Tuesday 4 June 2019

Bye Bye Change UK

Congratulations to Anna Soubry, now undisputed supremo of Change UK. After a successful EU election campaign where they, *checks notes*, swept the board with three per cent of the vote she can look forward to filling up the centre ground of politics alongside, um, "Iron" Mike Gapes, Ann Coffey, Chris Leslie, Joan Ryan, and, and ... what happened to the other six? Trumping all news, including Trump's visit, the departure of six Change UK MPs is all left Twitter and the internet can think about. What then are the grounds for the split?

Properly principled reasons, of course. Continuity CHUK have interpreted the EU elections as a vista bursting with opportunity, despite the Greens and the Liberal Democrats cleaning up. The splitters, ostensibly led by Chuka (you can take the Chuka out the CHUK), think this is nonsense and want to go back to being independent MPs. That is office holders without responsibilities to anyone but themselves. Nothing to do with the LibDems' success and thinking they are now a better bet, nothing at all. But the tensions were present before the EU poll - one wing, six of them, thought an alliance with the LibDems would be super handy whereas the minority, five, fancied it as a party building exercise. An exercise where, um, ordinary punters still cant join. And simmering in the background were the rival leadership ambitions of Chuka and Chris Leslie. Thank the fates we will never know the dreariness of a Change UK leadership contest.

The unfolding of the Change UK debacle is/was interesting because it proved itself a textbook exercise in how not to run a party. Their legion of failures are the stuff of legend, and they still can't help it. Now, as the clock chimes midnight on their miserable enterprise, Gapesy announces the "party" is moving to a membership structure, tacking on at the end "we have councillors too!". Pathetic. You should have capitalised on the novelty of your launch and started the party then you absolute amateurs.

Split or no split, the stars were not aligning for Change UK anyway. After the EU election results, on the pro-EU side of things the big winner, of course, were the LibDems. The very party the CHUK-ups wanted absolutely nothing to do with from the outset of their project. And why were they able to capitalise while Soubz's shrinking band could not? Party name recognition helped, though there isn't a single LibDem parliamentarian who is a household name. Not even cuddly Uncle Vince. More significant for the yellow party was a clear campaign, a straightforward but ever so risque slogan, and a mass membership of seasoned activists. Yes, a mass membership. A machine of about a hundred thousand people that doles out leaflets and knocks on doors, not a ghastly clique of stuck-up notables. The LibDems, along with the Greens, were able to counter the Brexit Party's populism with a polarised message of their own. It meant Labour was found wanting and got duly humbled, and CHUK sidelined to the tinges. I mean fringes.

Does this mean centrist politics is back and the conceit justifying the original split from Labour was nevertheless right? It all depends on what happens next with Brexit, but it is worth pointing out two things. First, while politics appears a million miles away from the polarisation of the 2017 general election the movements and conflicts underpinning that result are still there. For Labour's part, the coherence of its vote may have dropped away for now but the shift to a new class politics foments unseen and out of mind of most politicians, their courtiers, and the professional punditry. Part and parcel of this are the crap jobs, the low-to-no prospects, the housing crisis, and climate threats that the Tories are presiding over. With other concerns in play in a future general election, the LibDems will find it hard to capitalise on the Brexit advantage they have now.

The second depends on what happens with the Tory leadership election. I've lost count of the occasions I've written about the long-term decline/existential crisis of the Conservative Party. If the leadership is won by someone who centrism can learn to love (Jeremy Hunt? Michael Gove?), then the LibDems have got their work cut out. If, however, it's someone like Johnson who, despite his fluffy leadership launch video, is pitching toward no deal to rebuild May's voter coalition and neutralise Farage, then the space on the centre right opens. Some of that LibDem EU vote came from the Tories, and as by-election after by-election has shown these last couple of years, they're more likely to take votes and seats from the blues than the reds. And the further the Tories go down a Faragist road, the more ground they're likely to cede the LibDems. And then all kinds of interesting things might happen. The start of this decade we saw a centre right convergence on the Tories' terms with the Coalition Government. If they go off and chase right wing populism, it is possible a new centre right might be born, albeit under LibDem hegemony.

Change UK are superfluous to all this. Their moment was their launch and they blew it. Their stupidity effectively ensured they sidelined themselves. But even they have served, even they have made something of a contribution to British politics. It has forced a section of centrism to come to terms with the real conditions of its existence, and will shortly be packing them off to the LibDems and, chortle, the reselection mandatory for its parliamentarians. It has told recalcitrant Labour MPs in no uncertain terms that life outside the party is bruising and, gasp, might involve them having to do things (badly) for themselves, and then failing. And its encouraged more people to think about politics in terms of the forces that shape it, rather than the petty politicians who personify it. By providing an education in how not to do politics, CHUK's car crash career has helpfully pointed to how we should, and must, think about it.


Anonymous said...

The Lib Dem "surge" is just another in a long line of false dawns for the slipperiest dealers in UK politics.

Truth is, the EU elections are as distinct from General Elections as General Elections are from Council elections. Voters are more savvy than most commentators think.

Council elections are largely won or lost on bread-and-butter local issues. The Euros were won and lost on the basis of a binary Brexit/Remain issue.

The entire "Lib Dem renaissance" narrative is based on three (count them!) opinion polls, all of which were taken in the same 48-hour period, a week after the Euro elections.

According to the nonsense being tossed around in the media, the Lib Dems are going to take approx. 22% of the national vote (!) at the next General Election. Yeah, and the Pope's a Jew.

1729torus said...

Consider how Alliance are usurping the Ulster Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.

Ain'tnopartylikeaCHUKapartycosaCHUKapartyseemsmorelikeapieceofperformanceartthanapartyandhighlightseverythingthatiswrongwiththepoliticalclassasawhole said...

Look, it's really easy to make fun of the CHUKa party.

No preposition to follow: It's just really easy to make fun of the CHUKa party. In the words of that one guy who gathers pre-election poll data via Grindr: "If you want a sense of how "Change UK – The Independent Group" is doing, they didn't even get a vote from a respondent whose bio specifically states that he's seeking "men who look like Chuka Umunna"


organic cheeseboard said...

What I still can't understand about CHUKTIG is how they had, and continue to have, absolutely no policies. They (in particular Chuka) were building up to launch for at least a year, and there was time enough even after they launched to settle on a couple of solid ideas beyond 'Remain'. But going into a EU election where literally none of them had an answer to the question 'how are you different from the Lib Dems', aside from 'there are former Tories and Labour people in our party', was ridiculous.

Their entire model relied on three things: 1) Brexit happening on 29 March, which was never likely; 2) Lib Dems never recovering, which as it says above was always unlikely based on their membership still existing; 3) loads more people defecting, which meant their launch had to go incredibly well. I think the biggest problem there was that, following a well-received opening launch event, Smith more or less immediately (maybe an hour later) said something pretty damn racist, meaning that the reason for the launch (Labour Antisemitism) was diluted, they looked like they had no message discipline, and wavering Labour types would have looked and thought 'this is the team we're meant to be joining?' I also think recruiting Soubry, an unrepentant Thatcherite, was also a mistake - she doesn't really seem to have much in common with even the Labour right. Then there's also their bizarre decision to both choose and then stick by Nora Mulready as a candidate - seemingly as a personal favour to Mike Gapes?

I have read somewhere - possibly in a New Statesman piece - that Berger was determined to leave before she went on maternity leave, which might have forced their hand; the problem then is that you need to work on the brand, policies, electoral strategy - and indeed membership - straight away, rather than doing what they did which was do every single media appearance possible (which from what I understand was the SDP model), but only offering complaint and hostility rather than new ideas.

This is why I DO actually think they had an impact on the Lib Dem resurgence, such as it is (re the above comment), because they demonstrated that voting Lib Dem meant voting for a party with members and policies, and that if you bought into the narrative that the EU elections were remain vs leave, then they (and the Greens) were an option. Change literally didn't provide a single reason to choose them over Lib Dem or Green, because even if you forgot their shitty branding, they stood for nothing.

Dipper said...

As a 'Tory' Leaver, I'm quite happy for the Lib Dems to be the voice of centrist Remain. I don't think they've got the people or the policies to seriously challenge for government, and a decent Free-market conservative party should clean up against a Labour/Lib dem split. Just that bit about 'decent'.