In the UK, the foundation of a new centrist party is currently underway. There are lots of open questions, like who are their political leaders, what are their concrete policies, and what is their understanding of 21st century politics, but for now they seem to have at least the financial firepower to scale nationally.
The usual rules…
Lately I have discussed the possibility of Political Entrepreneurship in first-past-the-post (FPTP) democracies like the UK or the US. Such “winner takes all”-systems favour the development of two large parties – like the Tories and Labour in the UK, or the Republicans and the Democrats in the US. Third parties normally do not play a decisive role. While there are exceptions (like the LibDems in the Cameron-Clegg coalition from 2010-2015), usually the two big parties take turns in Government. The others remain on the electoral fringes.
„Look at history“, my opponents would argue, „FPTP is just too hard for third parties“. The Green party in the US, the Social Democrats in the UK – they were all full of good intentions, but in the end they did not become relevant. In the end, they failed. I agree that it is very hard. If getting to scale is a super tough hurdle in proportional representation systems, it is almost insurmountable in FPTP systems. Becoming sustainable is even more improbable.
But, and that is my counter argument, we live in extraordinary times. We live in the time of Brexit, where both the Tories and Labour seem to have become dysfunctional and toxic parties. We live in the age of Trump, where most Republicans seem to have given up on any measure of decency, and Democrats seem to be lost in an eternal process of mourning for what might have been.
And in such extraordinary times, extraordinary things become possible. In fact, they are required. If we look back in history, there have been such special moments when a new party disrupts a dysfunctional political market, even in FPTP systems.
When the Grand Old Party was new
In the US, the Republican party was created in 1854. Founded at a critical moment of US history by anti-slavery activists, economic modernizers and liberal Whigs in 1854, the Republicans then went on to dominate politics nationally and in the majority of northern states for most of the period between 1860 and 1932.
More than 160 years later, we are again at a point of high electoral volatility, where whole political systems can tilt into a very different setup very quickly – just look at France.
Watch and learn
Surely observers in the US will watch the UK developments with interest. If such a political startup can make significant headway in the UK, expect the United States to be next in line for a new centrist movement at massive scale.
Josef Lentsch is the Director of NEOS Lab, and the author of „Political Entrepreneurship: How to build centrist political startups“, which will be published by Springer in October 2018.