A group of MPs quitting Labour, appealing to self-declared centrists from other parties to join them – it was inevitable that all the comparisons between the SDP and the Independents Group would swiftly be wrung dry.
But surprisingly, few have looked at the experience of a more recent example of a new party: UKIP. It began from different origins, bottom-up from disgruntled activists rather than top-down from defecting MPs, but it succeeded in surviving and, in some ways, thriving as a small party – a condition that swiftly overwhelms most who try it.
The newly-minted TIG might be ideologically very different from Farage and co, but they face several of the same strategic and logistical challenges. Here are some lessons from the experience of the People’s Army:
- You need a dominant leader… This was a hard thing for UKIP to get right. Remember Roger Knapman, Michael Holmes and Geoffrey Titford? Exactly. Finding better performers and bigger names solved some problems but brought others – the clash between Robert Kilroy Silk and Nigel Farage showed not only that big fish will fight in a small pond, but that the loser normally then finds it impossible to stay. Farage won, so Kilroy had to go. This could well be more difficult in a new party formed primarily of sitting MPs, not always known for their modesty. How many people have their heart set on being the figurehead? If the answer is more than one (cough, Chuka), can they all reconcile their egos?
- …but not a completely power-mad one. A small party needs a decisive leader who is free to lead, but is always at risk of becoming either a tyranny or a roiling mess of splinter groups. After all, if you’ve built a party from defectors who agree new parties are viable things, then there’s a risk that defection to found a new party becomes a habit. How to empower a leader to get stuff done and simultaneously restrain them from destroying it all is a truly sticky problem. Farage felt it necessary to routinely crush possible rivals, but the price of doing so was that he had to continually demonstrate electoral success to maintain internal support. That’s a highly pressured balancing act – you can’t afford to waver or stop going, or you fall off.
- You need a shared worldview… A new party formed of former Labour MPs and Conservative MPs has to swiftly come up with some kind of common platform. The Independent Group’s statement of beliefs is extremely vague because they’re hoping to make it as easy as possible for new defectors to join them, but that early blandness will soon have to be followed with a unifying period, to bind them all together. UKIP contained disparate ideologies – from former members of the Labour left through to the libertarian right, from radical greens to people who viewed climate change as a fraud and so on, but to hold together on a long march they had to find a shared worldview. They found it an ongoing struggle, finding some reliable hits (grammar schools, political correctness) and various mis-steps (uniforms for lorry drivers, a memorable 2010 manifesto pledge). Does TIGger rhetoric about the centre map to real life common ground, or are they doomed to ideological conflict? And just as importantly, are their points of agreement appealing to voters?
- …or at least one sufficiently important issue that will keep you together. When times are tough – and even if it all goes to plan, some of the time it will be tough – they will need a strong sense of shared mission. When they build a party machine, and a grassroots culture, as they surely must do, they will need such a sense, too. UKIP had its doldrums (repeated and lengthy) and flare-ups (repeated and bloody) but it was powered and disciplined (to some degree) by that one over-riding mission in which all of its members believed. Is “#ChangePolitics” really as powerful an idea? A leader of the type I talked about earlier can help to create such a founding myth, but it will need to happen quite soon. Complicating this is the fact that different founding MPs are evidently motivated by different priorities, even if they agree on the broad issues.
- Decide what you want to be. UKIP was never quite sure what it wanted to be: a pressure group on the Conservative Party to become more Eurosceptic, the killer of the Conservative Party (an idea which led to Kilroy’s downfall), a replacement for Labour in its traditional heartlands, a temporary liberation movement, or a permanent part of the political landscape. The SDP, of course, suffered a similar problem. Such confusion is an inherent risk when a recruiting stage involves not wanting to deter any possible recruits, but if it is allowed to embed itself in a party then it will become a strategic curse. Without a clear sense of objective, how can anyone design an effective strategy and ensure it is fulfilled? So what is this new party to be – Britain’s En Marche? Britain’s Macron? An SDP for the 21st Century? New Labour? A liberal party of business? A would-be coalition partner to keep bigger parties honest? A voice of opposition to both sides? A pro-EU pressure group on the main parties? A Lib Dem replacement, or ally, or sub-group?
- Prepare for earthquakes. The People’s Army was sustained for a long time on that dream of getting and winning an in/out EU referendum, but somehow it ended up completely unprepared for it actually happening. That at least allow for almost 25 years of campaigning before the rug was pulled from under their feet – but for TIG the crunch point which will challenge one of their shared beliefs is coming far sooner. When the UK leaves the EU, it won’t just be enough to say “we want to Remain” or “we want a good deal” or “we want a second referendum to confirm if voters still want to leave”, they’ll have to decide their opinion as a post-Brexit party. Will they at that point support re-entry into the EU (and potentially therefore Euro membership among other major sacrifices) or will they campaign for a closer trade deal or customs union of some sort? UKIP didn’t have an answer to their own earthquake, and suffered from it despite having had years to consider. This new group has a few weeks.
- Find and bind a grassroots, and build a machine. A small number of hyper-dedicated people can sustain a party well beyond what logic or logistics might suggest is possible. That was certainly the case in UKIP’s early years, in which stalwarts stood in by-election after fruitless by-election, people threw their savings into leaflet printing and small audiences in back rooms kept faith with what everyone told them was pointless. Starting with a bunch of MPs is a great advantage – they may not have Short Money but they will have the structure and staffing that come with being an MP. However, they will still need volunteers, activists and a party staff, all of whom must be happier to live off motivation than much else for at least a while. A big donor or three to fund an infrastructure would certainly be helpful – the thousands of pounds reportedly spent on room hire alone this year hint that they may have that sorted out already.
- Brace for a long haul and limited glory (and lost seats). Even if successful (once they’ve chosen an objective) this will be a tough slog for those involved. UKIP slogged away for almost 20 years before it really enjoyed a surge – and that was powered by a lot of elbow grease, dedication and money from supporters, donors, candidates and latterly councillors and MEPs. The measure for their success for a long time was not winning by-elections but losing them on relatively high numbers. There’s a famine/feast gap here – for people who started with nothing electorally, any gain in votes felt like progress, but for 11 MPs with numerous victories and years in Westminster under their belts it might be harder to adapt psychologically to the small party necessity of prizing ‘good’ defeats. They’re avoiding talk of calling by-elections for now but in time they will have to face the ballot box somewhere, even if it is in a General Election. That might well involve some, many or maybe all losing their seats, and thereby their livelihoods, which would be a major challenge if the project had not grown well beyond its starting MP base. Would they carry on fighting if that happened?