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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Renewal in the air for British politics as main parties fear defections

Nigel Farage remains the most significant politician since Margaret Thatcher as talk of a new political movement stalks main British parties

A journalist reads literature produced by the Renew party at press conference in London, Britain, February 19, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls - RC1AB6ED3390
A journalist reads literature produced by the Renew party at press conference in London, Britain, February 19, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls - RC1AB6ED3390

At last year’s British general election, the Conservative and Labour parties notched up a remarkable achievement: both secured their biggest vote share in decades.

Yet almost a year later the political scene is stalked by talk of the emergence of a new party that would revive the centre ground, challenging the Left/Right divide.

Chris Coghlan makes an unlikely revolutionary. The former Foreign Office diplomat turned development entrepreneur – his day job is in financing for digital economy business in Africa – has set his sights on establishing just such new political force.

Reflecting on that enormous rise in votes for the big parties in June, Mr Coghlan believes there is a huge negative voting component within the overall figures. A lot of people doubt the Conservatives because Theresa May has set course for a complete break with the European Union at Brexit next year or fear the extreme leftist influence that powers Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.

“There are many people in this country who don’t want to vote for what’s on offer,” he said. “There are people who don’t want to vote for the Conservatives but do so with extreme reluctance only to prevent a Corbyn victory and the same with people on the Labour side. There is a gaping hole at the heart of our politics."

The launch of Mr Coghlan’s new party is the first stirring of a realignment. The fledging Renew Party has notched up the first milestone in what it hopes will be a rapid rise.

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In the run-up to May's local elections, a leading Conservative councillor in central London defected to Renew, seeing it as a better platform to hold his seat than the government party.

By the time voting starts Renew hopes to field 1,000 candidates across the country. The centrist outfit has its roots in the angry "remain" backlash against the vote to leave the European Union. It is also inspired by the successful leap of faith taken by Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, which shattered the French two- party duopoly last year.

Across Europe there are powerful case studies in the power of the new. The Five Star movement has enjoyed massive success in Italy, emerging as the single largest party after the general election earlier this month. Meanwhile in Germany the rise of the far-right Alternative for Deutschland to the role of official opposition has sent shockwaves through the political system.

Acknowledging that revolutionary mood is hard to harness by centrist politics, Mr Coghlan sees elements in both the rise of Mr Macron and the Italian movement as applicable to Britain. “Tinkering is not enough," he said. "Middle class wages have now been stagnant for 25 years. People are reaching to the extremes out of desperation.”

Rafael Behr, a Leftist commentator, describes the existing centrist party, the Liberal Democrats, as a “tired nostalgic tribute band”. There is a temptation among moderate politicians to start a new movement.

“Some are liberal-minded Tories who feel that Brexit has tilted their party’s centre of gravity towards intolerant nationalism. But their distress pales as nothing beside the anguish of Labour people who cannot stomach Jeremy Corbyn’s control of the party.”

The track record of the ruling party and the opposition mitigates against new entrants.

The Conservative Party has long taken pride in its unofficial moto: the world’s most successful – and most ruthless – democratic electoral machine. The uncommonly strong fear of oncoming terminal decline has triggered a fightback in recent weeks. The result has been an all-hands campaign to show the party’s senior leaders can connect with the animated but politically unmoored youth vote.

A so-called "Freer" campaign and a parallel Spring conference initiative to relaunch the Young Conservatives grassroots movement has sought to define a new direction. The leadership vowed to empower youthful activists as campaigning gets underway for municipal elections in May. “This new organisation is about the under 25s,” said Ben Bradley, a Conservative MP who serves as its youth envoy. “It you are under 25 and we haven’t helped you become a part of the party then we have not done our job properly. If you are an adult out there working in the world and don’t feel you are welcome in the Conservative association, its not working.”

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Labour’s youth-based Momentum movement has shown its command over the party by engineering the dismal of leading party figures including Iain McNichol, the general secretary and Sir Robin Wales, a long serving local government leader in east London.

A group of senior Labour MPs has discussed defecting from Labour ranks to establish a new party. According to the Sunday Times, Chukka Umunna, Chris Leslie and Alison McGovern, have even bandied names such as Start Again, Regain, Democrats and Back Together.

Mr Coghlan is open that he wants to build Renew into a platform for defections. “We can be a bridge for an MP that wants to put constituents before party, particularly in a remain area, if they choose to defect.”

Many ambitious but alienated politicians are determined to keep their power dry waiting for the current cycle to give way to new opportunities within the biggest political tents. However Mr Coghlan offers a warning to them against complacency.

“The problem with playing the long game is that events are moving very fast in the world,” he told The National over coffee in a tiled cafe in south Kensington. “They shouldn’t underestimate how disillusioned, with politicians and with Westminster, people have become.

The biggest example of that unhappiness remains the 2016 Brexit vote. Although Ukip, the upstart party that led the call for the referendum, has all but disappeared, its erstwhile leader Nigel Farage haunts Westminster.

Columnist Nick Cohen wrote last week that his legacy is still shaping politics. “Nigel Farage remains the most significant politician since Margaret Thatcher,” he wrote in The Observer.

Surprisingly Mr Coghlan, who ran as a remain candidate in Battersea at the last election, agrees. Should the big name defections fail to materialise, the impact of Ukip sets a powerful example.

“We can be the inverse of Ukip, putting pressure on the main political parties to fundamentally change the direction of the country,” he said. “Nigel Farage did more to change Britain than the mainstream leadership of David Cameron or Tony Blair.”