What do the centrists do now? Here’s my suggestion…

by Stephen Tall on June 27, 2017

I’ve written before about my sympathy for a new ‘Centre Party’ (much as I dislike such a split-the-difference name). The election result means the issue has simultaneously both become more urgent and less likely.

More urgent because who does a centrist voter now vote for?

The Conservatives, already moving to the right as Theresa May made slashing immigration her party’s top priority, have now sealed the deal with the antediluvian DUP. If you’re the kind of Tory who liked John Major, to whom do you now turn?

Meanwhile, Labour is now in thrall to Jeremy Corbyn following his expectations-defying result, with the party’s hard-left even more determined to exert control, and looking to purge MPs suspected of any Blairite tendencies. If you’re the kind of Labour supporter who voted for Yvette Cooper as leader two years ago, to whom do you now turn?

And less likely because 2017 saw the revival of two-party politics, with the Conservatives and Labour hoovering up more than four-fifths of voters on 8th June. Outlier, or reversion to the mean? We don’t yet know, but it’s going to be harder to justify quitting a party polling 40%+ than it is one languishing in the 20%s.

Nonetheless, there are currently a lot of centrist, politically homeless Tory and Labour voters voting for their parties in spite of, not because of, their leadership and their policies. To whom do they now turn?

A new Centre Party, that’s who. So say Conservative MP Anna Soubry and former Labour speech-writer Philip Collins. Heck, even Nick Clegg, sort of.

Such a Centre Party would be fiscally conservative and socially liberal. It would promote economic growth in order to fund schools and hospitals. It would accept Brexit while retaining UK membership of the single market. It would invest in housing and roads and safeguard the environment. It would guarantee a safety net for the vulnerable.

In short, it would be unashamedly sensible and boring.

Defining what a ‘Centre Party’ would stand for is the easy bit, of course.

The far harder part is working out how on earth you build from scratch a party capable of winning seats in our first-past-the-post system. And working out who among the current crop of politicians has the vim and vigour to lead it. (Pro-tip: if your answer is David Miliband flying back from New York then try again.)

It is not the lack of ideas, then, which is preventing the birth of a ‘Centre Party’. It is the structure of our electoral system which is tilted against parties with broad national support.

Which is why I have a simple suggestion for the centrists: join the Liberal Democrats.

I know, I know. Only 12 MPs, wasted vote, etc. But, actually, I’m serious.

For a start, we have a great future leader in Jo Swinson — modern, pragmatic, determined — waiting in the wings.

Moreover, membership of the Lib Dems has been transformed over the past two years. In 2015, there were 45k members. Today, there’s over 100k. A good chunk of these new members (to the chagrin of some veteran sandalistas) are moderate liberals.

They liked, or at least understood the need for, the Coalition. They are pro-European (sometimes a bit too obsessively so, but none of us is perfect). They want to be in power, not shouting from the sidelines. They are exactly the kind of people a new ‘Centre Party’ would be trying to attract.

So don’t cannibalise this group; join them. And make the Lib Dems great again.

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