Andy Sawford: Lobbyists cannot afford to ignore The Independent Group
The action taken by 11 MPs this week is definitely significant - and could prove to be seismic.
The problem with received wisdom in politics is that it is often wrong. Received wisdom got the last three general election outcomes wrong. Received wisdom wrongly called the EU referendum and the last US Presidential election. Received wisdom has it that new political parties always fail when that is neither historically accurate, nor a reflection of just how little the old assumptions about politics now apply.
The Labour Party has a more left wing leadership and programme than at anytime since the 1920s. The Conservative Party has been taken over by its right wing. Both main parties have completely abandoned the centre ground. The situation is so extreme, serious and untenable for even some of their own elected MPs, that this week they have resigned. Mike Gapes and Anna Soubry have been active in their respective parties for over 40 years. Soubry was Gapes adversary in student politics in the 1970s when she was the only Conservative member of the NUS Executive. Now after all these years they’ve joined forces in what has clearly been a hand shaking, lip trembling, heart pounding, gut wrenching break from their own parties.
The search term ‘SDP’ has been trending this week, but how relevant is the comparison? The SDP was a fissure on the left. The creation of The Independent Group is a fusion in the centre. The eight Labour and three Conservatives MPs are bound to be joined by more.
As I write, news of Ian Austin’s resignation from Labour is in the headlines. Ian brilliantly ran the Corby by-election campaign in which I was elected to Parliament, with a broad appeal to all voters. It stands as Labour’s only by-election gain from the Conservatives between 1997 and today. Ian hasn’t signed up to The Independent Group yet, he is in a different place on Brexit, but they would do well to get him on board further down the road.
The Independent Group could ultimately crash and burn, crushed by the old two party machine politics. There is though surely a decent chance that they can have a real impact on British politics. Immediately the analysis has been reduced to the myopic framing of whether they can win elections under the first past the post system. Right now, with no money, no activists, no data, indeed not even a Party behind them, they couldn’t win a raffle, let alone an election. But the public have an appetite for something different, something new. We know this from our own conversations, at work or down the pub. It isn’t just Brenda from Bristol that is fed up of politics, it is most people.
Could a new centre party tap into the zeitgeist and triumph? First, they will need to inspire people. Populism, of the left or right, thrives on division. But there is no rule that says people cannot be inspired by what they have in common. The nation of Brexit is, after all, just the same nation that swelled with pride at the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. Whilst the TIG MPs will be given some time to figure out what they are for, they should not wait so long that people are no longer interested.
Second, they need leaders, probably just one. Chuka Ummuna is the leader presumptive, but those looking for the UKs Birgitte Nyborg (Borgen fans can explain), might find one in Heidi Allen. Third, they need to raise money. Whilst there are some potential supporters with deep pockets, like JK Rowling or Gary Lineker, they’ll want to develop a broad base of support from small donors. Fourth, they need to start winning. The inventors of New Labour effectively used the old marketing trick that ‘new’ sells, and The Independent Group won’t be new for long.
What does it all mean for public affairs professionals? The parliamentary arithmetic is changing, with potential impact on Brexit votes and future no confidence votes. It is now much more likely that the Government will be brought down before the next scheduled General Election in 2022. Between now and then, as the focus of politics and Parliament again broadens beyond Brexit, The Independent Group will have a significant influence on policy and will therefore be a key focus for lobbying. On legislation, with a minority government, they could have the deciding votes, and on Select Committees and Bill Committees, these MPs, newly liberated from the old tribal dividing lines, could have a significant influence on debates.
For these reasons, at Connect we will be encouraging our clients to engage and, we will keep a close eye on how this moment in British politics unfolds. It is definitely significant, as to whether it is seismic, we do not yet know. Be wary of parroting the received wisdom that things never change, because, sometimes, they do.
Andy Sawford is Managing Partner of Connect and a former Labour MP.