It is never an easy decision to leave a party, nor even to lend your vote to another party. It is, however, the decision many across Britain have made over the last few weeks. It’s also the decision that I and 10 of my colleagues made three months ago when we formed the Independent Group, which is now Change UK.
Our disagreements with the parties we left are well documented. Our primary ambition in forming Change UK, though, often gets lost. Put simply, it is to put the national interest first and to move beyond tribal and ideological politics. I suspect this is an ambition many of those who have made difficult decisions this last week share.
The Tory leadership contest shows Conservative politicians’ main concern is their own personal interests, not those of the country. And neither they nor Corbyn’s Labour – which prioritises facilitating Brexit – represent the complex tapestry which is modern Britain.
The English local elections, which Change UK could not stand in, but in which we endorsed the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party, illustrated that millions of voters still agree with our assessment of Britain’s broken politics. If voting in those elections were replicated in a general election, the two main parties would have won far less than a third of the vote each. Independents standing in those elections on average won at least a quarter of the vote.
Change UK decided to stand in the European elections despite the fact we were only founded this February. Having not been able to stand in the local elections, we felt we could not stand idly by while Nigel Farage and the Tory right undermine the values the majority of Britons believe in.
Having neither the resources nor finances of other parties this was a huge challenge. Naturally, we made some mistakes along the way, despite the incredible efforts of our small staff team, our candidates and our 100,000 supporters, who cannot be faulted.
One cannot dismiss the impact we had on the Brexit debate during our first days as a new group in Parliament three months ago, nor our experiences campaigning across the country. At over 140 events and rallies there has been a huge appetite for a strong non-tribal, radical, centre-ground offer. This is the real change politics that is emerging, even if it is still dismissed by the pro-Brexit and pro-two party elite.
In the coming days, talk will turn to the next general election. Before it does, I would like to set the record straight on the attempts made by Remain forces to come together to fight these last elections. All the Remain parties rejected the idea of merging, which would have been necessary to stand on combined lists across the country. And, at the start of the campaign, Change UK was not alone in our disinclination to stand aside in certain regions. Perhaps we all could and should have done more to address this. Unfortunately, there was simply not enough time to resolve these issues before nominations closed.
Despite this, Change UK has engaged in an unprecedented level of cross-party co-operation since we formed, endorsing other Remain parties in the local elections, co-sponsoring amendments in Parliament to promote a people’s vote and remaining in the EU, and putting in a joint application with the Liberal Democrats for an Opposition Day debate on these issues in the Commons.
There are, however, three important lessons to be drawn from the European elections campaign as we look ahead.
First, where possible Remain parties do need to work even more closely together. Change UK, the Lib Dems, the Green Party and Renew agreed on a common candidate to back in the Peterborough by-election. To our dismay, that candidate backed out at the last minute. Despite this setback, we must build on this spirit of co-operation and, so long as the Brexit chaos continues, seek to put forward one Remain candidate in future by-elections.
Second, there is a huge opportunity for the centre ground to regroup and play a decisive role. That demands that we work together instead of competing. We have a historic opportunity to break the dysfunctional two-party system. In the days ahead we will be consulting our staff, candidates and supporters on how to move forward.
Thirdly, it is clear that no single force in the centre ground can either stop Brexit or break the two-party system. New and different groups emerge every month, and will continue to do so. We all must find a way to come together.
Britain could be faced with a choice between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson. We all have a duty to ensure there is an alternative, one that can win the trust of the British people and put us back on the right course. This, I hope, is a cause we can all unite around to change politics and Britain for the better.