As the disaster which is Brexit continues to unfold, it is clear something bigger is happening. The tectonic plates are shifting and the public is now more in favour of upending the two-party system than at any point in my lifetime. This provides a once in a generation opportunity to realign, change the system, fix our broken politics and resolve the problems which caused people to vote for Brexit in the first place.
Whilst on the one hand it is right to say the country faces a dangerous situation, particularly if a new prime minister seeks to crash us out of the European Union with no deal; on the other hand, there is cause to be hopeful and optimistic for the future of progressive, liberal, radical centre-ground politics in the UK.
Why do I say this? This time last year progressive politics seemed to be on the back foot. UK politics appeared doomed to continue to be dominated by two main parties which are beholden to the hard left and the hard right respectively. Britain’s main progressive, centre-ground party – the Liberal Democrats – were then polling between 8 and 9 per cent, with Labour and the Tories bouncing around 39 and 41 per cent each.
A year on, it is a very different picture. If voting in the May local elections this year were replicated in a general election, the two main parties would have scored 28 per cent of the vote each, with their combined vote share in the European elections being just 23 per cent. The Lib Dems, however, surged to 19 per cent in the local elections and 20.3 per cent in the European elections. Polls should be treated with caution and go up and down, but in the latest YouGov poll (conducted on 13-14 June) the Lib Dems are polling at 19 per cent, just 2 per cent behind Labour and the Tories. This is a dramatic change.
This cannot simply be dismissed as protest voting given the recent elections have revolved around the central issue of our time: Brexit. John Curtice, polling guru and University of Strathclyde professor, puts it thus: “Rather than looking like a two-party system, [recent polls] suggest that British politics now resembles more of a four-party one.”
It may appear to be a sudden shift but it actually has been three years in the making. Curtice is clear: “These figures are not simply a flash in the pan. That the Euro election was having a knock-on effect on voting intentions for Westminster was evident well before the ballot boxes were opened.”
It is clear progressive voters are flocking to the Liberal Democrats and other “Remain” parties because of the clarity of our position on Brexit – unequivocally backing a people’s vote and remaining in the EU – which stands in stark contrast to the shambles presented by the two-party establishment. The fact Labour deputy leader Tom Watson’s remarks today urging his party to unequivocally adopt the same position are deemed newsworthy, is evidence enough of how Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has been changed beyond recognition.
I’ve been arguing for many weeks now that progressive, liberal politics should be thought of as an ecosystem to ensure our politics can prevail against the populist winds blowing through advanced economies as we grapple with the challenges that globalisation and change throw up.
At the heart of the ecosystem will be one main centre-ground party, which is the Liberal Democrats, but I have been very encouraged by the determination I have found on joining the party to expand the bandwidth and draw in more people to our politics, and to work together with those who share our values. There is no hint of the party being drunk on recent success or complacent in the face of the challenge of taking on the two-party system. There is a recognition that there are a whole range of other actors, in and out of parliament, who have a crucial role to play.
A wider movement for progressive, liberal values – which the party has acted as a spearhead for – is vital. Corbyn had the Stop the War Coalition, the trade unions and latterly Momentum helping to power his politics in and around the Labour Party. Nigel Farage had Leave.EU and Leave Means Leave to work alongside and power the Brexit Party. The foundations of the People’s Vote movement – which campaigns for another referendum on Brexit and which reaches into the left and the right – finds its roots in the progressive, liberal centre of British politics which was always the outrider for the cause. As I said last week, this is the first time there has been an active and vocal pro-European movement promoting liberal, progressive values in a loud and proud way. Such a movement did not exist just three years ago – it does now.
And, quietly, there has been a reboot of think tanks and different research organisations working on the big ideas which can address the problems that caused people to vote for Brexit in the first instance. The radical centre of British politics can draw on their work. These are independent organisations with no party affiliation, but doing important work which too often goes unnoticed.
As ever, the Resolution Foundation produces important analysis and work on improving the living standards for those on low to middle incomes. Demos is enjoying a renaissance under the excellent leadership of Polly MacKenzie. The Social Market Foundation is doing important work on choice and competition in markets and the Progressive Centre UK acts as a network for thinkers in the centre ground here and also connects us to progressives abroad (I sit on the advisory boards of both organisations). There is also the Radix think tank, which produces a lot of thoughtful interesting content, and the Centre for Progressive Policy and several other players on the field.
So the radical, progressive centre of British politics is alive and well in 2019, and in a far better state than we have been for years. Now we must build on recent successes so we are match fit for whenever the next general election comes.
Chuka Umunna is the Liberal Democrat treasury and business spokesperson