The prospects for a new party
Myths and challenges
It has always been our position that we are advocates for a new party but that we are not yet the party that we would seek to become. A political party must have not just ideas but a strong membership, an infrastructure, adequate resources and a real presence and identity among the electorate. It is always possible that a call for change or a compelling idea will so galvanise people that a new party can break through, but that is a rarity in politics.
Moreover, the major parties have become accustomed to moving onto the policy ideas and ideological territory of their competitors, so that any potential constituency of support that is untapped becomes a focus for Conservative or Labour interest. This may in fact be a strength of the political system as long as it is a serious recognition of concerns, yet all too often it is little more than cynical political calculation.
Thus it is necessary to consider the various scenarios by which politics in this country might change, and how we see our own role in these events. Some see hope for change coming through reform of the electoral system. Others look to building minor party alliances, working for a split in one of the major parties or finding refuge in a ‘system shock’. Each of these remains something of a panacea, as we shall explain.
We have consistently opposed proportional representation (PR) for good reasons, despite the fact that a more proportional electoral system might be seen to help smaller parties. But does it even do that?
It is true that in a PR system, depending on the system of votes and rules for representation, smaller parties may find it less of a hurdle to meet the requirements to secure election. However, PR also – in a sort of equal and opposite reaction – encourages more smaller parties into the race and reduces smaller parties to a pick and mix of protest votes. The recent Scottish Parliament elections thus saw a consolidation of control by the bigger parties rather than a weakening.
The likely outcome of PR is that one or two small parties will secure token representation but will never be able to build up into a major force.
By contrast, first-past-the-post electoral systems (such as we have for Westminster) have a high starting hurdle but reward success. Moreover, first-past-the-post encourages solid electoral work at a local and regional level rather than a generalised appeal. It is thus geared towards achieving real broad appeal rather than scooping up the protest votes of a limited number of malcontents.
Many people see salvation for smaller parties in some sort of electoral alliance. It is frequently suggested that parties should work together behind a common cause in order to achieve electoral success, but this outlook is flawed. It assumes, for example, that smaller parties can ‘deliver’ their voters to whatever alliance they happen to join, and it also assumes that their voters have such a strong attachment to the party in question that they will follow the line. And how many voters are we talking about anyway? There will always be protest votes, votes for popular local candidates and votes by people who just want a change, and these show up more readily in the less important elections (e.g., local council by-elections). But the number of voters with a strong party identity registering votes for the minor parties is close to zero in most cases. (And in fact in a recent opinion poll even UKIP registered zero support.) How many parties with zero support would it take to build this alliance?
It also overlooks the fundamental reasons why different parties are established in the first place. Whether parties are single-issue concerns or offer a broad manifesto, they all have their own particular agenda. Making the agenda less coherent by putting together parties with different interests is not likely to be a successful formula.
Besides, the only way smaller parties can gain strength and sharpen their own ideas is through competing for support from the people who either do not vote or currently vote for one of the mainstream parties. Calls for an alliance are implicitly an acceptance of the status quo. Branching out beyond the limited supply of protest votes is not a job for an incoherent mish-mash of an alliance but for a party with a compelling idea. One or two parties could conceivably do it and become real winners; an alliance, however, would likely be an alliance of losers.
Those are the principal objections to an alliance, but the objections increase when we consider the parties with who such an alliance might be formed. For example, a fundamental part of our platform is what might be termed ‘liberal interventionism’ – the conviction that free societies have an obligation to spread liberal democracy and free markets. Although to some extent this approach has been favoured in foreign affairs by the Labour Government, we can safely predict that we would find no takers for this approach among the various small parties. If we could readily dispense with such a fundamental aspect of what we believe for the supposed benefits of an alliance (which in reality do not exist), why would we need a new party anyway?
Nor would we be prepared to co-operate with the high tax and welfare proposals of some, or the anti-immigrant agenda of others. In short, we believe that any new party should fight for its beliefs and succeed or fail on that basis. Talk of electoral alliances is usually a counsel of despair.
The Hitchens Analysis
The popular columnist and writer Peter Hitchens has long advocated the establishment of a new party, but in his scenario this can only take place when one of the major parties splits or is seen to have failed completely. For Hitchens, the ideal would be for the Conservative party to collapse, thus allowing a new force to emerge from its ruins.
Anyone who says "why don't you found your new party?' has likewise not been paying attention. The new party can only be founded once the Tories have collapsed - and you will have to found it too. I have no millions stashed away, nor could I by myself hope to achieve anything. Nobody will do this for you. There is no leader waiting upon our northern shores to rescue the beleaguered nation. If you don't like the way the country is being run, you will have to do something about it yourself. Those who say "But what if you fail, and no new party arises, and Labour is still there?' have the best point. It is a grave danger that we may fail. The collapse of the Tories is the necessary condition for a new party, but not a sufficient one. That will depend on us.
While we do not necessarily agree with Hitchens on his political position, which is that of a traditionalist conservative, we do agree that the most likely scenario for the advent of a new party is via the collapse of one of the old parties. Where we might differ is on the need to encourage and anticipate such a change now, though arguably the columns that Hitchens writes are doing just that despite his many protestations.
A final possibility is what might be termed ‘system shock’. This would involve a dramatic event (or a series of events) that would culminate in a complete loss of faith in the existing system and a sudden wave of support for a new movement.
Nobody can predict with any certainty what might trigger such a movement to coalesce: perhaps a major economic depression, a nuclear device set off in London by terrorists, a massive escalation of oil prices, the collapse of the pensions system or a major political scandal in which both main parties are implicated. Nor can anyone predict exactly how people will respond – and of course the danger is always that extremists gain a foothold in such situations.
A system shock is always a possibility but waiting around for one – or worse, trying to engineer one – does not amount to a strategy. If and when such events occur, they will create their own dynamic with little regard to the plans laid by hopeful armchair strategists.
As for the artificially engineered alarmism peddled by some – such as the suggestion that Britain will be abolished in 2008 by the signing of the EU’s Reform Treaty – we have only mild amusement as well as some dismay. False alarms may galvanise a few fanatics but most people see through them pretty quickly.
The Project for a New Party
For our part, we understand clearly that new parties do not easily emerge without the political and ideological ‘space’ in which to grow. Our intention has always been to build an alternative platform which, in effect, is seeking to develop the ideological space. As hard as that task is, it is political space (participating in the institutions of power) that is the most difficult task and one that almost inevitably must come later.
Standing in elections is one means of raising a party’s profile and thus contributing to this development of ideological space – and, if elected, to political space too. Yet to present ourselves as a fully formed political party in front of the electorate is in some ways to suggest that the groundwork has all been done and the political and ideological space is there; for in some measure a party must grow out of a movement. That movement, which we would call both liberal and progressive, has been squeezed by a statist agenda in economic and social policy, coupled with a reactionary retreat among some in the face of difficulties in the international sphere.
We are convinced that this movement is both desirable and necessary for our society’s future but it does not at this point represent a movement sufficient for the emergence of a new party. That is why we are a ‘new party’ in the making – or the ‘Project for a New Party’, as we have sometimes called it. The New Party will truly exist only when there is a broad constituency for the liberal and progressive ideals which we proclaim and for which we are working.
It is for this reason that we have decided to place more emphasis on our ideological groundwork, under the name ‘Project for a New Party’, and less on building the machinery of a political party. We will support democratic and electoral initiatives as they arise and we will maintain a network of supporters and affiliates rather than a strict branch structure. We will also operate on a non-exclusive basis, meaning that we will co-operate with individuals and parties on issues of common concern without sacrificing our key principles (and without joining any spurious electoral alliances).
The new party is about rethinking our politics and society. We invite all who share our principles to join us to be part of a positive force trying to influence and shape politics for the better.