THE INDEPENDENT GROUP: SHAKE UP OR SHORT TERM?
By Andy Maciver, Director, Message Matters
I have a confession. I used to be in party politics. Between the ages of 22 and 27, I worked for the Scottish Tories, for David McLetchie and then Annabel Goldie. I wrote the manifesto for the 2007 Holyrood election.
When I left to join the private sector, the liberation was marked. I realised I was too young. I took ‘lines to take’, sold them to the media, and didn’t question them. I’m not alone - it happens in all parties, and not merely to young people. It’s political Stockholm Syndrome.
The first, inescapable, almost overbearing feeling I experienced when I left was that everything about devolution was new, apart from the political parties. We had a new institution, new procedures, a new voting system and (eventually) a new building. But into that we placed the old, entrenched, stale political parties.
Murdo 2011 - a new party for Scotland
Fast forward four years. Knowing that my friend Murdo Fraser was a kindred spirit, I enthusiastically helped him in his attempt to abolish the Tory Party and replace it with a new, Scottish party of the centre-right. We lost. But I was well used to that. The argument was made, and made well, and the beans will never go back into the tin.
Little of my core belief has changed. Despite the replacement of the Labour Party by the Tories as the primary party of opposition, Scotland remains an outlier in a European context, and effectively has a First Past the Post party structure in a PR parliament. I created a piece of research in late 2015 which showed that just over half of politicians in parliaments across the EU were from centre-right parties.
In Scandinavia, often paraded by the Scottish left as a paragon, two of its four countries are run by the centre-right, one by the centrists and one by the centre-left.
In Scotland, at the time of the research, we had 13% of politicians from the centre-right. Less than Greece, gripped by radical socialism. Even now, despite the post-indyref Tory bounce in 2016, we have fewer than one-quarter.
This is not because Scotland’s people are somehow pathologically indisposed to free-market economics and centre-right ideology. There is no evidence for that. The evidence, instead, is that Scottish people were comfortable with the contents of the package, but they did not like the wrapping.*
The Independent Group
There was a gap in the Holyrood market for a centre-right, Scotland-first party. As in business, in politics the most successful politicians are those who fill a gap in the market. Thatcher. Blair. Macron.
And so over the last week, as I have watched the creation of The Independent Group at Westminster, I have reminisced, and wondered, and questioned, and thought.
Are we seeing the beginning of the end of the two dominant parties of the last century? Or are the Gang of Seven, Eight, then Eleven simply having a collective strop which will be stamped out by a combination of Brexit events and the First Past the Post electoral system.
Chukka Umunna, the de facto leader, has expressed his desire to see it morph into a new political movement to endure and form governments for decades to come. But I see the group having made two critical strategic errors. The first is that it is exclusively a pro-Remain, pro-second referendum group, to the exclusion (ref Ian Austin MP) of all who do not fish in that water. This is short-sighted. Brexit is but a point in time for a party which wants to be a player for decades to come. Once Brexit is, one way or another, over, what is left other than the lectern and the website?
Secondly, and linked, is its positioning as a ‘centrist’ group. I know it feels like the obvious thing to do. Everyone likes the middle option, right? Wrong. In fact, there is little evidence of enduring success for a genuinely centrist party. Of the EU countries, only Finland has a centrist government. In other countries which hoped for one, such as France, voters have defined the new entrant (in this case La Republique en Marche) as centre-left, not centrist, by elevating the centre-right Republicans and the far-right former Front National as its primary competitors.
There are two gaps in British politics and neither is in the centre. One is on the (English) nationalist right; a party of Rees Mogg and Farage. The other is on the social democratic centre-left, in territory vacated by Corbyn and McDonnell’s shift towards the Marxist left. This is a party, yes, of Umunna and Berger and Leslie, but not of the three Tories who joined it.
They already have a party - it’s the Cameron Compassionate Conservatives, which is highly likely, in the event of a soft-ish Brexit, to remain the overarching philosophy of that party. The three musketeers jumped overboard too soon, and the captain of the social democratic ship was wrong to pick them up.
Why This Stuff Matters
This might seem like a ‘bubble’ debate, of no interest or consequence to normal people. I accept it might not be of interest, but it is most certainly of consequence.
Look at us. We don’t talk about big issues anymore. We don’t talk about the empirical evidence which points to significant and systemic underperformance by our health service and education system. We don’t talk about the inevitability of our state pension system being unaffordable in the next 20-30 years. We don’t talk about the cost of childcare being the primary and immovable inhibitor to young women rejoining the workforce; or the cost of housing calling into question the entire life progression which we take to be normal.
And we don’t talk about these things because our political parties lack the structure and the maturity to so do.
The new Scottish party never got beyond the logo. The Independent Group has, but it is unlikely to get past an election.
But let us gather the experience of seeing these small drops in the ocean and, soon, create a great wave.
*(There is, of course, a very large elephant in the room. Independence. I don’t ignore it - it’s probable that a better party structure will be impossible without the independence question being definitely answered - however I shall leave than for another column)
By Andy Maciver, Director, Message Matters
OFFENDING AND RE-OFFENDING, WOMEN IN ENTERPRISE, THE INDEPENDENT GROUP AND PLACEMAKING
The UK Government is allowing thousands more prisoners in England and Wales to be able to make phone calls from their cells as part of a drive to reduce violence and reoffending. Reform Scotland has called for a similar scheme to be piloted in Scotland - currently prisoners here have to queue to use public phones within the prisons, which can be a trigger for violence and intimidation.
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