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Return of the Whigs

John Underwood meets the business consultant whose disillusion with the status quo has led him to re-found Britain’s newest, and oldest, progressive party; hoping to establish an ‘economically literate and socially liberal’ agenda.

After a 150-year absence from British politics, the Whig party reappeared at last year’s general election, contesting four constituencies (including my own, Bethnal Green & Bow, where I first encountered them on the ballot paper). And just last week, an online audience of several hundred watched live as Waleed Ghani of the Whigs made the case for his party at a Stoke Newington kitchen table.

In a political age characterised by 140-character press releases and impromptu social media catfights, Ghani, the business consultant who refounded the Whigs two years ago, seemed keen to make a personal connection with potential voters.

An Oxford theology and philosophy graduate who left journalism for the Army (he served in the Intelligence Corps in Afghanistan), Ghani is chatty and seemed at ease in front of the virtual crowd. If I’d had to guess at his political affiliation, I’d have had him down as a liberal Tory. But in fact, he was inspired to revive the Whigs after the 2014 local elections, when he reluctantly voted Green, feeling no party had the courage of his convictions. Registering the Whigs as a party turned out to be ‘easier than getting broadband’. Even if he failed to woo a single voter, he reasoned, ‘at least I will vote for a set of values I believe in’.

Things didn’t go quite that badly, but Ghani is happy to describe the Whigs’ initial electoral impact as ‘trivial’ - the party polled 561 votes across four constituencies last May, losing £2,000 in deposits. Perhaps learning from the recent troubles of both main parties, whose rank and file have a politically inconvenient taste for, respectively, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn, Ghani isn’t seeking new members as such. ‘A few thousand’ people have expressed an interest through the Whigs’ website, whilst about twenty have been directly involved in supporting the party. ‘If you like us,’ he says early on, ‘you’re a Whig’.

The barrier for entry into Whiggism may be low, but the party’s potential appeal is obvious. Ghani outlines a manifesto that he describes as ‘economically literate and socially liberal’, with a smorgasbord of eye-catching policies ranging from universal free childcare to moving the Commons out of London. A Whig government would raise corporation tax, means-test pensioner benefits and abolish tuition fees. Any one of these policies could cause huge trouble for a mainstream party; but since the Whigs have no donors, there’s nobody to alienate.

One suspects, however, that all the Winter Fuel Allowance in the world couldn’t save the Whigs from the electorate when it comes to immigration. Ghani voted ‘In’ in the EU referendum, and describes the result as a ‘disaster’ for the UK.

‘The principles of the EU are fundamentally Whiggish,’ he says. ‘In the 50s, France and Germany looked towards the UK traditions of free trade and economic liberalism.’ Would he cut immigration to defend public services? ‘No. It’s Tory cuts that have led to problems with hospitals and schools… it’s nothing to do with immigration.’ And what would the Whigs say to those for whom immigration is a principal concern? ‘Chill out. This is great.’

As Labour’s infamous ‘Controls on Immigration’ mug demonstrated, no major party believes it can win elections with such a blithely pro-European stance. Ghani’s answer is to posit a radical reorganisation of politics, abandoning the polarity of Left and Right as a relic of the Cold War. He observes that institutions like the BBC and Financial Times manage to discuss politics in a sane and logical way without being wedded to either end of the spectrum; only in Westminster is the old division inviolate.

The Whigs, we are told, see themselves at the liberal end of a spectrum ranging from ‘progressive reform’ to ‘reactionary conservative’. If the political middle ground holds three fifths of the electorate, all basically capable of voting Labour or Tory, then Ghani estimates 20 per cent of voters are committed progressives in search of an alternative. (At the other end of this new spectrum are the final twenty per cent, who Ghani dismisses as ‘racists’ naturally inclined towards UKIP.)

Since very progressive politics often come with a side order of ‘eat the rich’ penalties, I asked Ghani where he stood on Peter Mandelson’s infamous assertion that New Labour was ‘intensely relaxed against people getting filthy rich’. ‘Nobody ever quotes the second half of that line, which is “as long as they pay their taxes”,’ he replied. Instead, the Whigs would look elsewhere for help funding their ambitious social projects. ‘A lot of the Whigonomics is being realistic. We need money, interest rates are low - let’s borrow.’

Realistically, the Whigs seem more likely to further fracture the Left-wing vote, or simply to make no impression, than to storm to power in 2020. But stranger things have happened (lest we forget, Boris Johnson currently occupies one of the Great Offices of State); and if Ghani is right about the groundswell of progressive sentiment currently being ignored by the major parties, then perhaps another Whig supremacy isn’t as far off as it might seem. And whatever happens, the committed and likeable Waleed Ghani finally has someone to vote for: himself. ‘Being political is part of what it is to be civilised,’ he insists just before the livestream ends. ‘If the options aren’t there… we have to create an alternative.’