British politics in 2019 will be defined by paralysis and flexibility. The House of Commons has been intransigent in failing to pass either Theresa May’s or Boris Johnson’s EU Withdrawal Agreements and instead delaying our departure. This has meant that three Brexit extensions, taking part in May’s European elections and nominating an EU Commissioner. Much of what has been written about the Brexit process could have been drafted last year, such is the minute amount that has changed in concrete terms.
However, Brexit has broken down party divisions. Individuals wedged to a party for decades have left over the last year in considerable numbers. In February, eight Labour MPs who opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership - especially over Brexit and anti-Semitism - broke away to form the Independent Group. They were later joined by three Conservative MPs who opposed their party’s shift to the right and a commitment to Brexit - no ifs, no buts.
The Independent Group (later rebranded as Change UK and then The Independent Group for Change) was unsuccessful as a movement, winning no seats in the European elections and became defined by division. This lead to a split with a considerable number of breakaway MPs believing the change within politics and over Brexit could best be fought within the established centrist party, the Liberal Democrats.
Upon Boris Johnson’s first major vote within Parliament, 21 Conservative MPs lost the whip over their support for the Benn Act, which forced the Prime Minister to request a Brexit extension if a deal hadn’t been approved by October 17th. This went against the Prime Minister’s plan to leave the EU on October 31st in all circumstances, which, of course, he didn’t meet - surprise, surprise. While ten of those MPs later had the whip restored, a number of the group (including Tory grandee Ken Clarke and Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames) decided to retire at this election.
So, while most of the Remain forces either split into the Liberal Democrats or stood down at this election, a considerable number of well known MPs individuals are standing for Parliament on an Independent ticket. It will be the first time their electorate have had a say on whether they should remain an MP since their defections. While I personally think any MP that changes their party allegiance mid-Parliament should have to face a by-election, it is pleasing that a general election gives people this opportunity.
However, what are their chances of success? While many of these MPs will have name recognition, even though they ran under a different ticket, our electoral system of first-past-the-post (FPTP) allows a hegemonic dominance of the two major parties in the vast majority of seats. Though independent candidates have proved adept at winning council seats under FPTP by campaigning on local issues, the same cannot be said for elections to our national legislature which determine who the government - and prime minister - is.
This doesn’t mean winning a national election as an independent is impossible however. One only needs to look back into recent history to see famous independent victories to Parliament. In 1997, the independent journalist Martin Bell won a landslide victory in Tatton with 60% of the vote, sweeping the Conservative MP Neil Hamilton (now Welsh UKIP leader) from Parliament. However, this was done under very special circumstances. Bell ran his campaign on an anti-slease ticket against ‘Cash for Questions’ which Hamilton had been associated with. Recognising they could never win in Tatton, Labour and Liberal Democrats stood aside and endorsed Bell’s victory. Had they stood, the anti- Conservative vote would have been split and the controversial candidate, Hamilton, probably would have returned to Westminster. Indeed, in the 2001 election, Bell stood down and the seat fell to one young Conservative MP named George Osborne (who went on to become David Cameron’s Chancellor). Bell’s success was only due to the unity of opposition parties, which wasn’t subsequently repeated.
One independent’s departure was another’s arrival. Wyre Forest, previously a Conservative safe seat before failing to Labour in Blair’s first landslide, was gained by Richard Taylor of ‘Health Concern’ in 2001. He won the seat with a 17,000 majority and over half of all votes cast, holding the seat in 2005 with a 5,000 majority before losing the seat to the Conservatives in 2010. The fact he was able to win and hold the seat for nearly a decade by running on a single issue - the down-grading of Kidderminster Hospital - is remarkably impressive. Only the Liberal Democrats stood down and endorsed Taylor. Feelings were clearly so strong on that specific issue that Taylor was able to break through the FPTP barrier and succeed. However, even this success was only temporary, with the Conservatives comfortably holding Wyre Forest with a 13,000 majority in 2017. If health was able to break the norm in one seat, can Brexit create exceptions to electoral trends around the country?
That is what the independents running will be hoping. One of those is Anna Soubry, leader of the Independent Group for Change and one of their three candidates running for Parliament. She’s standing for her former seat of Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire, where the Liberal Democrats have stood down to endorse her as a remain voice. However, she faces an uphill struggle. The seat has historically been a Conservative-Labour bellwether, with the winner of the seat usually being in the party that forms the government. In 2017, Soubry held the seat with an 863 majority ahead of Labour. The same Labour candidate from 2017 is running this year, meaning he will have had ample time to become involved with the constituency and strengthen his support. Though Soubry will have some personal support, many Brexiteer Conservatives will have only voted for her in 2017 because she was the Conservative candidate.
This is reflective of David Gauke and Dominic Grieve, both of whom lost the Conservative whip in September for their endorsement of the Benn Act. Gauke is standing in South West Hertfordshire, as an independent, now supporting a second EU referendum. Yet, his choice of constituency is the definition of a safe Conservative seat. No party have stood aside for Gauke, apart from, of course, the Brexit Party, though their supporters aren’t exactly going to overlap! As a Conservative candidate in 2017, Gauke held the seat with 57% of the vote and a 20,000 majority. I’m no psephologist, but anyone who imagines he will be victorious is engaging in frankly wishful thinking.
Dominic Grieve faces a similar problem in Beaconsfield, again standing as an independent. While, yes, you’ve guessed it, the Liberal Democrats are standing aside, the constituency has been held by the Conservatives since its creation in February 1974. Even in 1997, the year of New Labour’s 179 seat majority, Grieve held the seat with a 14,000 majority. In 2017 the seat was held with 65% of the vote and 24,500 majority. It is Conservative to its core. Dominic Grieve may believe his remain message can resonate with voters, but this is not the place where it can triumph.
There are, however, reasons for 2019 breakaways to be optimistic. Constituency polling for Finchley and Golders Green, a classic Labour and Conservative marginal once held by the late Lady Thatcher, showed Luciana Berger, the Liberal Democrat candidate (formerly of Labour and Change UK), 12% ahead. South Cambridgeshire, formerly held by Conservative, Change UK then Liberal Democrat Heidi Allen showed a 4% lead for her party. And perhaps, just perhaps, someone fully independent can be victorious in East Devon. Independent councillor Claire Wright stood in 2015 and came second with 24% and 13,000 votes, gaining 35% of the vote and 21,000 supporters in 2017. Will it be third time lucky? Can one more heave ensure electoral success? Making predictions in these volatile political seas is a fool’s game. Nevertheless, I can predict with no doubt that next month’s election will deliver quite a few more surprises.
Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor