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What impact will the Independent Group’s launch have on the Conservative Party? Not unreasonably, analyists and commentators are only just beginning to get round to the question. But Conservative strategists will already be thinking about potential effects. Since it’s extremely difficult to test voter attitudes towards a hypothetical scenario such as a formal new party launch, in turn it’s extremely difficult now to predict the impact. But testing voter attitudes benefits from having a set of political hypotheses to test in the first place. So what should those hypotheses be?
Let’s consider the short-term and then the long-term. Thinking about the next few months first, we should assume there’s likely to be a hit to Jeremy Corbyn’s poll ratings and Labour’s performance in top-line national voting intention ratings. The early reporting around the group has been framed negatively: that Luciana Berger and Labour colleagues are leaving the Party because of the leadership’s inability and unwillingness to deal with racism within its ranks – and because the leadership has been unwilling to fight back on Brexit. The positive vision that Berger and others have has naturally been drowned out in the immediate aftermath of their announcement.
As I’ve written on these pages before, Corbyn’s personal ratings have been poor for a long time. Swing voters think he is incompetent and lacking in intelligence and leadership qualities. However, to date, he hasn’t been seen as a “bad” person; furthermore, voters have generally drawn a distinction between the Labour leadership (Corbyn and John McDonnell) and the wider Labour Party. Labour’s fundamental brand – of sticking up for the poor – remains strong.
It is possible that Berger and others’ presentation of the Party leadership and the wider Party as immoral will make those cultural attacks that the Conservatives have been making in recent years stick. By that, I mean the Conservatives’ allegations that Corbyn is dangerous rather than stupid. This shift in the public mood from thinking Corbyn is incompetent to unpleasant could drag his ratings down further and for longer; it’s too early to say.
It’s possible that some Conservative MPs will be tempted away if no deal looks possible. But on balance it seems more likely that the Government would do pretty much anything to avoid this; it’s therefore currently hard to imagine a mass exodus of Conservative Remainers. The Independent Group is therefore probably a Labour-ish Party for the foreseeable future. (The danger for the Conservatives looks to be primarily on the Right, but that’s for another day).
Again these are all hypotheses for testing, but, with that in mind, the launch of the new group looks therefore likely to be a major short-term positive for the Conservatives. Not only are Corbyn and Labour’s ratings likely to go down but, in practice, the initiative makes voters’ defections from the Conservative Party at least somewhat less likely. It surely also makes it less likely that Conservative Remainers – who are by their nature self-consciously internationalist – will defect to a Labour Party that has been so badly tainted with the brush of racism.
And, again, certainly in the short-term, these voters will not be able to turn to a new Party that has no meaningful infrastructure. Finally, it is worth pointing out the obvious: that these MPs will split the left-leaning vote in any elections that come up soon. But all this is about the short-term; things could change quickly.
The longer-term is obviously more difficult to predict. But, again, let’s think through a hypothesis. Let us assume four things: firstly, that there’s some sort of deal with the EU; secondly, that the Group becomes a Party and develops a positive, centrist vision somewhere between the governing philosophies of Gordon Brown and the 2005-2010 version of David Cameron; thirdly, that the new Party develops, Macron-style, a rudimentary campaigning vehicle that can see it compete nationally; and, fourthly, that at least a few Conservative MPs leave the Party to join it. All of these things seem reasonable to assume, even if we acknowledge that launching a new party formally is logistically very difficult.
The big question is: would such a party take votes away from the Conservatives? In any vaguely similar space to the one they’re staking out, the Independent Party would be attractive, theoretically, to around a third of voters: these are the International Free Traders (around 10 per cent of the electorate) and the Social Democrats (around 25 per cent) that I wrote about here recently.
Because of this, and because of their launch politicians, it would make more sense for such a party to veer somewhat left rather than somewhat right; there look to be more votes from it here. That means ramping up issues like public service reform, poverty, welfare and dealing with capitalist excess. (While they’ll obsess about Europe in the short-term, they can’t build a party on that stance – given that things might all be over by the middle of the year; they’ll need a more durable focus.)
With such a platform, they will find it easy enough to attract MPs like Allen, who aren’t policy-oriented and who travel light ideologically, but would presumably struggle to attract more mainstream Conservatives. And this left-leaning stance would make it more difficult to attract the business-minded Remain voters of the South of England to back this party. Wall Street Journal Conservatives – to use an Americanism – would think twice about a left-leaning party.
But while their campaigning platform will surely lean left, that doesn’t mean that the Independent Party would only eat into Labour’s vote. After all, many of those that we might call Social Democrats voted for David Cameron in 2010 and 2015 (much less so for Theresa May in 2017). In fact, we should assume that an Independent Party, if it commits itself to a capitalist economy of sorts (with a commitment to ethical business etc) looks highly attractive to those younger, urban, professional voters that shifted from Blair to Cameron as the Labour Party shifted to the hard-left under Ed Miliband. This narrows the Conservatives’ pathway to a majority. But it’s hard not to conclude that an Independent Party’s campaigning won’t disproportionately affect electoral life for the Labour Party.
There is a giant caveat to this point – one that won’t surprise occasional readers of this column. This is that the Conservatives are somewhat more insulated from the Independent Party if they continue to embrace a conservatism that appeals primarily to working class and lower middle class voters. In such a scenario, the Conservatives continue to hollow out Labour’s working class base while solidifying its lead amongst lower middle class swing voters. As this is happening, the Independent Party starts to attract middle class voters that have recently shifted from the Conservatives to Labour. If the Conservatives junk this strategy, they risk losing their attraction to provincial working class and lower middle class voters and end up in a war they might not be able to win for these Social Democrats.
Two final points on the Independent Group. Firstly, the name is great; it plays to the public’s desire for change and to the idea that people should put country ahead of party. Secondly, they can’t, however, credibly claim to be changing politics given they’re fronted by people that look and sound like they’ve spent their entire existence focusing on Westminster politics. Macron smashed his way into power in France by being different; at this point in time the Independent Group looks simply like a nicer version of the people you usually get offered during elections.