Paul Hunt reflects on what history has to teach us about the formation of Centre Parties as MPs desert Labour and the Tories and board the good ship Independent

The ‘Gang or Four’ SDP founders, Shirley Williams, David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Bill Rogers

What might be the impact of a new ‘Centre Party’ in Hastings and Rye?  It’s impossible to predict the political future in these days of Brexit and Trump but Hastings has seen it all before.  

When the SDP was launched in March 1981, Hastings Liberals, with a membership of 350, were the opposition on the Council. The local SDP had about 40 members and they eventually gained Old Hastings’ Councillor Jack Cook who defected from Labour. Later two more Labour councillors left the party to sit as independents, citing the influence of the hard left Militant Tendency, a forerunner of today’s Momentum. One Conservative councillor joined the Liberal Group at about the same time.

Boots on the Ground
As today’s Independent Group will learn, on-line support does not equal boots on the ground. In May 1981 no SDP candidates stood for the County Council and in the 1982 borough elections the SDP won no seats despite an electoral pact with the Liberals. By contrast, the Liberal group increased to ten in a difficult election fought against the background of the Falklands War.

Eyes turned to the 1983 General Election but there was a dispute in the new Hastings and Rye seat because it had been allocated to an SDP candidate in regional negotiations. This caused uproar amongst Liberals (and not a few SDP members who thought the decision to be wrong) and an appeal resulted in the decision being reversed by David Steel and the SDP’s Bill Rogers. At the May poll the local Liberal candidate, with SDP support, pushed Labour into third place and increased the Liberal-SDP vote by 15%. But the big breakthrough at Westminster never came.  

Labour is the competition
What lessons might be drawn?  First – all too easily missed in political discussion – the Liberal Democrats are not a centre party. Since the days of Jo Grimond, Liberals have seen themselves as a non-Socialist alternative to the Conservatives with the mantra ‘Tories are the opposition, Labour is the competition’ so they are not an automatic partner for any new right-of-centre grouping. Many of the SDP recruits were true liberal internationalists but a number were right-wing Labourites with whom Liberals had little in common and had, in many cases, been fighting for years. A similar pattern is true for the ex-Labour MPs at Westminster today – let alone the Conservative defectors. In any case our first-past-the-post system will mean that some kind of electoral arrangement will be necessary if a ‘third force’ is to achieve anything at Westminster – in 1983, the Liberal-SDP Alliance almost outpolled Labour but Labour won ten times the number of seats. Today’s burning issue is Brexit and both the Liberal Democrats and the Independent Group appear to agree that remaining in the European Union is better than any possible exit deal. If and when the Independents register as a political party, relationships with Liberal Democrats will also depend upon personalities at local level. That’s another lesson from 1981. In most places like Hastings the relationship was positive, even if wary at first, but in a few other constituencies there was a bitter fight between Liberal and SDP candidates.  

Traction in Hastings
Personally, I find the Independent Group ‘policy’ declaration to be underwhelming – other than in its support for remaining in the EU. There is nothing about replacing first-past-the-post voting with a system which reflects the choices of individual voters. Whether a new party finds any traction in Hastings and Rye remains to be seen but if there is sufficient common policy, it would be electoral foolishness to fight each other.  

Ms Rudd’s majority is only 346. Would a Liberal Democrat Centre Party candidature ensure her survival or remove her? The honest answer is that no-one knows but the new grouping is likely to attract votes from former Conservatives in addition to Labour voters disillusioned by Corbyn’s support for Brexit.  

In 2017 Hastings and Rye Liberal Democrats were asked to stand down in favour of Labour.  We agreed, if Labour would ‘soft-pedal’ in favour of the Liberal Democrats in Eastbourne and Lewes to maximise the chances of ousting three Conservatives in East Sussex. But Labour proved unwilling to reciprocate and so we ensured local voters were offered an unambiguous pro-European choice in Nick Perry. Electoral arrangements are easy to talk about but hard to achieve.

It’s disconcerting to have reached an age when history is repeating itself. To adapt Roy Jenkins’ phrase from 1981, the new Westminster grouping may have moulded a break but that in itself is no guarantee of breaking the mould.

• Paul Hunt is a former Chairman of Hastings and Rye Liberal Democrats and was the Liberal constituency agent from 1981 to 1986. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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