New British party looking to France for inspiration

A new centrist, pro-EU party in the UK, called Renew, hopes to follow in the footsteps of En Marche! One of its leaders, James Torrance, a London accountant and former world debating champion, spoke to Oliver Rowland

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Are you pleased with the range of candidates you have attracted?

Yes. We have 220 and around 15 coming in each day who we are vetting. We’ve had a good selection of locations, ages and racial and political and professional backgrounds, though we’d like a few more women. We’re about 60/40.

How did the party come about?

When Theresa May announced the last election I decided to run as an independent in Kensington. Two other founders had the same idea in other London constituencies, including Chris Coglan who wanted to use the election almost as a referendum on whether there should be a new party. During the campaigning we all made contact. We had pretty good results and afterwards we got together and said ‘are we going to do this?’ It started from there.

Were you inspired by En Marche! ?

To a great extent. We looked across the water and saw what an impact it can have if you stand up and take on the political establishment with courage. It was inspiring and it’s been really useful when we talk to people, to point at En Marche! and say ‘when you say it will never work to start a new party, look at what happened in France’. It’s a different political system but it can be done.

Have you had contact with them?

We’ve had a reasonable amount of contact. We reached out to say what we were planning to do and they’ve been kind and generous in providing background about how they built their support and [En Marche! MP] Amélie de Montchalin sent us a video of support from her and encouragement, but we’re not part of En Marche! and it wouldn’t be fair to say they endorse us.

Is the British electoral system uniquely challenging?

I don’t think so; every system has its challenges and just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. And we can have an impact even if we don’t win seats. Ukip has revolutionised British politics despite never winning any seats on their own account. Also a lot has changed in UK politics since the referendum and a lot of voters are looking at the main parties and thinking they want nothing to do with either. We’re trying to provide an alternative.

En Marche! was helped by Macron himself, seen as an inspiring leader. Could you step into that role?

We have a trio of principals: myself and James Clarke and Sandra Khadhouri. Chris has taken a back seat for professional reasons. It’s striking a chord with a lot of people who want to get away from personality politics and develop a more consensual approach.

Many people think we had a referendum and must deliver Brexit. Why do you want to reverse it?

Lots of people are now seeing that lots of things the Brexiteers promised are not going to be achievable. We think it’s reasonable to say to them: ‘here’s how it’s working out – are you still sure?’.

How would you reach out to the leavers and address their concerns?

We think many people have legitimate complaints, such as wealth inequality. But we don’t believe they will be addressed by Brexit and think they would feel deeply let down in 10 years’ time. We want to speak to people to find out what the real problems in their communities are.

Will you not split the remain vote?

The remain vote is already split – there are pro-EU Tories still voting for them because there’s no other option, pro-EU Labour supporters voting Labour even though they don’t like the idea of Corbyn as Prime Minister. We are trying to provide a sensible alternative.

I would be delighted if the Lib Dems had had more success but they’re not coming through and are largely discredited with a lot of people which is no good when you’re working to a tight timeline as with Brexit. They’re stuck at around 7% in the polls and we expect to be able to do better.

The British in France are facing worries about their status after Brexit. Are you aware of these issues?

We’re well aware a large number of British citizens were disenfranchised in the referendum but massively impacted by the result, which is a great shame. We have candidates who have lived in France or live in France now and are very keyed in to this.

One of your long-term policies is a universal basic income – why?

As the economy has developed, many have been left behind and haven’t enjoyed the fruits. This might help.

We’re exploring it, but it would need to be backed by evidence and affordable. In the UK we now have a ‘universal credit’ system, but evidence shows it has made a lot of people’s lives worse and saved nothing, which is a tragedy.