How Change UK became an Apprentice-style failure of a party

I have always been a fan of The Apprentice – a ‘reality’ TV show where entrepreneurs go head to head for the chance to win an investment into a start-up business. Sometimes, I’m left aghast by how badly wrong a task can go for one (or in some cases) both teams. An example that stands out for me is last year’s challenge of creating a low-cost airline. And it stands out for all the wrong reasons

One team came up with the name ‘Jet Pop’, a party airline. If getting people drunk at 30,000 feet doesn’t sound like a bad enough idea in itself, the outfit for air crew was something out of the 1950s, the logo featured an explosion in it, and one of the team got the name of their brand wrong in their pitch to airline executives. Suffice to say, it didn’t take off.

As I recall that episode and the series of missteps, it is hardly a stretch for me to think of the party Change UK (previously The Independent Group, soon to be The Independent Group for Change).

It started off well. In a big press conference on a Monday morning in February, seven former Labour MPs one after the other denounced the party and said that something different was needed to shake up British politics. The group was shortly joined by four others, including three Conservative MPs. They had some momentum, albeit no policies, and one poll had them as high as 18 percent in the polls.

However, in March they were faced with a task they weren’t ready for. After initially planning to register as a political party by the end of the year, it soon became clear that the UK would be taking part in the European elections. They frantically registered their party in time for the day of poll in late May – they had missed the deadline for the local elections at the start of the month and had no intentions of running candidates in the first place.

This where the first series of Apprentice-style mistakes came. They could not register the name ‘The Independent Group’, and so were forced to change it. They chose ‘Change UK’, which only served to confuse voters, given that they were advocating for the status quo of Britain remaining in the European Union. It even confused its own MPs, with Anna Soubry calling her party ‘Change.org’ in Parliament – not a good sign.

The forced name change might as well have been straight from the Apprentice, with the team leader changing the name of a robot from Jeffrii to Siimon without telling the others…

And then came the logo. For those familiar with the show, Apprentice candidates often have a set amount of time to create promotional materials including their product’s logo. The deadline is a hard one; if it’s not complete in time, tough. The four black horizontal lines seemed like a rushed frantic job to put pen to paper just in time before such a deadline passed. This added to confusion and no doubt left some to be sceptical of their abilities.

This isn’t a logo that screams change…

The actual election campaign didn’t fare much better for the fledgling party. Despite hiring a company to vet possible candidates for the election, controversial tweets soon emerged from those that had made it through.

And then the local elections happened, with the Liberal Democrats making huge gains across the country. This further eroded the party’s momentum, given that they suffered from a lack of a unique selling point. The Liberal Democrats were clearly anti-Brexit, with ‘Stop Brexit’ on all their campaign material, they had momentum from the local elections, and they had an established ground campaign.

In most Apprentice tasks, there’s a moment where some of the candidates know they’re going to lose and get ready to through their colleagues under the bus. This quickly happened with Change UK’s election campaign, as some of the party’s own candidates gave up and encouraged voters to back the Liberal Democrats instead. The party’s own leader, Heidi Allen, did the same and even hinted at resigning as leader a day before voters were due to go to the polls.

In April, one poll had had suggested the party may win seven MEPs. In reality, they won 3.4 percent of the vote, only marginally better than UKIP.

Having failed to make a breakthrough, the party had a crunch meeting which I can only imagine was like the ego-driven rants of defeated Apprentice teams in the ‘losers’ cafe. Half of the new party, including some of the party’s most notable MPs, ended up resigning and sitting as independents, with Chuka Umunna joining the Liberal Democrats, following where the momentum was going.

To rub salt into the wound, the party has now been forced to change its name for a second time, due to the threat of legal action by Change.org. The new name, The Independent Group for Change, is beyond farcical.

With the party now polling between zero and one percent, it would seem that the party’s days are numbered and some are questioning whether there was any space for a new centrist party in the first place.

I personally think that’s the wrong focus. Polls at the time of the party’s founding had suggested some market for a new party, but creating a new political party and maintaining momentum is difficult, especially when your competitors already have a decades-long headstart. Even the Brexit Party, which is at times polling in first place nationally, struggled to win in Peterborough’s by-election (an election which Change UK didn’t even bother to contest).

In short, Change UK is a lesson, to all of those considering it, in how not to launch a political party.

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