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Change UK have given a masterclass in how not to launch a political party

May 11th, 2019

Their muddled thinking has killed their project

To be wrong once is inevitable, to be wrong twice is unfortunate, to be wrong three times is careless, but to be wrong as many times as Change UK have been is to show all the tactical and strategic awareness of a garden leaf trying to outwit a playful cat. It’s not merely that they keep losing the game; it’s not even that they don’t seem to know how the game’s played; it’s as if they don’t even know that there’s a game on at all.

Time and again, right from the beginning, they have made such basic errors in their thinking, their planning and their execution that if they’re to be remembered by history at all, it will be as an object lesson in how not to launch a political party.

We could list dozens of their mistakes but let’s keep it to seven of the bigger ones, as a demonstration of where they went wrong.

1. They failed to organise as a party at or shortly after defecting

You only get one chance to make a first impression, as the saying goes. Change fluffed theirs. From the first days, it was clear that the defecting MPs were far more animated by what they were opposed to (Corbyn, Brexit) than what they advocated. As soon as they left their previous parties and created a new group, it should have been clear that there could be no going back and that therefore the only options were to join another pre-existing party or to form one themselves. Having rejected the former option, they needed to define themselves before others defined them. They didn’t.

2. They failed to appoint or elect a leader

Minor parties get little media coverage and need to force their way into news stories and discussions. Having a clear leader who is constantly available, willing and capable of projecting their message is crucial: Change failed to appoint or elect one (and once they did, they might as well have not bothered). British politics has certain parameters parties are expected to conform to. If you ignore them, chances are you’ll be ignored yourself.

3. They failed to give themselves a clear name

Nothing sums up Change UK’s blundering more than the sorry saga of their name. They first picked one – The Independent Group – that said little about what they were for, before dumping what progress they had made with that and switching to Change UK, which also says nothing about what they stand for or against, yet still tagged on their previous name in a made-by-committee composite.

Their Twitter handle has changed so often that it’s hard even for interested politics watchers to keep track and their website is registered under the unintuitive voteforchange.uk . Remarkably, if you type changeuk.org.uk into your browser, you’ll be redirected to the Lib Dems.

Contrast all this with Nigel Farage’s new vehicle, The Brexit Party – which implies all you need to know about it in about a second. Change could have taken a leaf out of the same book and called themselves the Remain Party and so tried to appropriate to themselves that generic mantle. Alternatively, if they wanted something with a longer shelf-life, the Centre Party would have defined where they stood in the political spectrum.

4. They failed to recruit members and build a movement

By chance, Change had a massive opportunity to build a political movement. Not long after they launched, a petition was registered on the government website demanding that Article 50 be revoked, which gathered an extraordinary six million signatures. These people should have been Change’s target voters and the coincidence of timing, plus the fact that no party was offering Revoke, meant that Change could and should have built a movement around that premise. Had they ridden the wave, they probably could have recruited tens, if not hundreds of thousands of supporters and members, as well as millions in donations and subscriptions. They failed to do anything.

5. They failed to establish a niche political position

New or small political parties need to offer something different: Change UK doesn’t. Following on from the point above, the obvious one was to move outright to Revoke, which is beyond what either the Lib Dems or Greens advocate (although the Lib Dems are getting there now). Sure, it would have been criticised by Brexiteers and others as undemocratic but if you’re worried about criticism, keep your head down and don’t defect. As an aside, going straight for Revoke and the 6m petitioners would have put huge pressure on the Lib Dems to follow suit, and on Labour to move more assertively to Remain, which would of itself have demonstrated their power and relevance, as well as advancing their cause.

6. They failed to contest the local elections

Having messed up on points 1-5, not contesting the local elections was probably a blessing. A lack of candidates, policies or organisation would probably have led to a smattering of poor results and an embarrassing contrast with the Lib Dems. At least this way no-one noticed. But a political party that doesn’t contest elections (they’re not standing in Peterborough either), is about as useful as a radio that doesn’t produce sound. On the other hand, if they’d got the earlier organisation right, they could have not only blunted (or prevented) the Lib Dem recovery but could have made themselves one of the stories of the night and then next few weeks.

7. They’ve failed to play the media game

Change UK seem to have the view that the world owes them a hearing. It doesn’t. Minor parties literally need to make the news if they want to be on it. Partly that’s about proactively badgering broadcasters and publishers that they want to be on but also it’s about putting on media stunts. Again, Farage knows what he’s doing there. Similarly, Caroline Lucas for the Greens has no trouble generating publicity for herself and her party by less orthodox methods, for example deliberately being arrested at demonstrations. Obviously, you need to play to your audience but the point is that far more politics happens beyond Westminster than Change is willing to accept or embrace.

What the MPs of Change UK failed to recognise – and to a large extent, still fail to recognise – is that they crossed a Rubicon when they left their former parties. By forming a new party, they are in direct competition with Labour and the Lib Dems (never mind the ill-will both parties have reason to bear, the former for the defection of the turncoats; the latter for them having rejected a direct defection). They are fishing in the same pools and cannot expect to be treated as fellow travellers in a common cause. That failure of understanding was amply demonstrated by Change blaming Labour (who are defending the seat) for reminding a proto-Remain alliance that Labour would actively campaign against the independent candidate the Remain parties wanted to back. Campaigning against your opponents is what you do in an election and what you can reasonably expect your opponents to do to you.

Where should Change UK go from here?

Trying to discern Change’s intended strategy from their actions is probably about as useful as looking for hints to Gaussian mathematics in a bowl of porridge. If they’d launched their party with flair and dynamism, they might well be in the mid-teens in the polls now. That might sound excessive but they peaked at 18% with YouGov in the week after they launched (three times the Lib Dem score, and against a 36% Con share – much has changed since February). Suppose they’d been able to sweep up much of the 6m Revoke vote: it could have been them rather than the Lib Dems making big gains at the local elections. In the medium term they could realistically hope to either replace the Lib Dems outright (in the same way that the Brexit Party will almost certainly replace UKIP), or to bargain for a merger from a position of strength, marrying Lib Dem experience, data and activists with Change support and members. That cannot now happen: they have nothing to trade.

Instead, their future must either take them out of politics altogether or into an existing party, which has to be the Lib Dems. Their initiative has ground to a halt through its own lack of momentum. Who would now join them, either in parliament or as activists and members? What purpose do they serve?

Change UK’s multiple failures, which of themselves must be hugely off-putting for potential recruits, have left them with no voice and no future. Given the difficulties and divisions within Labour and the Tories, there is still plenty of scope for realignment within Britain’s politics. To the extent that Change has any role in that, it is purely as a cautionary tale as to how not to do it.

David Herdson