People join political parties for all sorts of reasons. They could be inspired by a vision, angry about a particular issue, motivated by the faint whiff of power, out of loyalty to a friend. And presumably people leave political parties for a similar number of reasons.
This week has seen 12 MPs resign from their parties, an unusual occurrence. Each MP will have taken much thought and careful consideration over this decision, In our soundbite age, they know they run the risk of being called traitors to the cause. They know that they are walking away from the party mechanisms that helped them into Westminster. And, given our electoral system and history, they know that this step could well be the end of their political careers. None of these is small beer. It’s very likely that others have also seriously considered this move.
However I observe that this new The Independent Group is most clearly defined by what it’s against, not what it’s for. There is a lot to be against.
I’m old enough to remember the Limehouse declaration and the formation of the SDP in 1981. What was striking about that declaration was the clear call for a set of social democratic policies and the involvement of the wider electorate in working for them. It was straightforward to make this the basis for a party manifesto.
While TIG has also made a statement, it is less clear about its values, and less clear about how it wants to shape our society. Anna Soubry certainly appears to have little policy in common with, say, Luciana Berger. Time will tell.
What TIG has done is reopen the media interest in the political centre. I don’t subscribe to the view that politics is one-dimensional left to right. It’s complicated, messy, multi faceted, much the same as people. I view liberalism as a distinct set of values, and it’s a disservice to try to squash it into a simple left-right axis. I agree with the party’s former leader, Tim Farron, when he described the Lib Dems as having a distinctive point on the liberal-authoritarian axis, one which the Conservative and Labour parties would tend to gravitate towards the opposite end, while accepting that there are those with liberal views in both.
There’s also a distinction between socially liberal and economically liberal. I’ve seen more than one Conservative describe themselves as fiscally conservative (with a small c) and socially liberal. I don’t know whether that’s a subtle ploy to mark themselves as “one of us”, as that does appear to be the default position of many British voters.
There is no doubt that the vast majority of the British electorate are thoroughly dissatisfied and feel disconnected from the current political discourse, which seems to have moved to extreme positions on both sides. While people have some sympathy for May, they view the government as shambolic and dysfunctional. but they don’t trust Corbyn either. So they feel stuck. A “would you like cyanide or arsenic with your hemlock” choice. They want something new. And this is not unique to the British electorate, as we see from the US, France and Italy to name just three.
Hence I guess the warm reception given to the new grouping. As a Disney lyricist once wrote, “the wonderful thing about Tiggers, is Tiggers are wonderful things”. Not a lot of scrutiny in that statement.
The UK’s electoral system is unforgiving if you’re a smaller party. Votes do not match seats, nor do increases in vote share translate into increases in numbers of MPs. The 1983 general election remains the case study of note. So we must reform our electoral system to ensure that people can have their genuine voices heard.
It certainly makes sense for the Lib Dems to cooperate with TIG whenever it makes sense, and values align. I would caution against that being an automatic assumption until TIG works out what it is for and how it would want to deliver it.