Across the West, political establishments are mired in a crisis of legitimacy. Outsider parties are thriving everywhere and conventional, career politicians struggle to convince or cut through in the social media age. Two of the most mature democracies produced historic political betting upsets when Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron gatecrashed the system.
Trump and Macron are, on personal, professional and political levels, chalk and cheese. Both, however, benefited from the growing perception that party politics no longer provides solutions to the most salient issues or produce leaders of the highest calibre. That in the 21st century, the best ideas would come from the private sector.
Is this the start of a wider shift or a short-term experiment, already doomed to failure? Could it happen in the UK - where the Conservatives and Labour are bucking the trend, even as the stock of politicians plunges during a farcical, chaotic Brexit process?
Although both Macron and Trump are besieged right now, it is too early to form a confident conclusion. Trump is unique and his situation is worth betting on. His business acumen was always hotly disputed and his troubles stem from personality and nefarious behaviour, rather than politics.
The experience hasn’t deterred celebrities mooting political ambitions or entrepreneurs such as Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang and Michael Bloomberg - who proved as NYC Mayor that billionaires can crossover into politics - entering the 2020 fray.
Anybody pursuing Macron’s reform agenda in protest-ready France - politician or not - would be under fierce attack right now. His approval rating stinks but interestingly, he’s polling ahead of his 2017 first-round performance, well on course for a repeat run-off against Marine Le Pen - whom he would surely beat again.
France, Ifop poll:— Europe Elects (@EuropeElects) December 16, 2018
Scenario: Wauquiez for LR
Le Pen (RN-ENF): 28% (+5)
Macron (LREM-ALDE): 28% (-8)
Mélenchon (FI-LEFT): 13% (-4)
Wauquiez (LR-EPP): 10% (+2)
Hamon (Gs-S&D): 9% (+2)
Dupont-Aignan (DLF-EFDD): 7% (+1)
+/- April 2018
Field Work: 11-13 Dec 2018
Sample Size: 1,203 pic.twitter.com/PD9w4tbtQ6
The UK should be fertile territory for an ambitious celebrity. Few if any politicians, past or present, have pull over voters beyond their core constituency. Both Conservatives and Labour are essentially coalitions, whose internal relations have never been more fraught. Their vote share reflects widespread fear of the other side, rather than endorsement.
Rumours of a new centrist party has persisted ever since Brexit, without anything materialising. To date the associated players are ex-politicians or MPs increasingly detached from their party leaders - Tony Blair, David Miliband, Chuka Umunna, Anna Soubry. Remain, or Rejoin, would be their principle agenda - enabling a deal with the Lib Dems - but to date, they lack any wider policies.
Equally, the scope for a Tory split and breakaway party has never been greater. Divisions over Brexit will become ever more entrenched as that process unfolds - take speculation on the next Tory leader as a prime example. The current civil war merely concerns the withdrawal deal. Not the equally problematic negotiations towards a future relationship.
One side must lose - I think the Remainers. If a plausible centrist project were to emerge, a small number of alienated MPs could defect. Now, the new party could include ex-Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems. It would still, however, lack policies and a brand that withstands charges of ‘failed politicians’.
This is how figures from outside politics could suddenly emerge. If Remain is the core policy, gag Blair and Alastair Campbell and let Deborah Meaden of Dragons Den speak. Or Richard Reeves of Innocent Smoothies. Even Gary Lineker. Although there is no indication that he has political ambitions, Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert would be electoral gold.
Likewise if Remainers win the Tory war, a new party on the right would need to look beyond politics. The likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are too divisive and discredited. Since the drama of 2016, bog-standard alt-right politicians have failed one electoral test after another. Trump was able to win because his unique celebrity and messaging reached the entire electorate.
The fundamental problem either new party would face is the electoral system. It isn’t easy to name constituencies where they could quickly beat 40% - more or less the minimum required to secure an MP. Ladbrokes offer of 25/1 of ‘Any Other Party outside the top-five’ winning most seats at the next election, makes no appeal. 10/1 about David Miliband winning a seat is a more realistic punt, with scope to trade much shorter.
Nevertheless, a new, centrist alternative could transform the electoral picture, taking voters from both Labour and Conservatives. A weekend poll showed Labour could fall behind the Lib Dems if enabling Brexit. Given that party remains anathema to most voters, a fresh alternative would surely fare considerably better. If led by a popular, charismatic, socially liberal entrepreneur, the sky would be the limit.
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