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Centrists require earthquake to reshape local politics

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Commentary on how a new centrist party could rock local politics

“If you leave between the Brexit-dominated Tory party and a hard-left Labour party vast uncultivated centre ground, at some point someone is going to come along and cultivate it.” So said Tony Blair on Radio 4 this morning.

Mr Blair knows a bit about cultivation of the centre, having won three general elections – two of them with majorities approaching 200 with a centrist agenda. Indeed, since Clement Attlee’s 1945 landslide, Harold Wilson’s 1966 parliamentary cushion of 98 constitutes the only other example of a Labour leader winning a double-figure majority.

Speculation has been rife of a new centrist party being formed to exploit the vast open space between a socialist Labour party and a Brexit and austerity-obsessed Conservative party. The Observer reported £50m has been raised for the project to create such a party – the project being led by the philanthropist founder of LoveFilm Simon Franks – for which full-time staff are already working. While the paper said some of those involved advocate the body concentrating more on community activism than becoming a formal party, it reported their “consensus” view that the movement would run candidates at the next general election.

It is easy to see why British politics should realign. Jeremy Corbyn may have attracted a surge of primarily young and idealistic new members to Labour but he repels the bulk of the parliamentary Labour party. The Conservatives have successfully defeated the Ukip menace – but only at the expense of shifting their party far to the right. The small state Conservatives are in the ascendancy and the more socially-concerned wing of the party is marginalised. Public spending constraint and Brexit have together sapped the energy of Theresa May’s administration.

Indeed, with the two main parties being respectively led by a Tory leader who voted remain but is leading us into Brexit and a Labour leader whose claims to have voted remain are unconvincing, it is hard to see for whom the 48% who favour EU membership should vote for. Well, of course, there is the Liberal Democrats, but they seem doomed to dwell in the doldrums after their coalition with David Cameron alienated many of their former voters.

Westminster voting intentions are naturally utmost in the minds of those seeking to cultivate the centre ground. No doubt they will also be considering the combined appeal of the likes of Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Rachel Reeves, Sir Vince Cable, Anna Soubry and (perhaps more theoretically, given his status of father of the house and longstanding pillar of Toryism) Kenneth Clarke in a single electoral force. However, were a centrist party to get off the ground it raises the theoretical prospect of a similar realignment of politicians at a local level, on each and every council.

As the LGC Briefing reported last week, there is some irony that the fortunes of so many local leaders are dependent on the electoral appeal (or lack of it) of a national party leader whose views are far from their own. We wrote: “The irony stems from the fact that LGC rarely meets a senior Tory councillor who supports the scale of austerity inflicted upon our sector; and there are perhaps even fewer who support the government’s restrictions on council house building. And we rarely meet a senior Labour councillor who is fully of the viewpoint that Jeremy Corbyn is fully sympathetic towards local government; leading councillors know that it is only through compromise and trade-offs that they can make a difference locally and are instinctively suspicious of the opposite outlook held by their party leader.”

But recognising a lack of political empathy with one’s party leader is only the first hurdle a local politician may face before jumping ship. It takes courage to step out of the political culture and mechanisms that gave rise to your election and to enter unfamiliar political waters in which the old certainties have gone. Only a minority of councils regularly swing between the control of different parties. To grossly oversimplify British politics, the northern mets are Labour, the shires are Tory. It would take a genuine political earthquake to change this.

The last earthquake to shake British politics was the breakaway of the Social Democratic Party from Labour in 1981 and its Alliance with the Liberal party later that year. In addition to breakaway former Labour members it attracted the support of people entirely new to politics. The party soared in the polls, so much so that Liberal leader David Steel famously told members at the party’s annual conference to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government.”

However, neither at a national or a local level did the Alliance make the impact required to break the mould of British politics. At the 1983 general election it won more than a quarter of the vote – only a fraction behind Labour’s 28% – but just 23 seats. The problem was that the main parties retained their heartlands and the Alliance came second in too many places.

It faced the same problem in local elections. While it steadily gained councillors throughout the mid-eighties, its 1985 position for instance gave it 2,633 councillors, compared to Labour’s 8,746 and the Conservatives’ 10,191. The only county it won that year was Isle of Wight (yes, it was then a county).

Come 1986 it took three London boroughs: Richmond upon Thames, Sutton and Tower Hamlets LBCs. The following year – at the high-water mark of its local success – it did not win a single metropolitan council and just nine districts. Long-standing tribal loyalties run deep. And in local politics, as in national, the first-past-the-post system inevitably discriminates against a new party. Sadly LGC no longer possesses a copy of our 1987 Council Control Map (indeed we are far from certain that we produced one way back then); however, its political colouring would not look dramatically different from its latest incarnation.

In an article for today’s Guardian the pollster Peter Kellner says any new centralist force has two options in order to overcome the electoral perennial runner up problem that beset the Alliance. It either needs to “get past the tipping point that separates triumph from disaster”, for instance by winning 30-35% of the vote, or build up strong support in particular types of constituency. The party’s only other option would be to persuade a significant number of MPs to defect.

While Mr Kellner is referring to Westminster elections his argument is equally applicable to local polls. The electoral arithmetic facing any new party is intimidating and – as the SDP found – local loyalties and familiarities are a deterrent to defection.

So a political earthquake is required to bring about a new centrist force, both nationally and locally. But we have had one earthquake in the shape of Brexit. And aftershocks in the upper echelons of the political Richter scale are entirely possible. Like at the San Andreas Fault, another ‘big one’ is overdue.

By Nick Golding, editor, LGC

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