change)?
I’d argue the opposite: the space for new political ideas and movements is now so large that something is bound to emerge, even if we don’t yet know what form it will take.
The period in the run up to the EU elections, and to a lesser extent the local elections that proceed them, are covered by the Representation of the People Act guaranteeing the Lib Dems at least a little more of the oxygen of publicity of which they have been so starved recently.
This could give the Lib Dems a big boost, so informing what shape a new centrist movement needs to take.
In contrast, the lack of a track record and recent polling that suggests Change UK are struggling to make a break through could conversely leave them with less attention than they might have expected at this key moment – without the Lib Dems ground campaign or organisation to replace it.
The nature of the British electoral system is that voters can be pretty canny and learn to vote tactically. This is where the Lib Dems’ traditional strength on the ground will help them in some places, while in others ‘air support’ for Change UK and ‘something new’ may allow them to become the challengers. Each will do better in their natural area of strength.
And as the European elections are likely to be a proxy for a second referendum, the diversity of options for way to vote remain is likely to serve the overall remain vote better: the lesson of the Israeli elections is that a spread of different offerings under a broad theme – right, left, centre – can maximise the vote for an umbrella political position.
Furthermore, as these are PR elections, this is the relevant parallel, rather than trying to impose alliances for which there is not yet the political will.
Pragmatically for now, all the competing parties of the centre need to be doing is avoiding cannibalising one another. They need to keep their messaging targeted on the failures of the Conservatives and Labour for being dragged to their extremes not attacking each other – a pretty low bar.
We are at the beginning of a journey and there is a need for patience.
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