The need for a centre party has been obvious since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party and the European Research Group started running the Tory Party. This has been the situation for three years. So why did the Magnificent Seven (now eight) and the Three Amigos choose now to defect to the Independent Group?

It has made it more difficult to argue for a sensible deal with the EU and put a People’s Vote off the table. Those positions now have the whiff of treachery for continuing Labour and Tory MPs who are about to make decisions affecting our country for decades to come.

At this of all times, we didn’t need the distraction of these defections, but they have happened, and we must examine why and what is the future for the Independents and Lib Dems, but first Brexit.


Next Wednesday is being built up as a decisive moment in the Brexit process. If Mrs May hasn’t wrung some concession on the backstop from the EU, we are told MPs will try to wrestle control from the government. Let’s wait and see. The Prime Minister is adept at running down the clock and it could happen again. In any event it will take more than a vote in the Commons for MPs to dictate to the government. A leading constitutional expert has pointed out that only Ministers can change the law and spend money.

However, it may be that by next Wednesday a codicil will be agreed with the EU which can qualify the open-ended nature of the backstop. That may split the European Research Group and will certainly attract Labour MPs who’ve been offered government money for their constituencies.


Wednesday saw me on the beach at Crosby filming a report for the BBC. We were looking back on the 1981 by election victory of Shirley Williams, the first by the Social Democratic Party who had begun the year in a similar way to the Independent Group. The SDP rapidly acquired Labour defectors. There must be something in the water in Liverpool and Stockport. The city provided three rebels 38 years ago whereas Luciana Berger is the only one for now. Ann Coffey has followed the same course in Stockport as her predecessor Tom McNally.

Roy Jenkins nearly won the Labour seat of Warrington in the summer, then came Williams triumph in the safe Tory constituency of Crosby in November.

If the Falklands War hadn’t massively boosted Mrs Thatcher’s popularity the following spring, who knows what might have happened to the SDP. In alliance with the Liberals they put up a good showing in the 1983 General Election but were punished by the first past the post system.

Relations between the SDP and Liberals were never easy and deteriorated after David Owen replaced Roy Jenkins as leader. The signs are not good this time around. The Independent Group have included the Lib Dems in their description of the parties that are “broken” and seem to think they should join the Independents. People like Chris Leslie and Chuka Umunna need to remember where Owen’s arrogance led him. His rump SDP eventually got less votes in a Bootle by election in 1990 than the Monster Raving Loony Party.

There is a gaping hole in the middle of British politics, and it needs fresh ideas from the Independents combined with the nationwide structure of the Lib Dems to make it effective. Otherwise we’ll have Tory governments into the thirties.

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The Prime Minister goes to the country in a snap General Election appealing for support across party lines. The Irish border is a major issue in the campaign. Labour is led by a man whose leadership qualities are questionable. Meanwhile the Liberal centrist tradition is weak.

I speak not of now but of the General Election of December 1918, exactly a hundred years ago. In the wake of the Great War, Lloyd George put himself at the head of a coalition that cut across Tory and Liberal loyalties. Coupons were issued to Conservative and Liberal candidates who supported the Prime Minister. The result was good for Lloyd George personally. He remained Prime Minister, but he split his Liberal Party sending them on a spiral to obscurity from which they briefly recovered in the 2010 Coalition government.

Then as now the future of Ireland was a big issue. It was the last election where the whole of Ireland took part. It saw a huge surge in Sinn Fein support which led, four years later, to the creation of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland separated by that border which is at the heart of the current Brexit crisis.

The Labour leader in the election was a man called William Adamson who had emerged as leader following a faction fight in 1917. Few would have tipped him for Labour leader but, as with Jeremy Corbyn, circumstances provide surprise leaders.


Downtown in Business maintained its tradition of hosting ground breaking events this week. I had the pleasure of hosting a members’ dinner where our guests were two of the top people in Network Rail (NR).

NR has been subject to criticism by the elected mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region. Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram argue that democratic devolution cannot fully be realised whilst bodies like NR and the Highways Agency remain outside the direct influence of democratically elected local politicians. Decisions on road and rail investment have a huge impact on our lives and should be integrated into the city region’s governance arrangements, so the mayors’ argument goes.

I think NR has been seen as remote and unaccountable because of a reluctance to engage fully in debate and explain their side of the story. That is changing, and Downtown was chosen as the forum where two top NR executives were prepared to face a range of questions from Downtown business people who all had their stories of cancelled and overcrowded trains.

Patrick Cawley, who oversees big projects, was frank about things that had gone wrong. For instance, delays in completing work on the Preston-Manchester line was at the heart of the summer crisis. Old mine workings turned out to be far more extensive than originally envisaged. Lessons had been learnt for the introduction of the next set of timetable changes shortly.

The NR executives wouldn’t be drawn into the politics of reintegrating the rail network with the operating companies or Labour’s plan for renationalisation. But it became clear that NR have to wrestle with changing government decisions. The full electrification of the Leeds- Manchester line being a case in point. Through all the uncertainty caused by the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, NR continues to draw up plans.

I got the impression NR are happy to engage with the city region mayors while pointing out that they have to take national considerations into account at the same time.

Cawley stressed that the need for HS2 was one of capacity rather than speed and the evening ended with an appeal from NR’s David Golding for more private sector investment in rail projects. Business finance could give a major boost to areas around stations. The retail transformation of Birmingham New Street was given as an example. Similar opportunities are looming at Piccadilly Manchester although there are sharp disagreements among the parties involved over how HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail are going to be successfully integrated.

Anyway, it was good to see Network Rail talking frankly about its complex problems. May this open approach continue.

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With Brexit extremists undermining their Prime Minister and Labour proving they are unelectable, it seems hardly credible that the forthcoming Liberal Democrat conference is almost irrelevant.

At a time when moderate politicians ought to be offering a new, properly funded, grassroots based alternative, they continue to operate in their tired tribal ways.

The resignation of the Labour whip by Frank Field last week shows the problem. It was a one off from a man who has always ploughed his own furrow at Westminster whilst ensuring a good press by courting lobby journalists. He has also had a poisonous relationship with constituency activists in two spells. In the 1980’s he was rescued from the Militants by the Neil Kinnock inspired purge. Many of the same people have returned because they feel free to resume their bullying tactics at constituency party meetings nowadays. It is not just in Birkenhead either. This summer I have heard what long standing Labour members are having to put up with elsewhere.

Field’s resignation is full of irony because he was one of the fools who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership in 2015 in the belief it would be fair to give this backbencher an opportunity to air his views prior to being defeated by someone like Andy Burnham.

Having landed the Labour Party with the unelectable Corbyn, Field now resigns alone with no vision as to how his, tough on scroungers/compassion to the needy social policy can be implemented. Would he join a new centre party? Probably not and there isn’t really one anyway.


There isn’t a centre alternative because the Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable has failed in his year in office either to make his party relevant, or tell it the hard truth that it needs to be wound up in favour of a new centre party made up of Labour and Tory moderates, liberals, social democrats and crucially new unaligned people like Gina Miller. Miller forced the government to hold a parliamentary vote on triggering our exit from the European Union. Unfortunately, she is currently in the ranks of the pathetic centrists, saying she won’t enter formal politics, but that could change. In any case, as we saw in France, some inspiring centre leadership could bring a huge response from people who are desperate for a change from the current bitter mess.

Meanwhile the Lib Dems in Brighton are likely to spend their time arguing over Vince Cable’s idea of allowing the possibility of a non-MP becoming leader of the party. It is an odd idea because the parliamentary arena is still very important in terms of the profile of any party leader. It is also pretty insulting to deputy leader Jo Swinson and rising star Layla Moran. Cable is also toying with having registered supporters. This also has its weaknesses, ask the Labour Party. Also, I think people should be members of a party and do the hard work or not at all.

If Cable wants a broad tent to accommodate all moderate opinion, he must work with Labour and Tory moderates.


Finally, we come to Labour moderate MPs who are understandably unconvinced about joining the Lib Dems. However, for two years now they have been resigning and taking jobs in Corbyn’s shadow administration whilst hinting that something is about to happen.

The nods and winks have got to stop. If they stay they must be reconciled to impotence. The National Executive election results shows that the left will be in charge for years. Forming a rebel Labour group in parliament would be an elitist move that would see them destroyed at the next election.

They need to build a new party quickly based on union (say the GMB) and ethical business funding. They need one other thing, never mentioned by the Westminster press, a major initiative to win over Labour councillors. That would help provide a sound grassroots base and avoid the fate of the SDP in the eighties that lacked a real organisational base.

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The latest YouGov opinion poll puts Labour at its lowest level of support since the 2017 General Election. The Conservatives are on 39% with Labour on 35%. In the approval stakes Mrs May is well ahead of Jeremy Corbyn, 36% to the Labour leader’s 22%. 39% aren’t sure, a significant comment on the quality of our political leadership at the moment I would say.

We need to put in the caveats that this is one poll and the fieldwork was done before the Boris Johnson burka furore, although I doubt it will have damaged the Tories as much as Labour’s antisemitism row has hurt that party.

That’s the up to date position in British politics. Despite a poorly performing Conservative government, Labour look a long way from winning power.

So, what have the two main parties learnt from last year’s General Election where, to some extent, we saw a return to a position where Labour and the Conservatives dominate. Perhaps that needs to be qualified. Whilst it is true the Lib Dems have disappeared as an effective force in parliament the strength of the Scottish Nationalists, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists strength means that we are nowhere near the position of 1966 where the two main parties shared 90% of the vote. Indeed, the Democratic Unionists have given formal support to Mrs May.

The decline of the Lib Dems might be an advantage for Labour in the sense that they are the only show in town on the left. But there were troubling underlying trends for Jeremy Corbyn to consider amidst the euphoria caused by doing less badly than he expected. Tory victories in places like Stoke South and Mansfield following the ousting of Ed Balls in Morley and Outwood two years earlier may be harbingers of an historic change in the English political map. It might suggest the north is becoming more Conservative while the South, particularly London, is becoming more radical.

The loss of heavy industry and mass trade unionism may at last be having an effect on politics, particularly in northern towns as opposed to cities. In these communities, small ‘c’ conservative values are growing and gained expression in the strong Leave vote. In the south, where people are generally more prosperous, there may be a trend to embracing leftish causes.

The increasing trend for elections to be fought on social media left the Tories flat footed last year. –The Conservatives are trying to address this problem, although given the age profile of their voters, it could be an awkward gear change for the party. However much both political parties put into it, the recommendation of Facebook friends will always be most effective.

Whilst on-line political discourse is on the rise, the conventional means of communicating with voters is on the decline. Few under 30’s read newspapers and less and less are watching TV. Having spent a career in the latter it pains me to write that, but it is strange that so much emphasis remains on what these traditional modes of communication are saying.

What’s trending on Facebook, Twitter (or whatever’s next) should be the question politicians ask at the next election, which won’t be until 2022 by the way.

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