Poor performance in European elections could finish off Change UK | Politics News
On Friday evening in the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the latest troupe which seeks to break the mould of British politics took to the stage.
The Tiggers, the ChUKas, the Remain Alliance, those for Remain and for a People’s Vote, all rolled into one.
They were there to announce their “Charter for Remain” and despite the smiles, the breezy entrances and the jokes, everyone there knew that they met under a cloud; the latest polls showed them plumbing the depths of the low single digits and the day was marked by the party’s freshly written farce: their failure to nominate a candidate for the Peterborough by-election.
For a few weeks, a few precious weeks, this group had such force, such elan, such goodwill.
Yet through a mixture of misstep and mistake, most but not all of their making, it has ebbed away.
The party’s name, the party’s look, the party’s message; a catalogue of errors which have cost them dearly.
But these problems are of the second order.
Of far greater importance is that they are a group of people who know not what they are, or rather what they should be and who choose to forgo that which could make them stronger.
One by one, each of the principals made important, worthy speeches.
They were measured, they were sensible, they were grown up. In an era where petulance and immaturity reigns, in many ways it is to be commended.
Indeed, they say, that is their unique selling point: a room of steady grown ups, in an age of silly infants.
But at heart; isn’t that the issue here? This is a party with the word “change” in its title, predicated on the idea that Britain needs fundamental reform. But they don’t sound radical.
In fact say that the actual radical thing about them is that they don’t sound very radical. They’re sensible and calm – which, when you come to think of it, isn’t very, well – radical is it?
And that’s because, ironically enough, they haven’t internalised the “change” that they themselves have undergone.
Listening to Chuka Umunna, Sarah Wollaston, Chris Leslie, Anna Soubry and Heidi Allen, it was like sitting at the meeting of a ministerial roundtable meeting on public health.
They act and they talk like they’re ministers in a mid-term government, not plucky insurgents seeking to get attention and break through.
They’re not in big parties any more and they can no longer rely on the premium that granted them; to make it as an insurgent force, especially in a political system like Britain’s, you have to be bold, you have to stand out to get attention and to draw a crowd and to excite.
And you can afford to do it because you’re not the government and have no hope of so being.
You have to be a street fighter, not a champion boxer. The Lib Dems with their “b******* to Brexit” slogan this week showed that they understand that precious lesson.
There is an obvious way CUK could do the same, which would answer the basic question of the necessity of their existence and get their base excited: they could call for full blown revocation of Article 50.
Strategically it is the perfect gambit: it secures column inches, it would allow them to capture the bulk of the most hardline Remain vote; it would differentiate them from their rivals and it might actually help them realise their wider objectives.
Because sometimes, in politics, you have to demand something, something you might think unobtainable, to (a) legitimise what you really want and (b) make your second best option appear more reasonable; to move the Brexit window.
Their opponents realise this well; no-deal was once unimaginable, completely unmentioned in the referendum campaign.
Today (with the unexpected assistance of an unwitting and unthinking prime minister) it is the default for many Brexiteers.
It has also made what were once hard Brexit options, a customs union alone say, appear reasonable compromise.
Had one of the Remain forces campaigned for revoke, then a People’s Vote might seem more palatable. But Chuka Umunna tells me afterwards, they won’t do it because it’s unreasonable and that’s just not them.
The other problem comes with the party’s ambition, or, hubris. At one point, Heidi Allen set out all of the policies to which she’s attached, she said: “I didn’t come into politics to deal with just Brexit.”
But that is the only thing on which it should be focussed.
Had stopping Brexit been the sole subject on their minds they would have made a whole series of different (and better) political choices; they would have called themselves the “Remain Party”, they would call for revocation, they would become the unalloyed home of Remainers.
Nigel Farage doesn’t have to answer about policy because he knows – and we know – that for now at least, that’s not the party’s purpose.
It is a carnivorous pressure group, designed to gobble up Leave voters at any cost and use that leverage to achieve its aims of an even harder Brexit, to make the Conservative Party more like itself.
For now, CUK should have accepted this lot for itself, as the obverse of the Brexit Party for Labour. They didn’t and are paying a price.
Nonetheless, some argue that if Change get 5% in this election, given the structural problems they face and their own missteps, that’s an impressive result.
Whether given their calamities it is impressive, however, is beside the point.
If they score 5%, they may not win a single seat. Not only will that be humiliating and destroy any momentum they have left but they will have blown their best chance of breaking through in the punishing British political marketplace, which is punishing to new entrants; circumstances will not be so auspicious again, either in general political terms nor with the electoral system at play.
Someone put it to me that Change may be an ugly dog but if an ugly dog gets 5% that still says something. Perhaps. But this is the only race this dog has a chance of winning. Everything else is immaterial.
Beyond the woes of Change UK, I am struck at how utterly lop-sided the political battlefield now is.
Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are missing in action and more surprisingly still, how is it that only the Brexit Party has been able to channel the complete anger of the paralysis of the Brexit process?
In the weeks and months leading up to the European elections, it seemed as if all the momentum was with the Remain side.
Hundreds of thousands marched, millions signed, the political activity, the anger and indignation was there for all to see.
Yet no political leader has capitalised upon it, no vehicle has emerged. Where are the catchy twitter videos? The rallies? The channelling of the Remainer anger which exists so deeply?
Whilst Brexit supporters are cheered and excited across the land by Mr Farage, his foes are missing a champion.
There are structural issues at work which impede such an emergence, but I wonder if it’s not something deeper.
Looking at the assembled forces of Remain right now, at how they communicate, I am reminded much of the Hillary Clinton campaign (and that is a little unkind to Hillary Clinton).
She (perhaps understandably) looked at her opponent and believed his manifold flaws were so self-evident that she couldn’t possibly lose.
The attitude of many Remainers is the same; they look at Brexit, at no-deal, at Mr Farage and think their inadequacies, their horrors even, are so grave that they cannot come to pass.
That the arguments barely need to be made and fought for, that no vehicle is required, no hard graft needed: that truth will out.
Stephen Colbert once wryly observed “It is a well known fact that reality has liberal bias”.
But many American voters, especially in rustbelt states, disagreed in 2016 and many British voters, despite three years of cataclysm, don’t accept the realities that many Remainers and politicians think axiomatic with truth and reason.
The non-populists seem to have forgotten how to convince people who aren’t like them.
Perhaps it’s just that the liberal order and all the things which go with it; pluralism, cosmopolitanism, internationalism have been de jure for so long, so entrenched in the British body politic, that its adherents don’t really know how to defend them.
Meanwhile, Mr Farage, under no such illusion, is beavering away, at rally after ally, building his base and getting out his vote and slowly subverting politics in his direction, to the populist right.
Who then, in short, can defend liberal England against him? I say England deliberately, given Scots and the Welsh have their own options.
Mr Corbyn, much to his surprise and that of others, appeared to do so in 2017, summoning a new political lexicon and articulation of the frustrations and anger of a generation; but the antisemitism saga and the Brexit process have dulled his sheen.
He is now barely present, the ghost at the feast, scared of moving in the direction of any of his voters, lest he lose the others.
He chooses then, not to move at all. Brexit has made him part of the process, a manager, a technician, the consummate outsider now buried deep inside the castle’s walls.
The Greens have had impressive results of late but are still too small to do much.
Besides them, the obvious saviour of liberalism is, well the Liberals themselves. After all, the Lib Dems bird is finally showing signs of flight – the Remain vote is slowly consolidating behind them.
But it may be too little, too late. They’re still tarnished from coalition and whether their resurgence lasts beyond the Euros remains to be seen.
Sir Vince Cable, though admirable in many ways, is unlikely to be the voice of a new generation.
Much then will depend on who they choose as leader next and whether they can find a new, fresh voice to challenge what could be a new populist politics, propelled not only by Mr Farage but a new Conservative Party chosen in his image.
The Birmingham Repertory theatre has seen some melodramas over the years, but I fear none of the stories yet told on its stage might have been as tragic as that of Change UK, not least because many would say they were so needed.
It appears unlikely they’ll have a second act; the question is, who, if anyone will take their place? Will someone emerge to counter Mr Farage? Who will speak for Liberal England?
I just don’t know.
If big forces in politics, like Newtonian physics, always generate counter reaction, then something, sooner or later will turn up.
How much of the old liberal order will survive by then, is less certain.