At last we have a new anti-Brexit party. They call themselves The Democrats, and they have high hopes. They also have a series of potentially fatal flaws.
There are a series of problems with any new parties. A new party founded by a political unknown (in this case, by a former government advisor and Daily Mail political editor James Chapman), is unlikely to gain any electoral traction. That’s not because they lack celebrity appeal; new and fundamentally unsuccessful parties such as the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) have had no shortage of celebrity supporters, campaigners and potential candidates. They fail because no one takes them seriously.
In the case of the WEP, people agree with the party’s core message. Yet they struggle to get the majority share of protest votes at any election. The party’s other policies are lazily formulated and designed by and for a party that doesn’t expect any power. Parties that do not put forward serious solutions to a far wider slate of problems do not win votes.
This issue isn’t unique to a new party. Liberal parties in Britain struggle in this regard. They have historically gone through periods in which the public at large refuse to take them seriously as a party of power, and periods in which their members have failed to attempt to put forward a serious platform. The Liberals and the Lib Dems have historically gone through periods of both serious politics, met with deaf ears, and gimmicky student politics met with ridicule.
The Democrats have both of these issues. Pointlessly and irrelevantly gimmicky, while surprisingly dull. They have an added problem too: the British Democrats are a registered party in the UK, led by former BNP MEP Andrew Brons. The English Democrats, another party with a similar name, are a far right party which grew out of the demise of the BNP. In essence, there is room for confusion not only with the US party (through what is likely to be a turbulent time for the party) and with a selection of assorted extremists who have been trying to exploit confusion with the party’s American counterpart for years.
With an empty space the size of the whole British political spectrum since 2004 to play with, it is unclear where the party will pitch its tent. There are both economically liberal and socially democratic options open to the party. There is, perhaps more promisingly, a ‘third way’ centrist approach; the politics of Blair may not be the path, but the rational marriage of social liberalism, compassionate capitalism and evidence based decision making which has been claimed by both French President Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau can unite Europeans from across the spectrum, and deliver serious and exciting solutions to improve Britain. Instead, from early signs, it appears the party has decided to copy the internal struggles of the Lib Dems in recent years.
What we’ve heard so far (from James Chapman’s Twitter feed), it appears the party will seek to replace the House of Lords with a second chamber elected via PR. These are arguments the Lib Dems and Labour have made in the past. They are arguments that, since the abolishion of hereditary peers, have become vote-losers, but and are arguments that you cannot win.
The House of Lords is perhaps unpopular, but replacing the second chamber at a time where other countries are still debating the actual point of having their own elected second chambers leaves three questions that must be answered:
- How will an elected House of Lords make British democracy more effective?
- What would elected members of the House of Lords actually do?
- How will the expertise of life peers be retained?
Until now, there is no British political movement, nor any political thinker, that has formulated an argument that can adequately overcome these issues. It is overwhelmingly unlikely that a new political party can answer this question, and even less likely that a new political party could adequately disseminate this answer regardless.
The party would also seek to borrow to invest in infrastructure. An economically competent position, but also an ideologically revealing one. There is no issue in a party seeking to do this, but as it is one of only a handful of positions clarified, it is clear that this party does not have a significant economic overlap with the last several decades of Conservative moderates.
It certainly appears, with positions like these, that the name- the Democrats- is not a lazy reference to the American party. Rather, it seems like a reference to the fact it’s a social democratic party.
Yet, the party would raise the salary for MPs to £150,000 to make up for severe cuts in MPs expenses. The maths may add up on this, and there are some good arguments for doing this. It still isn’t clear cut; encouraging MPs to cut corners in hiring staff and holding surgeries may have unintended consequences. It is clear that, regardless of the costs or benefits, voters and populist movements will have an easy and brutal attack line. An attack that can, on its own, cripple a new party.
A new party has a mountain to climb at the best of times. This new party has created a series of additional hurdles where there was little need to before. In being formed by someone outside of parliament, and so not coming with that level of credibility, using the name of an American party is not likely to artificially create that credibility. Instead, using that name is likely to breed confusion with other parties in the UK and the whims of the US party.
With such a mix of positions putting the party on the left, there is little hope of building the cross-spectrum consensus needed to make significant progress. With such positions on the constitution, there is little hope of popular support without reforming the platform. With such positions on MPs pay, they are vulnerable to potentially fatal attacks from populist movements.
On a personal note, I’m a pro-European. I might not agree with the platform it appears this new party will have, but I do hope they find some success. A new option for those abandoned on the left is a positive for democracy. The issue comes when those moderates on the right are still left abandoned, and no vehicle for pro-European politics provides a viable opposition to Brexit.
Update: This article originally made claims about the Democrats' likely position on the monarchy which cannot be substantiated. This stems from a mis-understanding on our part. We have no evidence that the party would pursue a republican agenda, and we are sorry for this mistake.