Posted April 11, 2019 Ashley Chadwick
In the very early hours of this morning, UK Prime Minister Theresa May and European Council President Donald Tusk announced another extension to Brexit had been agreed. Instead of crashing out without a deal tomorrow, Britain now has until October 31st to decide what it will do about Brexit.
Amongst the myriad of issues that need to be decided, the extension has added another one. The European Parliament elections that will be held on May 23rd. As it seems likely that Britain will still be a full member of the EU on that date, European law dictates that Britain must hold elections for the Parliament. Should Britain fail to hold the election, then it will leave the EU on June 1st.The election will be seen as an unwelcome distraction for many, not to mention an exercise in futility to elect MEPs for a few months at most. Brexiteers will point out the ridiculousness of holding elections to a body Britain should have already left.
As is always the case in politics, party divisions and posturing often take precedence over the task of governing. The election in May will give parties a chance to campaign and get their message across. The results will be seen as a barometer for the current feelings of the British public and could also give more weight to calls to cancel Brexit altogether. If a party were to campaign on a base of holding a second referendum and performed well, then the calls for the Government to hold a second referendum would only grow louder.
One of the parties that is hoping to do well should the elections take place doesn't even exist yet. The Independent Group, consisting of former Labour and Conservative MPs, has applied to the electoral commission to form a political party, Change UK - The Independent Group. In early 2019 11 MPs left their parties to join this group. The Labour MPs cited a lack of leadership over Brexit and anti-Semitism as causes of their departure. The Conservative MPs were worried about a shift to the right in their party, a lack of concern over the 'most vulnerable in society' and disagreements over Brexit. It is important to note that they all favour holding a second referendum.
Should the party be formed and the election held, a lot of attention will be on how well the party performs. Initial polling suggested they could outperform the Liberal Democrats, however, this was very soon after the group formed and support may not be as strong come the elections. They are currently tied fourth with the Lib Dems in terms of seats in the house of commons, with 11.
It is still too early to say where the group stands on many issues. It is believed that they will be a centrist party. Given their members were to the right of a Labour party that has moved more to the left under Jeremy Corbyn and to the left of a Conservative party where the right wing is gaining more control, this is not surprising. Of course the centre ground is currently held by the Lib Dems, who have seen their support dwindle after having a bad time of it as part of the coalition with the Conservatives at the start of the decade. Change UK, would need to bring in voters from both Labour and Conservatives, whilst potentially standing on a similar platform to the Lib Dems.
This may be reminiscent for some, of the split that happened in the Labour party in 1981. When the Gang of Four defected to form the Social Democratic party, it was due to a shift to the left in the Labour party and they wanted a more central stance. They eventually aligned with the Liberal party, which was viewed as being central, but was at that time long past its prime. The alliance was successful in stopping competition between the SDP and Liberals, however, they gained most of their support from Labour voters. This resulted in some large majorities for Thatcher's Conservative Government in the 80s. Eventually the alliance became a combined political party, the Liberal Democrats. At this time, not only is it too early to compare what happened in the 80s to what is going on now, but the circumstances seem very different.
A key difference is that Change UK would seem set to appeal to a broader range of voters. Just as with the MPs that are seeking to form it, their support is likely to come from both Labour and the Conservatives. Campaigning on a platform of shaking up the status quo and a second referendum is likely to draw support from many more central and likely younger voters. How support is split between the Lib Dems and Change UK will be crucial for all parties. At this time, any questions of whether those parties would join or align have been rejected, but with both parties potentially standing on a similar central platform it may become necessary in the future.
Whatever the coming months and years may bring for Change UK, their existence is evidence of a growing centre ground in British politics. Formed of a more liberal, but aspirational group of individuals, often from the younger end of the population. Who are becoming more disillusioned with the two major political parties.