With the formation of another new UK political party (‘The Independent Group’) having received extensive coverage in the media over the last ten days, it’s worth pausing for a moment to ask why and how new parties form, and how to gauge their prospects. Will the Independent Group succeed where the SDP failed? Do they have any relevance for Wales?
Until the formation of Plaid Cymru in the 1920s the party system in Wales was exactly as it was in England. From the time when parliament won an increased influence over politics in the 17th Century, through to extension of the franchise and the rise of the Labour movement at the end of the 19th Century, there had only ever been two main parties. Slowly coalescing from coalitions of different interest groups, the ‘Whigs’ and ‘Tories’ developed by the 19th Century into the ‘Liberals’ and ‘Conservatives’ – speaking very broadly, the Liberals representing the interests of the commercial and industrial sectors and the Conservatives representing the interests of farmers and landowners. The first-past-the-post electoral system worked very well with just two parties. When a new party appeared in the 1890s in the form of Labour, initially in Scotland and then across Wales and England as well, their initial impact was slight but as the Liberals tore themselves apart over Home Rule for Ireland, Labour replaced them within a generation and the two-party equilibrium was restored remarkably quickly. From that point on the rump of the Liberal Party never again achieved substantial representation.
Parties founded since Labour can conveniently be sorted into two categories: grass-roots parties formed from the ground up by groups of activists, and ‘top down’ parties founded by groups of disaffected MPs who leave one or more existing parties. In the former group belong Plaid Cymru, the SNP, UKIP, and of course Gwlad. The Independent Group belong firmly in the latter category, along with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of the 1980s.
Which sort of party does the best? Historically, grass-roots parties have needed to be patient. Plaid Cymru took 40 years from their formation until winning their first parliamentary seat; up in Scotland the SNP took over 30 (if you ignore the three months in 1945 when they very briefly held the Motherwell seat between a by-election and a general election). UKIP went largely unnoticed between their formation in 1991 and their surprise victory in the European elections of 2014.
But the ‘top down’ parties can hardly be said to have fared better. The SDP struggled to explain how they were different from the rump Liberal Party, and eventually gave in to the inevitable by merging with them to form the Liberal Democrats who struggled to outperform the old Liberals. My own expectation is that a similar fate awaits the Independent Group – after all, to the extent that they have anything in common politically with one another, they are a Pro-EU social democratic party. The only difference between them and the Liberal Democrats seems to be whether the individuals involved find Chuka Umunna or Vince Cable to be more palatable company.
So what’s different about Gwlad?
What I believe history teaches us is that ‘top down’ parties fail because they lack the imagination to stake out new territory in the political landscape; the SDP failed because the plot they wanted to occupy was already held by the Liberals, and not being able to displace them they had to join them. While the same fate may well await the Independent Group, in Wales there’s nothing much left for them to join.
‘Grass roots’ parties are often like pioneers in a wild land: rather than muscling in on someone else’s territory, they have to carve out new ground of their own. This is hard work, and can take decades. Just occasionally, though, opportunity presents itself. The present occupiers of the land fight among themselves and flee away, or a seismic event thrusts new, virgin land up out of the ocean ready to be settled. This is how the Labour Party achieved its feat of replacing the Liberals in the early decades of the 20th century: in fact both things happened, Liberal infighting combined with the ‘virgin territory’ of millions of newly-enfranchised working-class men and women voters.
Our belief is that, in the first instance, the Welsh political landscape contains some virgin territory that has been there for decades but which none of the existing parties have been able to settle without abandoning their own territory: people who are proud to be Welsh (whether they were born here or not), who can see how badly Wales is being failed by the current political system, and yet don’t believe that making Wales into a centralised socialist state – of the kind which has failed everywhere else in the world it has been tried – is the answer. For a brief moment in time, in the late 1990s under Dafydd Wigley, Plaid Cymru were tentatively moving into that territory, and they experienced their most successful electoral period in their history – but they pulled back, overcome by the attractiveness of the more familiar territory which Labour had vacated to the left of the Blair government. That virgin territory therefore remains unoccupied, and we are targeting it head-on.
At the same time, we live in an age of tectonic shifts in the political world which are unprecedented in any of our lifetimes, as both the Labour and Conservative parties tear themselves apart over Brexit. Will this throw up even more virgin territory in the political landscape? Or will the infighting lead to the field being left unoccupied, as it was by the Liberals in the early 20th Century? I don’t know the answer to that any more than anyone else does – but I know that sensible people from Conservative and Labour backgrounds alike can find a congenial environment in Gwlad, and help us to buckle down and make Wales the country that it ought to be.