Challenges ahead for The Independent Group: Are ‘centrist’ voters a myth?

The Independent Group (TIG) of MPs continues to grow, now numbering eight former Labour Members and three from the Conservatives. Their total of eleven now matches the size of the Liberal Democrat grouping in the Commons.

The chances are there are still some other defections to come. If you believe things are being skilfully coordinated (which may be giving too much credit to the breakaway group’s organisers) some MPs are being held deliberately in reserve to enable a sense of momentum over the course of the next week or so. Alternatively, there may well be more MPs simply biding their time, assessing how the new group fares, how their current parliamentary colleagues and party members treat them, or waiting to jump if all looks well.

Thus far the TIG remains just a parliamentary grouping. It has set up as a company but not yet, apparently, as a new political party. Its website asks for volunteer support and for donations but there is no option to join as a member. This suggests a new party is not imminent.

Shared values?

This may be, in part, because it will be harder to define what the new party is for, as opposed to what it is against. An example of this can be seen by the various statements of TIG MPs thus far. The unifying factor is they are anti-Brexit and pro-another referendum. The eight Labour MPs are also united in their opposition and disgust at what they see as a continued reluctance from the Labour leadership to tackle anti-Semitism.

Beyond that, the language used by the MPs from Labour differs slightly, but importantly, from that used by the Conservatives. They refer to them still holding traditional ‘Labour values’ or ‘progressive values.’ In contrast, the former Conservative MPs talk about the importance of holding the political ‘centre ground’. They say they supported the ‘Conservative Party in the One Nation Tradition.’ And they also say that they ‘haven’t changed, the Conservative Party has.’

In short, both former Labour and Conservative members of TIG are claiming that they have remained true to their respective traditional values, but their former parties have not. It is hard to see how they can both maintain they hold traditional Labour or Conservative positions and yet now sit in harmony in a new grouping/party.

If anything, the position will get harder the larger TIG becomes. Anna Soubry has made a vocal call for Lib Dems to come and join them, saying many in that party are actually ‘Orange Tories’ looking back fondly on the days of the Coalition Government, which she was a part of. It is hard to see the Labour element of TIG agreeing that the Coalition (especially Osborne’s tenure as Chancellor) was something to be applauded – they are still going to shout ‘austerity.’

In short, TIG seems to be trying to maintain a position from traditional centre-left to soft centre-right. That may be too wide a spectrum to keep united, especially if TIG does become a new political party with grassroot members who will have passionate views about the direction the new movement should be moving in.

‘Centrist’ policies?

If the values suggest a divide, the specific policy positions taken by a new ‘centrist’ party will be even more difficult to agree on. This is not least because research has shown that the concept of ‘centrist’ voters does not really exist.

In his Policy Exchange pamphlet of 2015 – ‘Overlooked But Decisive: Connecting with England’s Just About Managing Classes’ – James Frayne made several important observations about the middle-class, English C1/C2 voters who will need to be won over by any party to be electorally successful.

In a section entitled The myth of the ‘centrist’ voter, he states that ‘all voters…take what you might call a right-wing line on crime, immigration and welfare reform, and they take what you might call a left-wing approach to NHS funding and structure, private sector involvement in public services and the utilities, and taxation on the rich and bug businesses.’ In effect, the average voter’s position is centrist only in that it is an average of left and right views. ‘They do not take a moderate line on any of the big issues,’ says Frayne. 

If the TIG try to deal with the value divide examined above by ‘splitting the difference’ on individual domestic policies, they may find they have a manifesto offering which appeals to very few swing voters.

Take me to your leader?

Of course, TIG has no leader at the moment. There seems to be some sensitivity around the issue, with some media reports suggesting that certain former-Labour TIG members’ desire to take leading positions put off some of their erstwhile colleagues from joining. However, if they are to form a party and contest elections, they will need to put forward spokespeople on particular issues and unify behind a leader who can be the face of the party.

When that choice is made, the Group will then find itself more firmly anchored somewhere on that centre-left, soft centre-right spectrum, depending on a new leader’s own political history and views. How that will sit with TIG MPs and members, and potential voters, remains to be seen.



Picture credit: Metro.

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