It’s silly season. That alone explains the attention to which people who should know better are giving reports that a former Tory adviser turned PR man, James Chapman, is touting around a ‘new centrist, anti-Brexit party’ named The Democrats. Whilst, in the midst of August and Parliamentary recess, it’s been admittedly fun to watch Chapman slag off his former boss David Davis – including the bizarre allegation that he apparently can’t make a ham sandwich – that’s about the extent of the seriousness with which this should all be taken.
If James Chapman, or anyone else, thinks that a new ‘centrist party’ would succeed then they have very badly misread British politics in 2017. Aside from anything else, if your take-away from the last few years – Jeremy Corbyn winning the Labour leadership, the Brexit vote, Jeremy Corbyn winning the Labour leadership again, the June election – is that what the electorate are really crying out for is a pro-Remain, technocratic, middle class establishment vehicle probably led by George Osborne, then your political antennae are in serious need of re-tuning. All of the evidence points to the fact that the Brexit question has been settled by the electorate – even the majority of people who voted Remain in 2016 don’t wish to see the result reversed and most prefer a ‘hard’ to a ‘soft’ Brexit when asked. Far from representing ‘the 48%,’ Chapman’s wheeze would appeal to little more than a few diehard Remainers for whom the EU has inexplicably become the cornerstone of their political identity since the referendum – the political equivalent of those few Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender until 1974 after the end of the Pacific War.
It’s hard to see what the broader point of this project is. Chapman’s own Twitter feed reveals the essential shallowness of the pitch – the ‘Democrats’ would essentially be nothing more than a vehicle to stay in the EU, an extension of the Stronger In campaign beset by the same lack of energy and lustre, the same misreading of the British electorate and the same fatally flawed political approach in the face of a resonant, emotive Leave campaign that took Britain out of the EU. If the party’s only unifying creed was to keep the country in the EU it would cease to have a purpose after March 2019. Chapman’s own stream-of-consciousness Twitter feed reveals little else in the way of policy except for a bizarre pledge to return the Elgin Marbles – a coherent programme for government this is not.
At best, Chapman could hope to preside over UKIP in reverse – to win a few protest votes and nudge the debate in one direction or other before, the moment his platform looked like it might be popular enough to break through (which it won’t), watching it be cannibalised by one of the ‘established’ parties and his own party’s support collapse.
This is a racing certainty because of the way British politics works, as opposed to the French system which let En Marche outflank the established order. British political parties are not, contrary to popular perception, first and foremost about politics at all, in the sense that they don’t form and unify around a particular ideology. Instead, they form around an interest, and representing that interest – that is what keeps successful parties on course through the changing tides of popular opinion and political fashion. Since its inception, Labour has been the party of the labour interest in Britain – it has been successful when it has built out from that to create a coalition capable of speaking to the majority, and it has failed when it has lost sight of that purpose. Similarly, the Tories have been the party of capital and the landed interest for centuries and have more or less remained so, adapting and adopting to the prevailing political weather as they go.
Chapman’s project is doomed to fail because for all his talk of ‘centrism,’ ‘the Democrats’ wouldn’t represent a clear, well-defined interest in Britain beyond frustrated middle class metropolitans who are irritated that other people made a decision they don’t like. Beyond their shared anger about Brexit and high-handed certainty that they know better than everyone else, this group has nothing in common – simply put, there is no space in the British political landscape for a party representing the interests of metropolitan professionals in Zone 1. The SDP found that out in the 1980s when they learned that you couldn’t simply divorce one tradition within the labour movement from the broad labour interest and win majority support, and the Liberal party in its various guises has spent a century grappling with the fact that a party of the middle class professional interest couldn’t survive the extension of the franchise and remain a party of government.
Most of us in the Labour movement voted and campaigned for Remain in the EU referendum, and most of us are watching the Government’s ham-fisted approach to the negotiations with a mixture of horror and morbid curiosity. Meanwhile, it is a truism that political parties only achieve lasting, transformational success when they can reach out from their narrow interest and build a coalition which speaks to the mainstream majority of people in the country. But a new party, anti-Brexit or not, built only on a short-term objective, with no hinterland beyond a vague aspiration towards centre politics and no shared interest to bind it together, is a chimera. James Chapman is an amusing August distraction, but his PR stunt won’t survive into the autumn.