In Depth

Macron-mania: Could a new centrist party flourish in the UK?

Will we see En Marche en Grande Bretagne? The Week examines the possibility of a new political movement


The return of two-party politics to the UK has brought with it a clamour for a centrist alternative in the vein of French President Emmanuel Macron's En Marche! movement.

Conversations among those on the more liberal wing of the Conservative party, as well as Liberal Democrats and Labour moderates, have been focusing on this topic for some time.

Last month the New Statesman revealed that a week after the EU referendum, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron was approached by a close ally of George Osborne to gauge the interest in the creation of a new centrist party called "the Democrats".

Labour's former election tsar Peter Mandelson, according to party figures, is also "serious" about creating a new party, while former prime minister Tony Blair created the Institute for Global Change earlier this year with the aim of filling "the wide open space in the middle of politics."

This week's edition of The Economist even went so far as to endorse the Liberal Democrats as a "down payment" on such a project, saying: "Our hope is that they become one element of a party of the radical centre, essential for a thriving, prosperous Britain."

How did we get here?

The fallout from the EU referendum alongside the aborted revival of the Liberal Democrats, as well as the surge in support for non-traditional parties across Europe, has given weight to the calls for a new centrist party.

The EU Remain campaign, in which Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians worked closely together – and Leave's subsequent victory – have intensified the conversation.

"Blairites, Cameroons and Cleggites (economically liberal, socially liberal and internationalist) have all spoken of feeling politically homeless," says the New Statesman's George Eaton.

Clegg's former cabinet colleague Vince Cable also recently said he foresaw "serious conversations about where British politics goes" after the general election.

Hinting at the creation of a new party, he added "there will be serious conversations about how you create an alternative to the Conservatives which… is centrist, centre-left, pro-business, practical, offering an alternative to what is potentially a very damaging form of Conservatism."

Gina Miller, who became something of a cult hero among Remainers for her legal fight against Brexit, even set up a cross-party action group to fight against British isolationism.

Vince Cable is one of the anti-Brexit politicians – from four different parties – that her organisation backed at this year's election with the 'Best for Britain' group. The group uses crowdfunded wealth to boost a centrist agenda.

Miller told The Daily Beast's Nico Hines that Cable was an "awesome" example of a powerful voice of the radical centre.

"We need someone who has experience of government, a wise head, courage but also understands the economic implications of where we're going," she said.

Though there are vast differences between the British and French political systems, Macron's triumph in the French Presidential election has further energised the belief that a political newcomer on centre ground could win here too.

Despite being founded just 14 months ago, Macron's En Marche! party is on course to win a majority of National Assembly seats. The traditional big two – Les Republicains and the Parti Socialiste – have been left in the dust.

The Macron win, one of Blair's allies told Politico, is evidence that a broad-based political movement, fuelled by social media, can grow quickly from the centre, not just the populist right or left. The ally said: "The barriers for a new movement are lower now. Despite jitters about a new political party ending up as another SDP, things feel different now."

The demise of the SDP, which was created from the Labour party in 1981 by four centrists but failed to make a major breakthrough electorally, serves as a stark warning to those keen to form a new party.

But in Macron, "whose appeal is as much about what he is against as what he is for," says Politico, those backing a new party "see evidence that in a time of warring political ideologies, an insurgent centrist can rise up through the middle and sweep all before him."

Would a new party be effective?

In the US and Western Europe, parties in the centre and left have struggled to win power. In some cases they have been decimated amid the populist backlash against the status quo.

But they've also found that a social democratic message can "energise young disaffected voters, especially when delivered by seemingly authentic, plain-speaking figures such as Bernie Sanders in the US, Jean-Luc Melenchon in France, and Corbyn," says The Times.

Conservative backbencher Anna Soubry is more positive about a new party. She told the New Statesman: "If [a new party] could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I've believed in all my life – better get on with it."

Who could be a British version of Emmanuel Macron?

It would not be a question of money, says The Times, given donors are already standing by to fund a new party, but of leadership. Macron's success derives from his popular personal ratings, something a new UK party would struggle to match.

"There is a paucity of senior politicians available to lead a new party. Mandelson, Tony Blair and Nick Clegg long passed their political peak," says the New Statesman's Eaton.

A recent YouGov poll for the Sunday Times suggested Blair could be anathema to a new party's potential supporters. Eight per cent of voters said they would be more likely to support such a party if the former prime minister was a key figure in it, while 37 per cent said it would put them off.

Some would like to see David Miliband, the former foreign secretary, return from America. But those in the Labour party have expressed exasperation that he didn't contest a seat at this year's general election.

A former frontbencher told The Times: "Where was he? He should have been in this fight." The paper adds that "Miliband reportedly sounded out veteran MPs about them making way for him but did not find any takers in the party’s dwindling number of safe seats."

Nick Clegg remains the most likely initial candidate for the leadership after his recent meetings with Blair and others.

In an interview with the Huffington Post on 7 June, Clegg urged Labour MPs to "break away" saying: "to govern again for a Labour Party is to share power in the future."

So will En Marche en Grande Bretagne actually happen?

Perhaps the biggest problem a new party would face would be getting any electoral success in the UK's current political system.

Former Europe minister Denis MacShane calls the idea a "fashionable thesis" but one that simply "will not happen."

"Britain neither elects a president nor do we have proportional representation," he writes for City AM.

"So an Emmanuel Macron cannot emerge and new parties like the Greens in Germany or Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece cannot rise to significance on the basis of the first-past-the-post electoral system in Britain."

While Macron's success has made supporters of a new party hopeful, this year's election campaign has done the exact opposite, says the New Statesman.

"Many of those backing a new party anticipated a Labour collapse and a Liberal Democrat surge," Eaton writes. "Yet by any measure, Jeremy Corbyn has outperformed expectations while Tim Farron has underperformed them."

Columnist Ian Birrell agrees, writing in the i paper: "The Labour party remains haunted by the failure of the Social Democratic Party in the 80s, when its civil war last flared up."

"Despite stories of 100 defectors if Corbyn stays on after the election, one central figure told me he thought only a handful would dare break free of tribalism that chains them to the past."

Gina Miller, who said she has been approached by people exploring the possibility of a new party, believes it might be more successful if the new party’s leadership was drawn from figures outside politics.

"If the radical center is to succeed in Britain, a fresh generation of politicians must use the chaos of Brexit to raise their voices," concludes the Daily Beast's Hines.


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