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A Small Party Started Brexit. Is a Small Party the Antidote?

The Independent Group is, in many ways, the anti-UKIP.

Members of the Independent Group speak to journalists following their inaugural meeting on February 25. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

In 1988, Austrian philosopher Karl Popper argued in The Economist that the two-party system is the most democratic: Proportional representation, which encourages minority and coalition governments, gives undue power to small parties, who can threaten to leave and destroy a ruling coalition if their platforms aren’t prioritized.

Nearly three decades later, the greatest political event in recent British history, Brexit, would be orchestrated by a party that hardly made it into Parliament—all while two-party rule remained virtually intact.

The hard-right Eurosceptic U.K. Independence Party only ever managed to elect one Member of Parliament in the Commons, even though it commanded 12.6 percent of the vote in the 2015 national elections. (The U.K.’s electoral system grants a district’s Parliament seats to the party with the most votes in each district, favoring the two largest parties, Labour and the Conservatives, and keeping small parties like UKIP at bay. Popper would have approved.) And yet, UKIP is arguably the party with the greatest political impact in recent British history: The threat it seemed to pose to the Conservative party in the 2015 elections was widely believed to be the deciding factor in David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

Last month, three Conservatives and eight Labour members formed a new “Independent Group,” with aspirations to become a full political party, as their spokesman recently declared. The group is fiercely pro-EU—some members have long wanted a second referendum—and argues that the U.K.’s two-party system is broken. Could this be the antidote to UKIP, another small single-issue party, pressuring both Labour and the Conservatives to undo Brexit’s damage, under the threat of enticing other MPs (and eventually voters) to join them?

The seven Labour MPs who resigned from the party on February 18 cited anti-Semitism within the Labour party and a lack of trust in leader Jeremy Corbyn, especially when it comes to handling Brexit, as their reasons for leaving. An eighth Labour MP joined the following day. A few days later, three Conservative MPs made their own break, citing the hijacking of the Conservative party by hard-right elements, Theresa May’s failure to modernize the party, and the reckless handling of Brexit.

Small, narrowly focused parties have a history of successful issue advocacy, if not necessarily long-term parliamentary success. Beyond UKIP’s role in the Brexit vote there is the example of Germany’s Green party, which though founded as an irreverent activist party, went on to gain parliamentary representation, exerting tremendous sway on politics in the 1980s: The Greens are currently absorbing voters from the decaying center-left and center-right governing parties. The Dutch Party for the Animals, PvdP, even with limited parliamentary representation, has also been able to guide the animal welfare policies of mainstream parties, given its ability to absorb voters from both sides of the political spectrum.

Whether The Independent Group can do something similar is debatable. The group’s statement promises “evidence-based” policies that reach beyond traditional divisions in pursuit of the national interest. A list of similarly anodyne declarations follows. “The barriers of poverty, prejudice and discrimination facing individuals should be removed and advancement occur on the basis of merit,” one proclamation begins. One would be hard-pressed to find MPs from any party that disagree.

A certain vagueness is perhaps to be expected from a group composed of both center-left and center-right politicians. And perhaps there is a gap in the U.K.’s political market for such a centrist party. A familiar narrative since the 2016 referendum has been that both main parties, Labour and the Conservatives, have been drifting to the wings, leaving a large portion of the electorate feeling unrepresented and without a viable alternative. Others feel poorly represented due to the fact that, even though 48 percent of the electorate voted to Remain in the EU, both major parties have committed to Brexit. The Liberal Democrats, who would have been the obvious go-to middle-ground, pro-EU party, have been unattractive to center-left voters, their brand seriously damaged in the years it governed in coalition with the Conservatives, enabling austerity measures and the tripling of university fees. Center-right voters have also been reluctant to cast their vote to the Liberal Democrats, for fear of aiding Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to power, given how close the race between Labour and the Conservatives is in many districts, and the UK’s “first past the post” electoral system.

The prospect of a new center party has surfaced before, particularly in the spring of 2018, when a fund of £50 million was said to have been raised by entrepreneurs, and philanthropists with the aim to “break the Westminster mould.” Those plans never materialized, but TIG now seems like the product of similar machinations. Some have argued this could be Britain’s Macron moment, referring to the rise of Emanuel Macron in France, where a group of political entrepreneurs created a new force that quickly won support. (TIG is already polling at 14 to 18 percent.) Others, however, see the group as the dying whimpers of centrist politics that’s had its day. After all, the U.K. already had its Macron: His name was Tony Blair.

The most conspicuous thing about the new group is the deafening absence of the issue without which it would not have existed—opposition to Brexit—in its official platform. The group clearly does not want to be perceived as being a single-issue party.

The reluctance to be branded the anti-Brexit party is understandable. Brexit-ennui has set in with many voters, who just want it to be over with. Furthermore, Brexit is bound to happen within the next few months, thus potentially robbing an anti-Brexit party of its raison d’être—as happened with UKIP, spiraling into decay ever since their only real policy became imminent reality.

But TIG should not shy away from its core anti-Brexit identity, for there lies its strength. Already there are signs that the group’s very existence might be influencing both Labour and the Conservatives to soften their stance on Brexit. Despite parliamentary debate over a second referendum having been a key Labour commitment this past fall, Corbyn seemed to have all but forgotten—literally so in a recent letter to the prime minister—about the option. But just days after The Independent Group’s founding, he came out explicitly in favor of one. On the Conservatives’ side, May had categorically ruled out the possibility of delaying the Brexit date of March 29, but has now agreed to a vote in Parliament that would allow such a delay in case her deal is rejected once again on March 12.

Moreover, while Brexit is almost certainly bound to happen sooner or later, that’s hardly the end of the debate over the U.K.’s relationship with Europe. Post-Brexit UK-EU relations will continue to be at the top of the political agenda for years to come. A new pro-EU party luring voters from both Labour and the Conservatives could steer the government, and the opposition, towards a closer relationship with the continent.

Popper might have seen this as a disproportionate intervention on democratic politics. But in a country split down the middle on the question of Europe, with neither of the two major parties giving voice to the pro-Europe half, democracy could be salvaged rather than compromised by a party like TIG.