Can the Party Splits Make a Dent in our Politics?

Before Brexit, Britain had two major political parties tussling for the privilege to undo whatever policies the other had just enacted. Our political system could have been described as circling the drain, only that would imply it was making any progress whatsoever. No, our politics was a binary star system, without an end goal – that is, before the EU referendum rocked up and made clear that our parties were in fact vague gatherings of individuals who didn’t much care for most of their colleagues. The fault lines that had been barely painted over for the cameras tore open. Queue the bickering.

A few years on, and both Labour and the Conservatives have lost members, mostly to a new not-quite-party called The Independent Group (they’re calling it a ‘movement’ for now). Think the Liberal Democrats without the toxic brand and ‘exotic spresms’ and you won’t be far off their message – if there’s no place for you in the two major parties, come to us. It’s a ‘movement’ seeking to ride a wave of hope and optimism over the Brexit catastrophe (as they see it) and away from the ‘ideologies’ of the main parties (as they put it), which is nice enough to hear, but could it make good on its word?

Like any third party, The Independent Group (clad in the most optimistic colour of grey) has one huge wall threatening to block it off – the first-past-the-post system. The Conservatives and Labour have a self-sustaining stranglehold on British politics because vote share means next to nothing – in 2017, the Liberal Democrats won 7.4% of the vote, but only 12 seats, 1.8% of the 650 on offer. Winning a seat is all that counts, there’s no prize for coming in second – even by a handful of votes. Third parties tend to come off as ineffectual, unable to have an impact on national policy and serving at best as a protest vote in the event both the Labour and Conservative candidates are deeply unpopular (see UKIP). This lack of power drives people to vote for the two main parties to not ‘waste’ their vote, and the cycle continues. Breaking that cycle will take some doing, and a lot more than a dozen or so MPs breaking away.

The other issue facing The Independent Group, or any other force looking to reshape our politics, is the scale of the mainstream parties. Both the Tories and Labour are among the biggest parties in Western Europe, with financial firepower to match. If an upstart challenger were to threaten their seats during an election, they have the resources to outdo them or simply crowd them out if necessary. It would be all too easy for the main parties to present The Independent Group as merely an ‘anti-Brexit’ party, and the stereotypes of the Greens and UKIP as one-policy parties is a testament to that. They would need to break through a vast wall of noise whilst also having policies people would want to hear about – a tall order.

The saga of Brexit has certainly damaged the tenuous alliances supporting the main political parties in Britain, in some cases to breaking point, yet it isn’t enough to break something as fundamental as a political system – there needs to be a plan to replace it. Otherwise, parties or ‘movements’ such as The Independent Group will get nowhere, and the duopoly of Labour and the Conservatives will continue to have a firm grasp on the country for another few decades, at least until another ambitious challenger rears their head. Keep an eye on the splitter MPs, but don’t expect a miracle any time soon.