One of the interesting challenges for small and new parties is whether to accept every offer of support. Often the very sight of a small pond will attract people who are keen on being big fish, and the characters who find the prospect particularly attractive sometimes bring costly baggage. At the same time, a small party wants above all to grow, and to show that it is a desirable destination for defectors.
That makes for some trade-offs. UKIP had plenty of those – from Robert Kilroy-Silk who brought publicity at the price of ambitious in-fighting, Arron Banks who brought money at the price of being Arron Banks, and, more recently Tommy Robinson, who brought a hardcore of followers to sustain a party in crisis at the cost of tarring its reputation with that of a convicted thug.
The Independent Group – or ‘Change UK – The Independent Group’ as it now is – is still only a few weeks old. Even so, its first week of existence involved some trade-offs – it’s certainly true that Tory whips felt that it was not entirely a loss to no longer have to manage three of their more disorderly and publicity-eager former colleagues.
Another example has now come up with CHUK-TIG’s first MEP supporters. Richard Ashworth and Julie Girling, former Conservative MEPs who lost the whip after they bizarrely voted against the UK being allowed to discuss trade with the EU, have joined up. Both are broadly in sympathy with their new party’s EU-enthusiast worldview, but it’s also fair to say that joining up is the only chance either has of continuing in elected office.
It’s somewhat less clear what CHUK-TIG has to gain from accepting them. Even committed supporters of Euro-integration surely know that almost entirely anonymous MEPs are unlikely to be great assets on the campaign trail or in the media air war, but perhaps the prospect of showing themselves to be growing was sufficient impetus.
It duly comes with a price. When Ashworth and Girling ceased to Conservatives, they both elected to join the pan-EU EPP – a somewhat odd choice to sit alongside the party of Viktor Orban, but that was their choice nonetheless.
Now that they are CHUK-TIG’s first MEPs, that EPP alignment is causing a bit of a storm in the fractious world of hardcore Remainers. Rivals and critics on the left – in Labour, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and elsewhere – are pointing to the fact the new party sits as part of the EPP in the European Parliament as evidence that they are of the right, essentially Tories or Blairites at best. This hits a particular weak spot for a party founded by Chuka Umunna and others, and touches on existing concerns about their agenda among many of their target vote.
If this all seems obscure, frankly that’s because it is. But it does matter. CHUK-TIG are trying to define themselves for the first time, to carve out a niche and recruit a core of activists and voters. Many of those they want on board are on the left, and are likely to be deterred by signs that they would be joining a soft Tory outfit. I’m not sure the price they’re paying is really worth their new acquisitions.
If you doubt that it is an issue, it’s worth noting that Chris Leslie, one of the party’s former Labour MPs, has felt the need to publicly deny it. Apparently their Euro alignment will be decided after the European elections, which seems unlikely to resolve confusion which arose in the first place from a lack of clarity.