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Does Britain Need A New Centre Party?

The June referendum did more than commit us to leave the EU, it also exposed the divisions in our two biggest parties. The divisions in the Labour party were already apparent but Jeremy Corbyn’s weak leadership in the Remain campaign triggered a massive vote of no confidence in him. His re-election by party members has solved nothing. Labour has lurched to the left and potentially alienated itself from much of its heartland support who voted to quit the EU. 

The Conservatives have been divided on Europe since we joined the EU in 1975. This became obvious during the Major Government and Cameron called the referendum primarily to blunt the hostility of his Europhobic right wing. The result led to his resignation and a successor taking a more right wing course, to the frustration of the Conservative centrists.

The question facing those who have no sympathy for left or right wing policies is ‘who will speak for them now?’. Obviously there are centrists in both parties who are uncomfortable about the trends and feeling marginalised. If they combine to oppose the ‘Great Repeal Bill’, they will be accused of being undemocratic because a small majority of the people voted against our EU membership -but what else might they do to haul politics and government back to the centre ground? The SDP tried in the 1980’s and failed. Blair and Brown were more successful and the Coalition Government tried to hold the centre ground. To whom should centrists look for leadership now?

The Liberal Democrats are one possible answer but the 2015 election saw them reduced from 57 to 8 MPs. Tim Farron sees it as his responsibility to build a rallying point for centrists who support progressive liberal policies for a fairer society. The problem with this is that all Governments are voted out of office sooner or later. If all the centrists belong to one party and they lose an election, they would be replaced by one or other of the more extreme parties. The Liberal Democrats know what that feels like now. This suggests that Labour centrists should stay in the party and work to turn it back to the middle ground. Their risk is that Corbyn’s supporters will use the redrawing of constituency boundaries as an opportunity to deselect them before the 2020 election. Liberal Conservatives are less likely to be threatened in this way, but UKIP could challenge some of them.

This issue is not just idle speculation. Centrist Conservative and Labour MPs have held informal conversations about forming a new political party if their parties continue to drift to the political margins. Baroness Shirley Williams, one of the ‘gang of four’ who led 28 Labour MPs to leave the party in 1981 to form the SDP, has argued for ‘Remainers’ in all parties to work together to ensure that our relationship with the EU reflects the disparate opinions in the nation. That is not to advocate they leave their present parties to form a new one and she knows better than most how hard it is to break the two-party system with a new one.

Christians are found on both sides of the EU debate, but too many have stayed out of politics. Those longing for politics that better reflect Christian values, might prayerfully consider if the present vacuum in the centre of British politics could be filled by politicians who shared those values and support them.

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