Earlier this month, I wrote the following for Campaigns & Elections about the prospects for The Independent Group as it was then known. Here is a lightly updated version.
British politics has managed to feature just about everything other than competence in the last couple of years. It is therefore not a real surprise that this year has also seen the creation of two new political parties – a splinter from Ukip, including former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (The Brexit Party), and the political party in-formation initially known as The Independent Group (TIG) and now as Change UK.
Unlike the slew of new parties formed in the last couple of years, both of these are already registering support in opinion polls, suggesting they may make rather more of an impact.
For TIG, there are four key risks it faces, which are likely to be rich in lessons for all political campaigners and consultants.
1. How much does policy matter?
The previous voting records of the 11 MPs who left the Labour and Conservative parties to join TIG are pretty diverse. They run from those who are heavily critical of the 2010-15 Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government to those who continue to sing its praises. It is perhaps not a surprise therefore that, so far, TIG has been pretty cautious when it comes to policy details that get beyond ‘let’s have lots more sensible good stuff, please’. Will that really be sufficient once it starts trying to be a political party?
I’m a little sceptical on that score, and I suspect they will struggle once it comes to creating the breath of policy a party requires through elections and year-round politics. It is, after all, notable that there is neither policy nor ideology in their name.
The Brexit Party, the Women’s Equality Party, the Green Party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) – all these and others in their own way had names that clearly indicated their policies. Not so with TIG.
2. Can you grow your grassroots from the internet?
The widespread use of first-past-the-post in British elections, notably for general elections, gives a premium to parties who can concentrate their support in particular parts of the country.
Demographically, TIG looks to be drawing support in a way similar to the Alliance of old, i.e. with some particular pockets but mostly too evenly spread to prosper under first-past-the-post. That, therefore, means building up grassroots infrastructure to allow a concentration of efforts in particular constituencies will be all the more important.
So far, TIG has picked up relatively little in the way of activists and grassroots organisations from other parties. A detailed trawl of new stories by me, for example, found only two local councillors who have switched to join it, so far at least.
Will TIG, therefore, be able to turn the sort of social media audiences it is building up into offline grassroots activism?
3. How worried should TIG be about its lack of impact on Facebook?
Forgive a slightly unusual measure, but I think it is fair to judge a would be new political movement on its ability to garner a Facebook audience much larger than mine. TIG is coming in at having a weekly engagement total only around double me. It’s not false modesty to say that isn’t exactly sweeping the board.
TIG certainly gets much more traditional media coverage than me, and it is on between 4% and 9% in the March polls. But perhaps that Facebook under-performance is a warning that it is more of a Westminster and media phenomena than a widespread public movement?
All that may be swept away as irrelevant, of course, if TIG gets the momentum from other MPs joining it steadily through the year. But if it does stall—remember you read about these early warning signs here.
4. Can TIG find good candidates quickly enough?
At the time of writing, it looks like the UK will, after all, take part in this year’s European Parliament elections. For TIG to contest them will require the recruitment of several dozen candidates at high speed – and candidates, moreover, who will have some expectation of getting elected.
Having rushed candidate selections produce people who don’t stand up well to media scrutiny is a common political pitfall. Can TIG avoid this?
Added together, these four risks are non-trivial, and that is without getting into the structural biases in British politics against new parties or the challenge of working out how much to cooperate or compete with the Liberal Democrats.
One thing they do mean for sure is that how TIG does will become a rich source of knowledge for those who study politics.