The debacle and decay of British politics is now nearly universally acknowledged. Brexit is offered as both a symptom and cause. The two major parties, captured by their extremes, offer meagre solutions. Labour appears to be a repeat of its 1970s self, whilst the Conservatives seem to have returned to the 1950s, both with a dollop of toxic post-truth added to the mix.
Those supporting an alternative can protest and petition, but the substantial currency of change is winning MPs at Westminster. Our voting system, first-past-the-post, makes it extraordinarily difficult for smaller parties to win representation and sustains the duopoly of Labour and the Conservatives.
As a third force in politics, the SDP-Liberal Alliance received over 25% of the popular vote in 1983. They received a totally uninfluential 3.5% of the seats in Westminster (only 23), a saving grace for both Labour and the Conservatives. Unsurprisingly, despite our ‘polarised’ times, the major parties are still agreed on keeping this voting system.
Consequently, if an election was held in which The Independent Group (TIG) and the Liberal Democrats competed it would be almost assured neither would increase their influence in Parliament. Indeed, in competing for similar voters, both might experience catastrophe to the benefit of the two major parties.
The bizarre tragedy of this would be the overwhelming and broad agreement between these groups on swathes of issues. In facing the immediate Brexit elephant, the policies and the voting of their MPs are indistinguishable. Yet their wider views of politics also appear to be extremely similar. The Independent Group’s statement of beliefs frankly threatens to spit out the Liberal slogan of ‘Stronger Economy, Fairer Society’.
Both groups share a strong commitment to using the market to improve social equity, to devolve power, to sensibly raise money to improve public services and education and to protect individual rights. I would also hope TIG will eventually match Liberal commitments to rehabilitation-focused reforms of the justice system (Britain has some of the worst re-offending rates in western Europe), an evidence-based approach to drugs and the pressing need for improved renter’s rights in the housing sector.
This is by no means intended to be a fatuous implication that The Independent Group is a mistaken venture and all involved should have joined the Liberal Democrats. TIG’s MPs are the type of direct and authentic individuals currently needed to lead and to stop the rot. They also offer a fresh organisation to attract new people and allow others to reconsider their politics.
Yet TIG also faces existential weaknesses. They severely lack a membership and campaign structure. This is not superficial. Knowledge of the system and grassroots campaigners are vital to translating support into hard votes. The Lib Dems have the knowledge, data structure and an experienced membership. TIG on its own would suffer substantially from this at its first elections. A scenario in which it wins 15% of the popular vote at a general election yet loses nearly all its MPs is highly possible and would probably be fatal.
Furthermore, the Lib Dems have swathes of radical policy based on a similar perspective to the Independent Group. Indeed, it seems implausible that the Independent Group, if it began to formulate substantial policies, would produce anything broadly at odds with Liberal stances.
The Lib Dems, whilst containing excellent Parliamentarians, have suffered hugely from a lack of an effective leader and communicator since it was gutted by the 2015 election. Furthermore, the Coalition years have left the party isolated from Labour-leaning voters. A merger would be a swift and effective remedy to both problems.