The Brexit disrupters: beyond left and right
Political insurgents like Rory Stewart, Chuka Umunna and Claire Fox are trying to shake up the UK's general election and tempt people away from the two main political parties. The FT's Miranda Green weighs up whether they can transform traditional politics
Produced by Tom Hannen. Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis, Robert Leslie, and Tom Hannen. Charts by John Burn-Murdoch
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You disrupted the leadership campaign. You're disrupting the mayoral campaign.
You should be the next prime minister.
You're very sweet.
They've left the centre. The parties have been captured.
They're not coming back.
How can two parties possibly do justice to what modern Britain is?
That sort of sense of people wanting a disruption is palpable, I think.
I've seen outsiders go up in flames because they haven't had a clue how the political system and politics actually work.
As an entrepreneur, when I started out I got nothing but nice things happen to me. Politics is completely different. I can't say anything nice about it. It is literally a viper's nest.
Political disruptors are tempting voters away from the UK's two big main parties. Competition is fierce with would-be radical options on the nationalist right and even on the centre ground. Britain's politics is being shaken up. And the result of December's general election has never been so uncertain.
The 2016 Brexit vote exploded the usual left-right alignment. There are now at least four parties battling it out. One of the insurgents, the Brexit party, is led by Nigel Farage, whose lifelong dream for the UK to quit the EU may be about to come true.
There will be no Brexit without the Brexit party. Of that, I'm certain.
Brexit's thrown it all up in the air because that went beyond left and right. And the political parties haven't known how to react to a major political decision that didn't fall under party lines.
The other challengers want to stop Brexit. But they also hope to capitalise on the upheaval.
Some form of tumult was probably inevitable in British politics because whenever you go through big societal change, you see tumult.
Professor Jane Green, of the British Election Study, maps and measures the UK's changing voting patterns. We went to Oxford asked how Britain went from this to this?
From the 1960s through to today we see more people switching their vote between general elections over time. So a much more fluid volatile picture.
So does this volatility mean that it's kind of fertile territory? That there are opportunities there for the political disruptors?
You've got a very available electorate. You've got opportunities for the political parties. What you've also got is loads of uncertainty.
You can see there's a disruption going on, and we don't know where it's going to land.
Claire Fox, a Libertarian from the left was elected as an MEP for the Brexit party earlier this year as voters deserted both Labour and the Tories.
Of course, change is always unpredictable, isn't it? Makes it scary. So is democracy. But to argue against disruption on the basis of 'things worked' completely misunderstands that for many people, they didn't.
So we've talked a bit about things being more up for grabs.
I'm going to try and ask you to explain where the voters might be.
So you think about one dimension of politics from left to right. And within that kind of left-right, bread and butter economic kind of way of seeing the world, lots of people have left of centre views. Lots people have right of centre views, but the majority of people would be in the middle. And therefore, it makes politics very much about that kind of centre ground, about competing for the majority of voters.
Britain has always been about understatement, compromise, pragmatism. And I think that's where the energy is. I think it resonates deeply.
Rory Stewart is leaving parliament. He's left the Conservative party. He wants to reinvent moderate politics by standing as an independent candidate for London mayor.
I think actually the UK's traditions are much more consensual, much more designed for centre-ground politics than almost anywhere in the world.
That dimension is still very important to voter choice now. But of course, we've all started seeing the world predominately through the lens of Brexit. And Brexit isn't about bread and butter left-right issues on the whole, it's about this different dimension that cross cuts the left-right dimension.
It's divided the party, and it's divided the voters.
A lot of people who thought of themselves at centre ground in the old politics, in the new politics are far from centre ground.
Chuka Umunna walked out of Labour earlier this year, attempted to start a new anti-Brexit centre party, Change UK, but is now trying to redefine opposition politics from within the pro-European Liberal Democrats.
Those guys are no longer centre ground. They are firmly on the liberal, internationalist, open, anti-authoritarian side of the new dichotomy. So when people say to me I want a return to good centre ground policies, I'm kind of like, but you're no longer centre ground. You are actually firmly in one camp.
Political scientists like you are used to thinking about voters in this rather more complicated way.
In the past, we think about it in terms of people that had more socially conservative views and more socially liberal views. But also we're now thinking much more about people that have anti-immigration views and also pro-immigration views and also anti-European or Brexit-supporting, Leave-voting views or more pro-European, Remain-supporting views. And so we have the impression that politics has become much more polarised.
Both the Brexit party and the radical Remainers are betting that politics is now about values.
There's different fault lines, aren't there? So what's happened is rather than saying the big decision in British politics today is whether we nationalise the railways it's actually our attitude to popular sovereignty.
So you asked me the question, where is the space?
Yeah, where's the opportunity?
So on the one hand, we talked about kind of important. So if this issue becomes less important, then we might worry about left-right again. But what if this issue, dimension, doesn't become less important? But at the current time, it feels and looks in terms of the evidence that people are pretty divided.
If you look at some of the people who've been running our country, some of the decisions we've made in the last decade or so, you go, how is such a brilliant country in this mess?
Simon Franks, once a committed Labour party backer, is dismayed by this polarisation. He's been spending time and money trying to use his start-up skills to shake up centre ground politics.
The mission was to scope out initially, is it possible to create a new political party that could win in one electoral cycle?
Can you, in politics, do something that kind of maps entrepreneurialism onto party politics?
Yes, you can but, not in the centre. If you're on the wings of British politics, or in fact, any politics, and you have a cause, you can mobilise people incredibly quickly to bring about a change because people are so desperate for that change or believe so strongly in that cause. In the centre it's much harder to do because, by definition, you should be more balanced, more reasonable. You understand that no one issue is going to make our country completely better or completely worse.
Josef Lentsch believes in the power of the middle. This Austrian academic helped start a successful new party and has written a book on how to make it work.
It's bloody hard. It's bloody hard for politicians. These days, the political itch to be scratched is that many people feel not represented anymore. And too many of them then decide to vote for populists and nationalists. But I think many of them would actually like to have a choice to vote for something different and constructive.
The primary reason why Change UK didn't succeed in the way that we would have liked it to is, as you said, I'm not sure people were looking for disruption in as much as they were looking for their politics to be properly represented. But they weren't necessarily precious about the vehicle through which you do that. And to try and create something new in a non-presidential system is nigh on impossible.
In a sense you, can't just compete on one dimension. People want to know where you stand. So if you're competing on this dimension, but you're divided on this dimension because you've got parties from the left, parties from the right, then essentially, OK fine. So you've got this bit sorted out. But are you over here on the left? Or are you here on the right in terms of where your voters are likely to be?
I think the most important thing is if you want to build a centrist alternative, that you're actually early on are starting to talk to the voters and start to interlink what I call, 'islands of discontent.' Most political start-ups will fail. I think that's not a problem. I think actually many, many need to try for some of them to succeed.
Once you've broken the habits of a lifetime - at the European election, obviously everything got thrown in the air - then you're not quite that, we always vote Labour in our family. We always vote Tory in our family. Anything can happen.
It's like when MPs rebel against a whip, right? Once they get the taste for it, it becomes possible again.
Even those people who are saying: let's get Brexit done, their argument is, let's get Brexit done so we can go back to normal. And I think they underestimate the appetite for a much more fundamental shift. Nothing's ever going to go back, ever.
The problem is that the government of the centre has always seemed terribly sort of bureaucratic and inert. It doesn't really seem to listen. It doesn't seem to engage, which gives people the idea that maybe there's a silver bullet, maybe there's some fantastic thing. And it's some character.
Yeah, an ideology.
Or a person.
Or a person. Like a hand grenade you can chuck at the system, and the whole thing's going to blow up. And suddenly, it's all going to be much better.
So there's no messiah coming.
No, there can't be a messiah. I mean, I think I'm also...
No, definitely not me.
We've had conspicuous examples of success on both the left and the right. I'm thinking of Nigel Farage on one side, probably Labour's Momentum on the other. But there's this whole space in the centre with lots of plotting, lots of activity. But it's really hard to make something happen.
It's a much easier message. So Nigel Farage, who I think is a brilliant communicator and I don't have this disregard for him as so many people seem to have. I think he speaks for a large community of our country about issues that no one else will talk to. I think the same on the left.
Jeremy Corbyn gets on the stage and says, capitalists are bad people. The reason why your life isn't as good as you'd like it is because of that bunch over there. And some people, they go, the messiah's arrived.
No one's got a monopoly on grievance. In the wake of the crash, in the wake of austerity, in the wake of globalisation, taking away the securities that people took for granted, the question is, what you do about that?
We've completely failed to produce a product that's really exciting. I mean, none of these third-party centre party leaders have actually worked out how to produce something that really makes the public think, woo, well, OK, all right, actually, I'm not going to vote the way that my parents voted.
This election is not the end. And I think the most important thing to note is this election's been called in very peculiar circumstances. But I personally think that the genie's out the bottle. And that what we are likely to see in the next five years is a very disruptive political scene.
In the first winter election for decades, established parties are being buffeted from all sides. There are wide open spaces in the political landscape and enormous potential for storms to come.
Jane, if you had to put money on it, would you bet on political insurgents, either a smaller party or a new party trying to replace or split one of the two main parties?
If the two mainstream parties adapt their positions, working out kind of where can they attract the majority of voters, then it's very difficult, it's still very difficult for minor parties to break through.
In normal times, I would say that it's impossible to actually get a new party in the UK parliament. But we are not in normal times. We're past normal times. And I think, therefore, don't give up hope. That there might be something on the way.
We can probably do better if we think about it, redesign our political system, reinvigorate our parties, maybe create some new ones, maybe look at our voting system, look the way we select MPs, look at the way treat MPs
Anyone who believes that everything goes back to normal is kidding themselves.