There is no question of a “new centrist party” or of the rebels being swallowed up in my party or the Lib Dems being swallowed up by them. I see the way forward as a collaborative arrangement, a confederation of groups who have a lot in common but wish to maintain their identity.
The concept of a political party is deeply embedded in the way in which politics is regulated in Britain.
It’s a default assumption of how political finance transparency works. So much so that despite not being a party the Independent Group has voluntarily signed up to follow similar rules as shown by its donation policy. Being a party makes things like access to the electoral register for fighting elections more straightforward, especially outside of immediate election time.
It also is central to how Parliament works. Or rather, people who agree to group together are, as that’s how the allocation of speaking slots in debates, time for Parliamentary motions, slots at PMQs and even access to offices and state funding all work.
As with local councils, however, there is some scope for flex. Just as the council group for party X sometimes includes a councillor who isn’t a member of that party, and so that larger group then gets to bank various organisational benefits, so in Parliament a grouping could include MPs of various parties and none and bank benefits from that.
Which makes for two key organisational points, touched on by Vince Cable’s comments.
First, being the third largest ‘party’ in the House of Commons brings significant benefits. That is currently the SNP, with its 35 MPs. The magic number, therefore, is 36 .
A combination therefore of 11 Lib Dem MPs, one currently whipless Lib Dem and 8 Independent Group MPs needs another 16 in some form. Or another way to think of it – there are major gains that come from a grouping which has two or more non-Lib Dem MPs in it for each Lib Dem. That is a good reason, perhaps, for Lib Dems to welcome the idea of some sort of relationship that is a little more distant than ‘hey, just join us’ as to get to 36 would result in the existing Lib Dem MPs being rather swamped in our own party. A very high wire act.
The second organisational point is ballot papers. They are more important than you might think.
As I highlighted when I wrote The easiest way to set up a new pro-European centrist political party:
The Liberal Democrats … 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.
But the choice isn’t just new party or join the Lib Dems. For there is another route too:
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, as I set out, some detailed wrinkles to get right.
The key point, however, is simply this: election law provides a powerful way for candidates to cooperate at election time without having all to be in the same political party .
An umbrella of the like-minded is a very plausible route to take.
(Though I’d still like far more of those like-minded to join the Lib Dems, pretty please, and for the party to create a registered support scheme to help welcome in even more.)