The creation of a new centre party is no alternative to Labour winning back the centre-ground, says Caroline Flint
Like Blu-rays and Segways, a new centre party is an over-hyped idea, destined to promise much and deliver little.
The liberal-minded press would love it. They have been in a tiswas as the United Kingdom’s political moorings have come adrift. When the United Kingdom Independence party appeared, they dismissed them, as did the main parties, as the far-right in suits. Then a disastrous ‘Remain’ campaign lost the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.
The liberal press are not the only ones to misread the public. The hard-left was convinced that the 2008 economic crash would send voters to the left. It did not. Rightwing parties triumphed across Europe in the decade that followed.
The latest game is to predict who will launch a new centre party. Will it be grandees of the past? Will it be Labour members of parliament? Will one group follow the other?
For the seeds of a new party, commentators look for discontented personalities. People like George Osborne quit politics because their political careers went into a backwater, while others, like Nick Clegg, were booted out by voters.
The causes of centre party speculation are two-fold. First, Jeremy Corbyn’s election led to fears that Labour is on a one-way leftward journey, vacating the contest for Britain’s political centre-ground.
Second, the EU referendum created new divisions – notably for Labour, a tension between big city, university Britain and small town industrial, rural and coastal Britain.
The Social Democratic party’s experience, 35 years ago, provides warnings for any new party. Back then, Labour had deserted the centre and the Tories had moved to the right, yet the SDP still could not survive. In the end, the SDP was absorbed into the Liberal party, never to be mentioned again. A new centre party would meet the same fate.
The 20th century’s new kid on the block, the Labour party, grew during 30 years of turmoil and two world wars to become the natural voice for large sections of British society. Labour has represented the seat I represent, Don Valley, since 1923.
No such circumstances would aid any MPs hoping to form a pro-European centre party. A ‘New European party’ might bask in a media glow in their early months, but the cold reality would soon set in.
Many voters, myself included, would stay with Labour, the party they know. The new party would have to contest seats against many well-organised Labour MPs and candidates. Amid the division, the Tories would steal some former Labour domains and hold otherwise precarious marginal seats.
A new party might attract well-meaning mainstream Labour members, leaving more local parties in the hands of members who thought that even Ed Miliband was a neoliberal ‘red Tory’, and beyond the pale.
Labour must remain a party that fights for government, representing the progressive coalition of British opinion, not the UK’s equivalent of Syriza or Podemos; an anti-capitalist, protest group. Labour’s breadth of support is its strength, not its weakness.
Despite only 22 years in power, Labour civilised Britain and was instrumental in almost every progressive 20th century reform. Not just the National Health Service and the welfare state, but equal pay, health and safety, minimum wage, widespread public housing, state education, equal rights, international development … and the list goes on.
When, in 1953, Aneurin Bevan taunted: ‘We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down,’ he forgot one thing: the margins are where the gutter is located. In 1945 Labour occupied not just traditional support but a strengthened electoral base. In other words, it was the centre of public opinion. By 1951, Labour was out of government – and would be for another 11 years, until it rediscovered the centre-ground again.
Labour has always been a coalition of left-leaning, liberal–minded city dwellers and working-class voters in traditional communities. Neither group alone could secure government. But as the coalition that is Labour – standing for social justice, reform, fairness and opportunity – they achieved great things.
A centre-left, pro-EU party is not a sufficient basis to form a party of government. If that was a recipe for electoral success, the Liberal Democrats would not have done so badly in 2017. I, for one, refuse to consign my politics to a minority pursuit.
Only the Tories will benefit if a new party divides Labour. Another Tory decade fostered by a divided opposition would be unbearable.
Labour does not need departures, we need to extend our political reach. New MPs in Canterbury, Stroud and Kensington are welcome, but insufficient. To win back MPs in Mansfield, Walsall and Stoke, and bring former Labour seats – think Carlisle, Sherwood, Crawley, Rossendale and Darwen – into reach, we must rebuild our support among working-class and older voters. If progressives want the power to make change again, then a renewed Labour party is the only route.
Caroline Flint MP is a former minister for Europe. She tweets at @CarolineFlintMP
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.