They say a week is a long time in politics but frankly it feels at the moment as if a day is a long time.
February’s drama has included eight Labour MPs leave the party to become part of the Independent Group, followed by three Conservatives doing the same. The political world has been awash with speculation about more names and those with long memories have been looking back to 1981 and the breakaway that led to the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
So now we have a group (not yet a party) with a website, some social media and lots of coverage.
The SDP had a relatively lengthy period of high profile semi adulatory attention. Time spans are shorter these days as communications have speeded up, and the Independent Group may find the honeymoon period is more like a mini break.
As they approach the danger period of scrutiny and uncertainty, what do they need to do?
1 Get a leader: The SDP had a collective leadership for a while – the so called Gang of Four. And the Green Party currently has a joint leadership. Normally though parties need an identified single leader. It helps provide an obvious person for the media. And it helps avoid the sort of split stories when a collective leadership accidentally contradicts each other.
Of course it is easy for me to say this, but choosing a leader is not that easy. The first issue is who should choose? The MPs on their own? A wider supporter base? The second issue is the need to be seen not to lean in either a Labour or a Conservative direction. And remember, we are dealing with MPs from two different traditions.
2 Think about the name: While the Independent Group is useful in the short term for making a Parliamentary point, in the long term it risks being confused with people who are just, well, independent. As someone who sat through the rows about the Liberal Democrats and their name (at one point the name Democrats was being tried) I know this is not as easy as it sounds. But it does need thought.
3 Decide whether you are a party or a movement: If you are a party you need to register, which in turn means having a name and a strapline and a logo. To run candidates in elections with anything on the ballot other than the one word independent you need to register with the Electoral Commission. Even the phrase The Independent Group wouldn’t be allowed. This is why individuals who stand as independents for Mayoral positions often register a shell party in order to stand out a bit. Try not to be tempted thought to answer journalists questions with detailed suggestions about party formation. This non glamorous side of politics is littered with technical problems and you don’t want to end up suggesting the impossible.
4 Publish a few more basic policy themes: But don’t be tempted to write huge amounts of detail. People want to get a sense of your general direction and perhaps some examples of your attitudes on current issues. You don’t need the sort of policy heavy prospectus that some national parties have.
5 Think about post Brexit: So far you have made it clear that you want a second referendum or People’s Vote on Brexit. This might not happen. We may leave at the end of March. You need to know what you will be saying if Brexit happens on the day Theresa May says it will. A People’s Vote is only a short term policy.
6 Finally, work out what you will do if you disagree on a Parliamentary Vote: There may be times in the near future when your members want to vote different ways. Will you try to enforce discipline (with all the old politics vibes this creates) or will you be more relaxed? You can be sure that some parties will try to create situations which could cause split voting. Whatever happens you need to know what you are saying about this.