When commentators, financial markets and betting exchanges fail to predict the course of political events, it can be fruitful to consult less obvious sources of wisdom. Interested hobbyists from other lines of work can be illuminating because of, not despite, their distance from the action.
The most useful insight into politics I have heard this year did not come from a practitioner or analyst but a conversation with the creator of an American television comedy that most readers will have seen. And it pertains to the question that arises whenever politically active Britons of a liberal bent convene and the pleasantries are out of the way. What chance of a new movement — one that cuts a path between the rampant right and left?
The entertainer, who is sympathetic to the idea, and wise to what it takes to earn a mass audience, has a theory. No new movement can amount to much unless it is defined by an individual personality or a single proposition. As soon as it aspires to breadth, it will start to lose supporters and momentum. That phase must be put off until the project has enough life of its own to withstand the fractures.
Emmanuel Macron’s election as president of France was the ultimate example in recent years of personal force as the way to a new political order. On the sound assumption that Britain has no immediate equivalent of him, the prospects of a similar change in our politics hinge on the second model. The one-issue movement.
A new political grouping has been in fitful gestation since Britain voted to leave the EU. Uncomfortable in their own parties, a few Conservative and Labour politicians have probed the idea in discrete settings. Donors are primed with start-up capital. Tony Blair has improvised a role as a curator of these forces, and at times as their frontman. An electorate that has withheld a decisive win from any party since his own days as prime minister is plainly open to some disruptive entrant to the market. If it shows promise, Liberal Democrat MPs might subsume themselves into it rather than stagger on as a futile dozen.
For all this, the breakthrough never comes — and not because Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system stymies the new. The project never gets that far. The trouble begins earlier. To avoid caricature as pro-European monomaniacs, and to let their restless energies roam, the people involved aspire to stand for something broad: political moderation in an age of extremes. This requires them to have policies, or at least first principles, across the full spectrum of government business. But each time a putative party settles its view on, say, fiscal policy or healthcare, it will alienate some of its original and potential supporters. It also loses definition. Before the project has a single achievement to its name, it is bogged down in matters of internal theology. It becomes a paradox: a fissiparous political party with no MPs.
“The moment you decide,” Mr Blair writes in his memoirs, “you divide”. He might not know how right he was. To avoid dividing into smithereens, the new movement he wants to midwife into existence must reduce its decisions to just the one. It must be an anti-Brexit force and, at least for a while, nothing else. People could join without having to air their views on other subjects, much less reconcile them with those of other members. There would be no manifesto to honour or breach, no vaporous commitment to “new politics” or “radical thinking”, just a single cause of extreme salience. It is possible to overrate the importance of ideas in politics.
“A new party would have to be more than a statement about Britain in Europe,” wrote Philip Collins, a journalistic admirer of the idea, in The Times recently. Perhaps not. Perhaps the search for breadth is exactly what stifles these projects in utero.
The problem is too much substance, not too little. A broad political party would struggle to even describe itself. “Centrist” means less and less when a single voter can have a dog’s breakfast of left and rightwing instincts. “Liberal” would alienate big-state social democrats. “Progressive”, a word that rather assumes unanimity on the ideal destination for society, is even worse. “Anti-Brexit”, on the other hand, is unmistakable. Even voters who despise the new outfit would understand the point of it.
A wider manifesto for moderate government might emerge, but only over time and as a consequence, not a cause, of the movement’s success. To design an entire worldview upfront is to wallow in detail before any political momentum has been established. And to lose friends in the process.