Breakingviews - UK’s centrist group is far from a Macron moment

Britain's Labour Party MPs Ann Coffey, Angela Smith, Chris Leslie, Chuka Umunna, Mike Gapes, Luciana Berger and Gavin Shuker pose for a picture after their announcement they are leaving the party, in London, Britain, February 18, 2019.

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Britain’s new centrist breakaway is a long way from the country’s “Emmanuel Macron” moment. The defection of seven politicians from the left-wing Labour party on Monday invites comparisons with the political realignment that eventually propelled the French President to power. But Britain’s political system penalises small parties. The split probably strengthens Prime Minister Theresa May, and may even help her Brexit deal.

The UK is overdue its own centrist surge. Both of the country’s main political parties are torn over how to implement the result of the 2016 European Union referendum, and have become hostage to extreme elements. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is led by hard-left militants. May’s government has pandered to proponents of an abrupt break from the EU in an attempt to avoid fracturing her Conservative party. Moderates are isolated. Given that roughly half of British voters want to stay in the EU, there should be room for an explicitly anti-Brexit movement.

However, the seven Labour separatists, who call themselves The Independent Group, will need a lot more support if they are to gain any traction. The new group could potentially attract other lawmakers from Labour, disillusioned Conservatives, and even soak up the remnants of the centrist Liberal Democrats. It could then form a blocking group in parliament. Yet potential rebels will be deterred by the UK’s winner-takes-all electoral system, which tends to leave smaller parties under-represented in parliament. A similar breakaway in 1981, which led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party, failed to overcome this hurdle but sucked votes away from Labour.

It’s hard to see the breakaway affecting the fate of Theresa May’s Brexit deal. None of the defectors were likely to vote for it anyway. And the separatists on Monday focused mainly on Corbyn’s shortcomings. True, other parliamentarians may defect if the Labour leader softens his opposition to May’s deal. But the split also boosts May’s chances of winning an election, if she calls one. Besides, with just 39 days to go until Britain leaves the EU, there’s little time for a counteroffensive.

Macron defied all the pundits when he launched his audacious grab for the French political centre. For Labour’s defectors, however, it’s probably a case of too little, too late.


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