What Parliament’s Breakaway Group Means for Brexit Britain

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This week, British politics saw its first split in the center since the early 1980s, as 11 rebel pro-EU lawmakers to quit the two major parties to form The Independent Group. (A nine Labour MP quit on Friday, though disagrees with the group on Brexit so has not joined them.) Although the breakaway is not entirely motivated by opposition to Brexit -- the ex-Labour lawmakers in particular cited antisemitism in their former party, among other issues -- all of them support a second referendum on the U.K.’s departure of the EU.

The immediate consequences for Brexit in terms of parliamentary arithmetic are probably limited. Party discipline had broken down so much on this issue that changes of allegiance are unlikely to have much direct effect. Their impact is far likelier to come from the prospect of this group becoming a true party, contesting elections and changing public opinion toward the mainstream parties.

There are two obvious ways the independents might gain leverage as a party. First, and most obviously, would be to win seats in a general election. However the U.K.’s electoral map is notoriously unforgiving in this respect. The district-based voting system rewards the geographic concentration of supporters, and penalizes evenly spread votes when popular vote shares are low. So, for example, in 2015, the pro-Brexit U.K. Independence Party polled 13 per cent of the popular vote, but won only one seat in the 650-seat lower house.

It is too early to say how much support the Independent Group might attract if it forms a party or what that support might look like. But we do know that support for and opposition to Brexit are relatively evenly spread out. Polls have so far found potential levels of support for a new party at similar levels to what UKIP had, but preliminary analysis by Number Cruncher Politics suggests that it would need national support of around 20 per cent in order to achieve local pluralities in many of its target districts.

Its best chances are likely to be in constituencies with the highest Remain votes, where the existing vote is already divided between the other parties, reducing the share a new party would likely need to win. These tend to be urban and suburban areas with high proportions of college graduates and a younger-than-average age profile. Many will be in London, where 60 per cent voted against Brexit.

As things stand, the 11 breakaway lawmakers would face an uphill battle simply to hold their own seats at a new election, which may also reduce the probability of a fresh election, as the group seems unlikely to vote for one. Were the party to form a pact with the centrist, pro-EU Liberal Democrats, the combined level of support needed to gain new seats would be similar, but it would be more achievable given that the Lib Dems took 7.6 per cent of the mainland popular vote in 2017.

The second and likelier lever for projecting power is to exert influence on the major parties’ central positions through the threat of taking votes -- or lawmakers -- from them. This was precisely the way that UKIP was able to push David Cameron into holding an EU referendum, as the party was perceived at the time to be taking more support from Cameron’s Tories than from Labour.

Though that assumption turned out to be incorrect (in fact, UKIP’s support came fairly evenly from both), such psephological details rarely trump an interesting narrative, and there is every chance that a party formed from the Independent Group would be able to exert a similar influence on the opposite side of that issue. This would likely be to force the large parties into supporting a second referendum, or if they fail to stop Brexit, towards a much closer relationship with the EU than is currently envisaged, such as a permanent customs union or membership of the single market.

There remain many unanswered questions. How many other lawmakers will join, and from which parties? Assuming Brexit happens, will the new movement adopt a policy to rejoin the EU? And, crucially given they now comprise former Conservatives too, what will the domestic policies be?

If a party is formed quickly, it may face an immediate test. A special election is pending, on an as yet undecided spring date, in Newport, South Wales, a district lastdaniel won by Labour with just over half the vote. As the referendum result in that district was close to the national average, it is not the type of place where an anti-Brexit candidate is expected to be competitive, but a respectable showing would still be viewed as an important hurdle.

This has the potential to have a long-lasting impact on British politics – or to become a historical footnote. Their move and the initial public response suggests there is plenty of support for centrism among British voters; the question for the next election will be whether any party can convincingly capture it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matt Singh runs Number Cruncher Politics, a nonpartisan polling and elections site that predicted the 2015 U.K. election polling failure.

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