Why do so many people yearn for a viable centrist party, and yet so readily discount the already 100,000-strong Liberal Democrats?
The argument there are only 12 LibDem MPs is a red herring. No new party can count on doing even as well as that, under the Westminster first-past-the-post voting system. The LibDems know all the pitfalls of being Britain’s centrist third party. They survived a wipeout from 57 MPs to 8 and they’re still fighting back, doubling membership in the past two years and bringing experienced ministers back into Parliament in this year’s general election.
There are two reasons people overlook the Liberal Democrats. One I can sympathize with, the other is more insidious. And neither stands up to scrutiny.
The understandable reason is that, quite simply, an imaginary party of the centre is always going to appear more attractive than the one that already exists. As a figment of your imagination, the putative centrist grouping will inevitably have all of the idealistic appeal you yearn for — and none of the grubby reality you shrink from.
But think about it for a moment. Is this fresh new centrist party really going to be so baggage-free once you populate its ranks with the likes of Peter Mandelson on the left and George Osborne on the right?
Whatever ‘big beasts’ it attracts will be tainted by their own histories. Each of its policies will alienate a segment of its would-be supporters. I would add that, without the Liberal Democrats, it will also lack a soul. But with or without LibDem participation, it will face the same sneering scrutiny of its organisation and prospects that greets every minor party in the UK.
Who’s saying it can’t work?
That is the more sinister reason why the Liberal Democrats are never seen as contenders. The impossibility of creating something on the ground that has a chance of real success is exactly what the establishment powers want you to believe.
The Liberal Democrats very nearly broke through In the 2010 election. An opinion poll commissioned by the Sun found that 49% would vote for the party if they thought it could win, but the Tory-supporting paper chose not to publish those findings. The media and incumbent political parties decried the LibDem’s then lack of government experience and spread distrust of a ‘coalition of chaos’ in the event of a hung parliament. As a result, LibDem support fell back in the closing days of the campaign, leaving the party with fewer MPs — and thus less clout in the coalition negotiations that followed.
Subsequent events seem to support the narrative that the Liberal Democrats are now a busted flush. But think for a moment. Whose interests are best served by that conventional wisdom? Is it a coincidence that this notion takes hold at a time when the party can boast the ministerial experience it lacked last time around, and its largest grassroots membership of modern times?
By accepting the narrative that the LibDems have lost all credibility to become the dominant party of the centre, you are accepting the arguments of the people who are most opposed to seeing your ideas prevail. That’s what they want you to believe. And of course, being liberal, you want to show that you’ll give them a fair hearing, and persuade them of the merits of your point of view. But they’re not playing by those rules. They just want you to back off and stop being a threat.
Of course no one should expect massed ranks of centrist Conservative and Labour MPs to jump ship tomorrow and sign up to the LibDems. MPs from other parties probably need to be able to take an intermediate step, giving up their party whip but joining an independent grouping — perhaps with an assurance (though this will be tough on the affected local constituency parties) that LibDems will not oppose them if they stand as an independent or third-party candidate at the next parliamentary election.
Get the bandwagon rolling
What will persuade those MPs to take such a big risk? Just a few would really make an impact. Seven Conservative switchers would wipe out Theresa May’s Con/DUP majority, while just two would make it more vulnerable to rebellion. To keep the centre balanced there should be at least an equal number of defectors from Labour. But what will persuade any of them to make that leap into the unknown?
They’ll only do it if they see a strong centre movement already forming — if a bandwagon starts rolling that they can’t afford to miss out on.
So what are you waiting for? Yes I’m looking at you, Gary Lineker, and many others like you. Give those MPs a reason to jump. Unlike them, you have nothing to lose — except this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to break our stale politics and build a brighter future for this country. Holding out for a perfect alignment of rainbows and unicorns in some imaginary future just serves the interests of the powers that be. It’s time to get stuck in now, when you can still make a difference.
The longer you sit on the sidelines, the more you yield the initiative to others. Rather than wait for some new centrist party to spring perfectly formed into existence, join this uniquely democratic party now — and start making the case for the future you want.