There continues to be much chatter about the possibility of creating a new political party to oppose Brexit from a position somewhere towards the middle of the political spectrum.*
Much chatter, including from many with deep financial pockets, but very little sign of anything concrete. For Liberal Democrats, that’s frustrating as of course the response we’d give to this search is ‘hello, the party’s here already’. But it would be foolish to ignore the problem that, at the moment, the Lib Dems are not a sufficiently attractive home for such seekers.
A combination of legacy of the Coalition years and the party’s Parliamentary weakness were part of the reason why many pro-Remain voters plumped for Labour at the election. Labour were less pro-Remain – much less pro-Remain – but they were the more plausible alternative to the Hard Brexiteering Conservatives in many seats. They got the tactical vote for the lesser of two evils from many Remains as a result.
Yet the Liberal Democrats also bring many strengths that a new party would struggle to match. A still large local government base – much smaller than in the past yet still big enough to dwarf the Greens, for example. A large membership – once again, well ahead of the Greens. A decent fundraising machine, raising more money from private donors most quarters than Labour for several years now (it is trade union funding which propels Labour to its greater riches). And an established organisational framework, including campaign software, big data analysis and local volunteer teams across much of the country.
Then there is the record of failed new parties, with already a smattering of new pro-European parties briefly floated and then mostly disappeared from view since the referendum. Not to mention the high failure rate for other new parties in the past.
There is, however, a solution that those looking to create a new party which sidesteps many of these issues. It’s to make use of a detail in election law created to help the Co-operative Party.
This allows a candidate to stand as the joint candidate of two different political parties, with the news that they are a joint candidate reproduced on the ballot paper.
That ballot paper point is crucial because it means that right at the point of voting, people know exactly which candidates have the backing of parties. No messing around with hoping people will look up preferred candidates on a tactical voting website. Instead you get the message right in front of every single voter at the point at which they vote.
Yet by backing candidates of existing parties you also get the benefits of their existing organisations and voter loyalty.
So, you create a new pro-European political party, but rather than try to make it in a fully functioning traditional party, you instead make it an umbrella coalition. Offer any candidate of any party the chance to get an official endorsement from the new party if they agree to a certain number of basic principles (European policy most obviously). If a candidate signs up, give them the right to use the logo and name on the ballot paper.
This idea of group acting as minor political party in order to win coverage on the ballot paper and hence increase its electoral leverage – both to get candidates to agree to its policies and then to win votes for those candidates who do – is something aficionados of American politics may recognise. It is what US political parties such as the Working Families Party do, with a few wrinkles due to the different electoral law their but the same underlying purpose and method.
There are a few legal wrinkles to this the full details of which are in the legal details from the Electoral Commission. First, the party description on the ballot paper. This requires consent of the ‘traditional’ political parties whose candidates the new party wishes also to endorse as what the law permits is for different parties to agree to register a joint description (e.g. Green Party / New European Party). A candidate using such a joint description then choose which of official logos of the two parties to use.
Therefore such a new endorsing political party could only back the pro-European candidates of parties which agree to cooperate.
That would put Labour very much on the spot, but that in itself is no bad thing. The endorsing party would have to decide also whether or not to be willing to back more than one candidate in a constituency. This of course can be controversial either way, but is subsidiary to the earlier point that it forces Labour candidates to choose whether or not to be out as a pro-European on the ballot paper. That, plus avoiding much of the usual pain and risk of creating a new party, would be the gain.
I wonder if anyone will try this route?
* Apologies to Liberal Democrat readers choking at my acceptance of a left-right spectrum. I offer my poster about the Lib Dems as penance.