Politics in early 2019 was radically different to how it is now. The Conservative Party had no Parliamentary majority so the government was at the whim of any faction with more than a handful of MPs, which meant that Theresa May was taking decisions that were more right-wing than her main supporter base to please a group of right-wing MPs called the European Research Group. The Labour Party, which had positioned itself furtherest to the left in decades, was slowly alienating its moderates who they had initially tried to bring back into the fold. And the Liberal Democrats still suffered grave unpopularity which had lingered since the 2015 general election.
Combined, this left a clear opening for a new party to fill the very wide gap in the centre ground of British politics. So why, when a centrist party finally did emerge, did it do so badly?
On 18th February 2019, Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith and Chuka Umunna resigned from the Labour Party and formed The Independent Group. This was not a political party – all seven of the MPs would sit as independents but vote as a block as if they were one. Comparisons were drawn between these seven and the Gang of Four that had left Labour in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party.
The motivations of these seven however, were more varied than that of the Gang of Four. For example, Luciana Berger had left the Labour Party because she believed it had become “institutionally antisemitic,” a claim not without substantial evidence. Berger’s departure from the Labour Party was perhaps the most problematic for them as it showed antisemitism so out of control that high profile Jewish figures were not afraid to leave in protest. It highlighted the full extent of the Labour Party’s biggest problem for generations. Other members of The Independent Group had different motives; Mike Gapes could not support a party he felt was complicit in Brexit and Chris Leslie believed the Labour Party had moved too far to the left.
Whatever the motives of the group of seven, it didn’t help them weather the storm of a first week fraught with mishap and scandal. The first incident came with the first speech of the launch, when Luciana Berger introduced herself as the “Labour Co-Operative MP” despite having resigned from the Labour Party earlier and the whole point of the speech being to announce the creation and her membership of The Independent Group. Another, significantly worse incident happened on the afternoon of the day of the launch when Angela Smith used the phrase “funny tinge” to describe an array of minority ethnic backgrounds in the United Kingdom.
Despite this, a large number of people defected to the group from their political parties in the following days, including Labour MP Joan Ryan and Conservative MPs Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry. By the 2019 European Elections the group had 2 MEPs and had registered as a political party under the name of Change UK – The Independent Group.
Problems didn’t go away for the group though as the electoral commission banned their logo because they believed that the acronym “TIG” was not recognisable enough, then it emerged that a number of the candidates that they wanted to stand for the European Elections had made controversial remarks in the past (or at least were alleged to have done so). Problems continued in the run-up to the European Elections as Rachel Johnson, one of the Change UK candidates for South West England, described the party as a “sinking ship”, and one of the candidates for Scotland defected to the Liberal Democrats. Heidi Allen conceded just days before the European Elections that the party might not exist at the next general election.
In the end, the party failed to elect any MEPs.
After the European Elections, it was clear the party had a brand problem. Were they called The Independent Group? Change UK? TIG? Change UK – The Independent Group? These names were used interchangeably by the media to describe the party. Officially, the name registered with the electoral commission was Change UK – The Independent Group, with members shortening that to Change UK in most scenarios. The website Change.org believed that this was too close to their name and threatened a lawsuit if the party did not change their name. This was not helped by Anna Soubry referring to the party as “Change.org” in Parliament shortly after the Change UK name came into use. The party relented and changed their name to The Independent Group For Change, making a fifth commonly used term to refer to the party.
Over the course of 2019, various members defected or announced that they would not stand in the next general election. This meant that by the 2019 general election, Change UK only fielded three candidates: Anna Soubry in Broxtowe, Mike Gapes in Ilford South and Chris Leslie in Nottingham East; all three already represented these constituencies, having been elected to represent them under the banner of their old parties. None of them were able to place better than third under the banner of Change UK. Indeed, among all of the MPs that had at some point been members of Change UK, none of them were returned to Parliament in the 2019 general election. This defeat was so crushing that it left Change UK with little choice but to fold, which they did on 19th December 2019.
Change UK could have won a large portion of the remain vote. Change UK should have won a large portion of the remain vote. But, unfortunately, mishaps and scandals in their first week, coupled with branding issues meant they were never taken seriously, and had to constantly fend off allegations of careerism.
But they did succeed at something – they helped make remain-based centrism something people talked about again. Just three months after setting up, the Liberal Democrats, running on a similar platform, were one of four parties which received around 25% of the vote in the polls. Some of those potential voters stuck around, and it made the Liberal Democrats a party taken seriously again; they were someone you wouldn’t mind lending your vote to if you felt that you couldn’t in good faith vote for either Labour or the Conservatives. While this might not have converted into seats, it was converted into votes. But perhaps most crucially of all, it was converted into ideas.
These ideas are powerful. The modern face of centrism is not one that has a home in a single organisation, but one that is about keeping these ideas alive in political parties that already exist. Change UK demonstrated the lack of public demand for a centrist party, or at least it demonstrated that the Liberal Democrats still have a monopoly on the block of voters that want one. But a large portion of the public still demand the ideas they offer – this is the landscape of progressivism in which Liberal Base and countless other non-party political organisations continue to shape the future of liberalism. The freedom offered in being untied to one party means those ideas appear across the progressive spectrum, emerging in the policies supported by moderate Conservatives all the way through to some of the most ardent socialists.
Perhaps it is for the best then that these ideas are not captured by a single political party, but by grassroots activists and campaigners working together with people who in the framework of political parties would sometimes be natural enemies in pursuit of this common goal.
Centrism was almost dead in early 2019, but now the ideas that it presented, which in their most basic form can by summed up by the statement that both main parties had gone a little too far, helped shape the Labour leadership contest, and may help shape the policies and attitudes the new shadow front bench preaches going forward. This may not even be because they believe it themselves, but because there are now so many more voters who do. In the end, the success of Change UK was not having its brand or the careers of its members survive, but having its ideas survive. And that is the most important thing a politician can achieve.
Jack Harrison is a political blogger and student at the University of Cambridge. He was the author of the blog Minority 2017 from 2017 to 2019. He can be found on Twitter @JackH1010.