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Are breakaway parties always doomed? How to make a success of a political split

The unfortunate independent group. Credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

September 5, 2019   4 mins

In some countries, political parties are like underwear – best changed at regular intervals. They split, merge, de-merge, emerge from the shadows, return to obscurity, re-brand and re-form in an endless reshuffling of the party system.

In Britain, however, we cling to the tried-and-tested – not least because our electoral system tends to kill off start-up parties. In the democratic age (and apart from the nationalists and/or unionists of the Celtic nations) only one new party has established an enduring and significant presence in the House of Commons: the Labour Party.

Of course, Labour was formed as a new party to represent the newly enfranchised working class – it was not a breakaway group.

In Britain, party splits are traumatic events, born more out of desperation than hope. Splitters may convince themselves otherwise, but the reality is that they are putting their careers on the line. A few may blaze a trail before burning out, most simply fade away.

Nevertheless, their sacrifice is not necessarily in vain. Though breakaway parties invariably fail on their own terms, they can still bring about change.

As the 21 whipless Tories – still sat upon the Tory benches – wait to see what happens next, they might want to study the history of previous party splits. Here are five of the most significant.


1. The Peelites

Let’s begin in the mid-19th century – when modern political parties were beginning to form. It’s hard to put a precise date on it, but the Conservative Party came into being in the 1830s – and, if it had a founder, it was Sir Robert Peel. By the 1840s though, Peel had fallen out with his party over Corn Law reform – and in 1846 he and his followers broke away.

We’ll never know if the Peelites could have survived as an independent political force. In 1850, he died after his horse fell on top of him. His followers joined up with the Whigs and Radicals, an alliance that became the Liberal Party in 1859.


2. The Liberal Unionists

Not long after it was formed, the Liberal Party began falling apart. In the 1860s, there was a breakaway faction called the Adullamites who believed that all the democracy stuff was going a bit far. There was a more serious split in 1880s – when William Gladstone (originally a Peelite) embraced Irish Home Rule. The Liberals who opposed it – including Joseph Chamberlain – formed the Liberal Unionist Party.

The Liberal Unionists remained a significant force for the next twenty years, but in close association with Conservatives. In 1912 the two parties officially ‘merged’ – in much the same manner that I merged with the sandwich I had for lunch today.

Nevertheless, the breakaway party had a long-term impact on British and Irish politics – helping to delay home rule by decades (but arguably hastening independence). It also brought the Chamberlain family into the Conservative Party.


3. National Liberals and National Labour

In the 1930s, it happened again! A group of Liberals broke away to form a new party – in this case the National Liberal Party. Disliking Labour more than the Conservatives, they fell in with the latter. As with the Liberal Unionists, the National Liberals carried on for a while as a formally separate entity. However, by the early 60s, no one could much see the point – and so they were swallowed up by the Tories.

The Conservative-dominated National government of the 1930s also attracted a breakaway group of Labour MPs – foremost among them Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, who died in 1937.

While Labour has never forgotten his ‘betrayal’, few now remember MacDonald’s National Labour Organisation, which dissolved itself in 1945. However, it would not be the last group of social democrats to escape Labour’s grip.


4. The SDP

In 1981, the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rogers – broke away from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party. They also aimed to break the mould of British politics – and when they hit 50% in the opinion polls, it looked as though they might.

It wasn’t to last. The Falklands War happened and the county rallied round Margaret Thatcher. In 1983 she won a landslide victory, while the SDP failed to kill-off Michael Foot’s Labour Party. Already in alliance with the Liberals, the SDP eventually merged with them to form the ‘Social and Liberal Democrats’ (the ‘Salads’), who later renamed themselves the ‘Liberal Democrats’ .

Meanwhile, a continuity SDP under David Owen failed to thrive and dissolved itself after a ‘disappointing’ performance in the 1990 Bootle by-election (it was beaten into seventh place by the Monster Raving Loony Party).

An ignominious end – but it could be argued that the SDP prompted Labour to follow a path of moderation and modernisation, which culminated in New Labour and three election wins for Tony Blair.


5. Change UK

And so to the present day. Having snatched the Labour Party from Tony Blair in 2007, Gordon Brown bequeathed it to Ed Miliband in 2010 who accidentally delivered it to Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. Oops!

Early this year, seven Labour MPs who could take no more quit to form The Independent Group, which then became Change UK, but is now called (for reasons of extreme dullness) the Independent Group for Change.

The original seven MPs were soon joined by another Labour colleague and three Conservatives. But having had enough of their old parties, they subsequently decided they’d had enough of each other. The year isn’t even out, but the new party has split three ways. Five MPs remain united behind the exciting leadership of Anna Soubry, three have joined the Lib Dems and three sit in a non-party group called The Independents (who have made a new friend, another ex-Labour MP).

I’m sure these are just the sort of people we need to form a Government of National Unity.


So what are we to conclude from 173 years of party splits?

Firstly, that breakaway parties have never been big enough to guarantee long-term viability. If you want to split, then take half your colleagues with you.

Secondly, splitting over one or two issues – no matter how important they might seem at present – will not sustain you over the longer term.

Thirdly, you don’t just need to to distinguish yourselves from your former party, but also from all the other established parties – if you don’t, voters will fail to see your relevance. Furthermore, you and your colleagues may come to feel the same way – either giving up or descending into internecine conflict.

Of course, the ongoing survival of your new party and political career may not be your first concern. If your top priority is to make a stand on an issue you really care about, then a doomed breakaway party might be just the thing. After all, a politician consciously acting against their own self interest isn’t so common that it goes unnoticed.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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