As Change UK split in half on Tuesday, after a punishing result at the EU elections and weeks of rumoured infighting, Daniel Reast reflects on six months of harsh reality.
Firstly, it is possible to be both scathing of Change UK’s failures and respectful of the MPs’ reasons for leaving their parties. Glad we got that out in the open.
Six MPs have left Change UK in a split which will go down in history as ‘pretty unremarkable’. I was quietly inspired watching Luciana Berger reflect on the torment she received in the Labour Party. You could tell this decision had been taken with the heaviest of hearts and after serious pushing. Similarly with Mike Gapes, who joined Labour in 1968, then deciding he was through with experiencing the bullying culture in Labour. And Ann Coffey who started her political career in the early 1980s, and performing as a tireless campaigner for children’s rights.
The group of eleven MPs, including three former Conservatives, left the homes they had dwelled in for years. It was not an easy decision, and you could not find a more courageous act in Parliament especially at this time of intense division. But there’s an unfortunate reality that Change UK failed to realise: they just weren’t that influential. They had expectations of en masse resignations and defections, like a John Le Carré fan-fiction. Even at the European elections, their lists were topped by B-list ‘celebrities’ and disgruntled ex-party members. It was this nature of bitter and ultimately pointless politics which typified their six months of fame. But there’s several major reasons why this project was an ailing gesture.
“There’s an unfortunate reality that Change UK failed to realise: they just weren’t that influential.”
All principles, no policies
They could walk the walk, but when it came to talking, their intentions were totally abstract. They maintained that politics was broken and needed a fresh face. It’s ironic that we’re seeing similar statements from Tory leadership hopefuls like Kit Malthouse (now withdrawn). The original ‘manifesto’ was more like a list of vague beliefs than a policy platform. Indeed, Tom Clark of Prospect raised this issue as the three Conservatives joined. As their grouping was formed before arguably the most crucial votes in parliamentary history, their position seemed more pointless than effectual. There’s no doubt that their losses in the EU elections were the result of not having anything to offer other than a People’s Vote.
Careerist politics pretending to care
Let’s face it: when we saw Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie walk out of Labour, we were hardly surprised. Both were highly critical of Corbyn’s leadership, and frustrated with the lack of movement towards a second referendum on Brexit. There’s not a doubt in my mind that as both have gone their separate ways, this reflects internal squabbling over personality rather than values. A quickly-created meme even went to position Umunna as a potential leader of the Liberal Democrats. It may be cynical to assume that these two men’s leadership aspirations – but after utilising a serious debate about ideological hardening in both the Tories and Labour, their platform is rickety and shallow.
Farage’s new party was better
They may have represented the complete opposite end of the spectrum on Brexit, but the Farage machine was well-oiled and much more supported. Change UK did gain a remarkable amount of grassroots interest, as symbolised by their quantity of applications for MEP candidacy. Nevertheless, Nigel Farage is a wily Machiavelli, propped up by questionable tactics and cash. The brave eleven were never going to be a match for the populist rhetoric of this new reactionary symbol. Yes, they may have represented opposite ends of a wobbly pendulum. But Farage’s media image was glory and well-fuelled, unlike the tempestuous trials that Change UK experienced.
Little gaffes led to bigger problems
Literally on the day the original seven MPs defected, Angela Smith appeared on Politics Live and made a big racist boo-boo. Certainly not the best start to a political movement. It was good that her error prompted a speedy apology, something plenty of politicians fail to do. Though, this initial blunder was to act as a prophecy for more to come.
Their logo which they submitted to the Electoral Commission was rejected, and as such they didn’t display a logo next to their names on the ballot paper. They also changed this logo a few times, prompting a derisive response from their critics. Their name ‘Change UK – The Independent Group’ was also heavily ridiculed, not least for being acronymised ‘CHUK’ or ‘CUK’. It didn’t exactly help, especially as it insinuated the reason for existing was as a Chuka Umunna vehicle.
16 May 2019 / LBC
Compromise didn’t appear in their vocabulary
There’s a few events leading to this conclusion. Firstly, was at the time of indicative votes, where their eleven votes could have swayed the result to backing a customs union deal and shortening the gap on Nick Boles’ soft Brexit option. Even a few Lib Dems rebelled their whip in favour of compromise.
This lack of cooperation was extended to campaigning for the EU elections, where the pro-Remain parties would have seriously benefitted from a joint candidacy. Both the Greens and Change UK rejected this option, but as we learned from the election result, votes which went to Change UK ended up losing the Lib Dems two MEP seats. In the grand scheme of positioning towards stopping Brexit, the lack of coordination seemed petty.
“As we learned from the election result, votes which went to Change UK ended up losing the Lib Dems two MEP seats.”
Oh and a leaked Change UK memo also openly touted a clandestine operation to convert Lib Dems to the Change UK flag. Disingenuous and after only four months onto their new benches, it’s an deceitful tactic.
What next for the now-split splitters? Well another leak has suggested that the six MPs who left Change UK may be in the running to join the Lib Dems. Personally, I don’t understand why they didn’t just do this in the first place. With only five people left under the Change UK name, their fates are sealed. At the next election, they’ll be leaving Parliament.
“With only five people left under the Change UK name, their fates are sealed. At the next election, they’ll be leaving Parliament.”
As for the other six, it’s possible they could attract support as Lib Dems. Reputation and legacy in British politics is a cruel reality. The eleven brave MPs were throwing their hats into the ring to start a principled movement away from their difficult homes – they missed. But the real losers of this fight are the grassroots supporters, hopeful voters, and donors who pledged their support to a political project which has crumbled in the space of six months. Their hope for this group’s better politics may not continue – unlike the careers of eleven righteous MPs who gambled and lost.🔷
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