Breaking the Mould - Can TIG change British political culture?

For many years British politics has been plagued by inertia, cynicism and a mantra that “nothing can ever change”. I believe the new TIG group can break the spell. Already the cross-party group is demonstrating that fortune favours the brave. The wave caused by their initial splash is beginning to erode the pillars of the old politics.

However, they must continue to capture the public’s imagination and gain their trust and support by demonstrating that they can live up to their #changepolitics hashtag.

Already, just by their formation they have caused tremors, in turn causing cracks to appear in the established political edifice. Tom Watson’s immediate reaction was to throw a protective shield around  MPs who he termed as belonging to the social-democratic wingof the Labour Party. As a consequence, Jeremy Corbyn reluctantly made concessions on a people’s vote. And even the official People’s vote campaign betrayed some unease at seeing TIG act in such a – well -  independent way.

Politics is currently misshapen, but  fortunately still molten enough to be refashioned. The two main parties of British politics have vacated the centre ground and can no longer attract those who consider themselves disenfranchised and politically homeless. The share of the vote the “big beasts” gleaned in June 2017 no more demonstrates mass support than the claim, circa 2006, that Nokia and Ericsson had the mobile phone market sewn up, would have. People’s latent desire for smart phones couldn’t have been predicted until they were invented. The same can be said of pent-up hopes for a new centrist party. Or, to borrow a phrase from Field Of Dreams:’Build it and they will come’.

In recent decades the centre ground has been mobilised by appealing beyond the traditionally-defined core demographics of the major parties to gain a majority (e.g. New Labour, 1997) or by bolting on centre-ground votes to form a majority via a coalition (e.g. 2010-2015). The Independent Group therefore has the potential to forge something entirely novel: a new, dynamic centre ground of politics, capable, ultimately, of winning power in order to tackle the fundamental problems of our age, without appealing to the extremes of ideology on either the right, or the left.

In so doing, it is essential for TIG to live up to its promise, to show its values through its actions, and reveal its principles through its modus operandi as much as its policies. It must not replicate the closed shop, vested interest-riven, backroom manoeuvrings of Labour or the Tories. Instead, it must be open, dynamic, and innovative.

There is an appetite for a new style of political engagement. An example from the last parliament is Pragmatic Radicalism, which we launched in 2011 at a Commons event with Luciana Berger as guest speaker. We held 17 “Top of the Policies” events around the country, during which the audience pitched their policy ideas in one minute. This was then followed by two minutes of quick-fire questioning by the audience, and then a final vote for the best policy idea. These events were all chaired by Labour shadow ministers, including one by Chuka Umunna MP.  

The events  were innovative and, remarkably for political events, they were fun. They showed that the audience has just as much insight and expertise as any panel of politicians. And where CLPs or Tory constituency associations often balk at opening their doors to the public, our events were welcoming and open to all. The events elicited good ideas and they attracted and empowered those who were not ‘the usual suspects’.

TIG might choose to build on this and other innovative approaches towards political engagement. The most  recent example of this is the mass engagement exercise of En Marche and President Macron’s current round of listening events.

TIG could plan a ‘policy listening’ week - a series of events no more than ten minutes away from where 90% of the population live. Events would be designed with an engaging format, welcoming ordinary people with no political background and encouraging them to give their ideas. This would contrast with the all-too-frequent default of local activists posting policies from on high through letterboxes, or patronising voters by canvassing with a cursory doorstep “are you voting Labour/Tory this time” once every five years.

TIG could also arrange for its politicians to hold their press conferences or set piece events as far away from Westminster  as possible. They must go to voters where they are, not vice versa. Community centres, places of worship, supermarkets, town centres, clubs and pubs should replace the wood-panelled committee rooms of Parliament.

If TIG did this, no-one could argue that they were distant, or level the standard charge against politicians, that they don’t listen. It would demonstrate a new model for politics, hinted at already by Chuka Umunna’s recent policy pamphlet which mentioned the much needed proportional representation and an end to PMQs.

Such an engagement strategy, if combined with a long overdue rehabilitation of experts, and the adoption of modern technology to improve the exchange of ideas, will help the core group of TIG MPs build a credible policy platform that appeals to ordinary voters.

These are merely a few suggestions on how TIG can help break the spell that has been cast over so many in recent years by the two main parties: a Labour Party captured by the hard left and a coterie of former Communists, whose leading activists besmirch the notion of a middle class, or of aspiration.And also a Conservative party that may yet tilt fully away from One Nationism to embracepopulism and British nationalism.

In Catch-22, Joseph Heller, showed us that sanity can often be regarded as insane by those with misguided or malign intent. It is precisely the sensible, cross-party, practical, reasonable, principled, non-ideological nature of TIG  that most frightens its detractors.

In the age of unreason, it can seem unreasonable to be so reasonable. And in the age of extremes, it may seem an extreme position to seek a sensible middle ground. TIG offers a path out of the ideological extremes.

The innovative, dynamic, open, inclusive, listening, non-patronising manner in which TIG conducts its politics will place into sharp relief the tired old techniques of the tired old parties. It would help motivate the politically homeless  and dispel the convenient myth that the main parties are the only vehicles to change society.

John Slinger was a Labour Party member for 25 years and comes from the Midlands. He founded Pragmatic Radicalism. @JohnSlinger

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