TIGgers can reshape politics – but not as a collective of lone wolves

February 23rd, 2019

They have declared war on the current party system, and must win or die

Extinction is the usual fate of most political splits. Whether by political defeat or by a subsequent merger into a pre-existing party, any MP resigning from his or her party and not defecting directly to another one usually finds their subsequent career to be one of struggle, isolation and defeat.

Is there any reason to think that this week’s extraordinary events could lead to any different outcome? In truth, the likelihood is the Independent Group will suffer a similar fate to those who have gone before – but there is an unusual opportunity for them, if they can play it right.

To grasp that opportunity though, first they must understand the game they’re playing. The evidence so far suggests that they don’t but that their opponents do. Talk of ‘a different kind of politics’ is all very well but there’s a reason that parties exist as they do, and that’s because they’re effective. Our political system is built round them, from media exposure at elections to Short money to parliamentary processes to the nature of campaigns. A group of independents has no future without a party structure to support them, not least because they can have no hope of re-election.

It’s all very well to choose not to organise as a party immediately – and perhaps with Brexit less than five weeks away (perhaps), they have a legitimate argument that they have higher and more urgent tasks to attend to. Apart from a strong opposition to Brexit, their policy agenda being a blank sheet could be an advantage in finding new recruits, though personally I’m not sure about that: if an MP is thinking of jumping ship, they might just as easily be put off by the prospect of disagreeing with as-yet-unknown policies as they might be attracted by the absence of anything to currently dissent from.

But to stake a claim to any permanence, they need a party structure: organisation, membership, local branches, policies and leader – and a party name (the Centre Party would be good, in my opinion). Again, while the defections are in flux, there’s a good argument for delaying the selection of a leader – what if someone better comes along later? – but the question can only be put off for so long. Wait beyond that point and the group loses cohesion and media attention.

And unusually, there is that chance that the splits could work because so many different factors play to their advantage.

Firstly, the government, Jeremy Corbyn and the Lib Dems are all unpopular, and are all finding Brexit extremely difficult, if for different reasons. Corbyn is out of step with his MPs and activists and, to a large extent, his voters; the government is the one tasked with a probably-impossible balancing act but which has succeeded only in antagonising all sides rather than just most of them; and the Lib Dems have made absolutely no traction whatsoever in the media or with the public. There is a space for a new force with a Remain message.

Secondly, both main parties are split on Brexit. The parties have gradually been realigning on EU policy to the point where Labour is broadly Remain and the Tories are broadly Leave – but with the substantial caveats that Labour’s policy is enabling Brexit, while the government’s policy might deliver a substantial dose of Brexit In Name Only, at least for some years (or might deliver a complete car-crash of No Deal, followed by goodness knows what). A full-scale political realignment on Brexit is possible, with the Centre Party advocating Remain for now, and Rejoin for the future, should some form of Brexit occur.

Thirdly, not only is the centre ground wide open, the current occupants are weak and have a possibly terminally-tarnished brand. If enough MPs defect to the Centre – say, three dozen or more – there would be a strong argument for them to merge into the Centre, bring their activists, organisation and data with them. The fact that Leslie, Umunna, Soubry and Wollaston chose not to defect to the Lib Dems says a great deal about the Lib Dems’ continued toxicity outside those areas where the Party has a strong local base.

And fourthly, opinion polls suggest that the public has a strong appetite for a new party. Granted, these things often sound better in the abstract than the reality, but when Opinium find – as they did yesterday – that 35% of Tory voters “would be likely to vote for a new centre-ground party”, that 36% of Labour ones would, that some 72% of Lib Dems would, and that no less than 40% of UKIP voters would, then you have a big pond in which to fish. Even if only half of those people actually did switch, a Centre Party could be looking at around 17% (allied to a further 6% for the Lib Dems) but there’s clearly the potential to score well beyond that.

With more people identifying with their Brexit preference than with a political party and with all three established parties split and/or weak, the scope for a major realignment is real. TIG could be the vehicle for that.

As such, TIG is an existential threat to Labour, which is – beyond the sense of betrayal – no doubt why the defectors have been subject to such vituperative attacks and why a key line of attack from the left has been to paint the project as a mission of and for the rich and powerful (an attack which would be echoed by the likes of UKIP, were it able to get its act together).

These sort of attacks will continue because, in Game of Thrones style, the two are challenging for much the same space and much the same voters and in such circumstances, you win or you die.

However, unless TIG consolidate themselves into a party and build the sort of electoral coalition and political machine necessary to maintain their voice and presence beyond Brexit Day, that opportunity will be missed – and missed forever. TIG would not only have failed to break the (still-brittle) mould but would have failed to even try.

David Herdson


With a cabinet revolt the balance could be moving to Article 50 being extended

February 22nd, 2019

In exactly five weeks time at 11pm GMT the UK is due to leave the EU following the procedure laid down in Article 50. With time running out and the threat of a no-deal getting closer three cabinet ministers have taken it into their hands to break all notions of cabinet government and write a piece for the Daily Mail.

Their action appears to be designed to blunt the plans of the Toey Brexit group the ERG who are using their power and the parliamentary impasse to stop a deal being agreed thus achieving their objective.

The big fight that the Clarke, Rudd Gauke are doing is to make extending the Article 50 timescale their objective.

This all sets things for the next next round of crucial vote in the Commons.

Such is TMay’s weakness that there is little that she can do to keep ministers in line. She, of course, has been absolutely determined to meet the March 29th deadline.

The betting markets rate a no deal Brexit next month at 20%.

Mike Smithson


Labour needs a better response than the TIGers should resign and fight by-elections

February 22nd, 2019

One of the problems for Labour in pursuing its TIGers should quit seats and fight by-elections argument is that there’s a whole host of examples of switchers to them from the Tories and others where the MP involved has not done this and there were no calls from Labour that they should.

There is a case, the Preston by-election but you have to go back 90 years to 1929.

The idea that there is some sort of convention about this is without foundation as the Seth Thévoz Tweet above shows.

This week’ split and the threat of more, possibly, to come, has been a massive challenge to Corbyn and his close team. He’s not been helped by the responses of his elected deputy, Tom Watson, who has a realisation of the damage this is doing to the party.

Whether switching MPs should resign their seats is another matter. Looking back at where this has been done the objective to keep the media focus on the issues involved as with Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless in 2014.

As a lover of by-election then the more reasons to have them the better.

Mike Smithson


Listen to the PB / Polling Matters experts dissect the surveys on The Independent Group in the latest Podcast

February 22nd, 2019

The Polling Matters podcast returns, with Keiran Pedley (now of Ipsos MORI) and Leo Barasi discussing the latest polling on The Independent Group. Just how popular are they with the public?

Listen to the episode below:

Follow this week’s guests


William Hill make it odds-on that none of the original LAB and CON TIGers will hold their seats

February 21st, 2019

The basic bet is whether any of the founding 11 TIGers are going to be returned as MPs at the next general election.

The names listed are Heidi Allen, Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Joan Ryan, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith, Anna Soubry, Chuka Umunna and Sarah Wollaston.

I’d reckon that Chuka Umunna and Sarah Wollaston would be in with a fighting chance with, I’d guess. high name recognition in their constituencies. I think Heidi Allen in Cambridgeshire South might be in with a good chance given that her main opponents when she was a CON candidate was the LibDem.

Anna Soubry has a high profile and you cannot write her off.

My reading of the bet is that they could stand in seats other than their current constituency though I’d guess they’d fare better on home turf.

The experience of the switchers to the SDP at GE1983 was that most struggled to hold on but some did. That’s possibly a good guide.

I’ve had a small bet that at least one will be returned.

Mike Smithson


The prospects for The Independent Group

February 21st, 2019

So, is The Independent Group going to break the mould of British politics? The general consensus is that it will be doing well to scrape off the top of the jam. In fact, it seems to me that it is the wrong question.

We are all bewitching ourselves with memories of the SDP. This breakaway is not like that breakaway. First, we need to ask ourselves what the group is trying to achieve. Breaking the mould does not seem particularly high on the agenda.

At present this split looks much more like the breakaway of the Adullamites in 1867, when a centrist group split away in opposition to the main policy of the Liberals at that stage (electoral reform) or like the division of the Liberals in 1916 over personality. TIG’s founders’ aims may be quite different from the Gang of Four.

What are their aims? I’m a firm believer in looking at what people say they want to do. So this is what the Labour defectors said:

“we believe that none of today’s political parties are fit to provide the leadership and direction needed by our country.

Our aim is to pursue policies that are evidence-based, not led by ideology, taking a long-term perspective to the challenges of the 21st century in the national interest, rather than locked in the old politics of the 20th century.”

This is what the Conservative defectors said:

“We believe that there is a failure of politics in general, not just in the Conservative Party but in both main parties as they move to the fringes, leaving millions of people with no representation. Our politics needs urgent and radical reform and we are determined to play our part.”

Both identify a failure of politics. The Labour defectors’ letter is better, in my view, because it focusses on pursuing policies (things that make a difference to people) rather than reforming politics (which is more of a procedural matter). Whatever, both have identified that they hate something and so they want to change something.

As chance would have it, they could not have chosen a better moment to seek to make a difference in the short term. Parliament is not just hung, the main parties have coalesced into coherent factions that are blocking progress on everything, including the touchstone of the generation, Brexit.

The DUP have shown just how much influence a small grouping can have in such a hung Parliament. If centrists hope to find a method of wrenching the steering wheel in a different direction, TIG might be it.

What do people mean by breaking the mould anyway? If they mean redefining the party system, I agree that TIG’s chances don’t look good. While there are a fair few metropolitan citizens of nowhere, they are thinly spread outside a few areas and outnumbered in most constituencies. Unless they can yoke their cause to another grouping, they look unlikely to break through. There is no sign of that yet.

If, however, by breaking the mould people mean making important changes to major policies in the here and now, their chances are excellent, especially if there are more defections from either or both main parties, as currently looks likely.

This is not 1981, when the government had an overall majority of 40. The current government is a minority government with a majority of minus 11 and a flighty partner offering confidence but not much supply. The government is scrabbling around seeking to create majorities for its policies.  

A disciplined grouping offering substantial numbers of votes will attract the Prime Minister’s attention and potentially obtain substantial concessions.

What of the longer term? To survive and thrive, TIG will need to show that they not just against something – Jew-hating, Brexit, dismal leadership – but that they are for something too.  They are going to need to offend some groups with their own vision, not just oppose the visions of others.

It is, however, entirely possible that the long-term aim is not inevitably to found a new party but rather to refound one or both of the two main parties. The Adullamites were soon reconciled with the Gladstonian Liberals and Lloyd George and Asquith patched up their differences. The Liberal Unionists and the National Liberals both (at a distance of over 40 years) were eventually absorbed by the Conservatives. Third parties are more normally absorbed by one of the original two than survive indefinitely.

If either main party can build a bridge to TIG, they may well choose to walk across that. They would certainly be wise to do so. If in the meantime TIG have managed to re-establish the voice of metropolitan pragmatic centrism in British politics, they should regard that as a profound success.

Alastair Meeks


Corbyn’s no longer the “Next PM” betting favourite as punters evaluate the week’s big developments

February 21st, 2019

Betdata.io chart of movement on the Betfair exchange

Gove now in the number one slot

With LAB so far losing more of its MPs to TIG than CON then the ability of Corbyn to force an election though mounting a confidence vote has declined a notch. More exits mean fewer MPs who take the Labour whip puts the LAB leader in Commons arithmetic terms in a worse position.

I’ve never really seen why Corbyn should be favourite here because if things follow their predicted course then the next PM will be a Tory.

Gove, whose recent big Commons speech, had fellow MPs talking about him once again in leadership terms, has edged up a bit more.

Sajid Javid now at 9% has got a small boost from him stripping Shamima Begum of her UK citizenship. I’m not so sure on this. It made him look like a crowd pleaser – he appeared just too willing to follow the headlines.

Mike Smithson


Corbyn harking back to LAB’s GE2017 vote share is no solution to the party’s current challenges

February 20th, 2019

For many he is seen as the problem

Little noticed in this week’s political turmoil was some new polling from YouGov that had Corbyn dropping to a new low in its well/badly ratings. The trend was in line with all the other leader ratings that we’ve seen the last few weeks that whatever the pollster and whatever the question format Corbyn’s position is on the decline.

The historical record shows that for an opposition party to re-take power the leader has to have a clear ratings margin over the incumbent PM.

The 54% negative number from YouGov was not as bad as the 72% who told Ipsos MORI that they were dissatisfied but it is still the worst it has been with this particular question in this polling series

This coincided with the 8 MPs announcing their departure with their reasons all pointing to the leadership of Corbyn particularly on Brexit and his failure to address the ongoing anti-semitism within the party.

Looking back since the 2017 General Election the factors that seemed to have triggered a decline in Corbyn’s personal position have related to anti-semitism and his ambivalence on Brexit. It was the events in March last year that lead to MPs demonstrating against him outside Parliament that ended his comparative ratings honeymoon.

That Corbyn’s position is secure because of the membership base should give lots of hope to those opposed to LAB.

Labour’s fundamental problem is that it has a leader who is not popular even amongst many of those who voted for the party in 2017 but is almost totally secure in his position.

Mike Smithson