Simon Franks, who sold LoveFilm to tech giant Amazon in 2011 in a £200m deal, has raised around £20m from investors, corporate backers and City figures. A former Labour donor and supporter, Franks has told backers he wants to emulate Emmanuel Marcon’s En Marche! Movement, which swept the French President to power in May on a wave of popular support. Marcon’s party also won a majority in the National Assembly in June.
The tech entrepreneur has held a series of secret meetings about the new party – which does not yet have a name – with a group of wealthy individuals who share his frustration about the direction of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.
Backers are understood to include Richard Reed, one of the founders of the Innocent Drinks empire. He became a multimillionaire when he and his two co-founders sold a 90% share in the firm to Coca-Cola in 2013. Reed has donated money in the past to former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who lost his Sheffield Hallam seat at the last general election in June.
The new party will represent a major threat to the Lib Dems, who failed to make a breakthrough earlier this year after Tim Farron fought the election on a promise to hold a second referendum on UK membership of the EU. Farron hoped to attract support from the 48 per cent of voters who were Remain supporters – but the extraordinary success of Labour’s campaign meant there was no Lib Dem recovery. The party won just 12 seats in June, 4 more than the party won in 2015, when it suffered a dramatic collapse after five years of propping up David Cameron’s coalition government. The SNP has 35 MPs and the DUP ten.
Franks believes his party, which does not yet have a name, will appeal to a large tranche of centre-ground voters who are socially and economically liberal but do not currently have a party that speaks for them. Despite the fact Labour won a 40% share of the vote in June, Franks has told friends he believes a huge number of voters reject what he regards as the outdated, statist policies of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. His new party would also represent a major threat to Labour. A source familiar with the plans said that – even if it was unable to emulate the success of En Marche! – it could keep Jeremy Corbyn out of Downing Street. He said: “If a centrist party fielded candidates in every constituency and won just 5% of the vote it could deprive Labour of dozens of seats”. He added that Franks believes some serving Labour MPs could defect to the party.
En Marche! attracted the support of senior French politicians from across the political spectrum. There has been speculation since Corbyn won the September 2015 leadership election by a landslide that ‘moderate’ Labour MPs could set up a new party.
The last time the Labour party had a hard-left leader, in the early 1980s, the SDP was formed by leading Labour figures including David Owen and Roy Jenkins with the aim of upending the UK’s two-party system. It nearly succeeded, winning 25.4% of the vote in the 1983 general election as part of the SDP/Liberal alliance to Labour’s 27.6% under Michael Foot. But the UK’s first part the post system mean the alliance only won 23 Parliamentary seats. The split on the left allowed Margaret Thatcher to win two landslide victories in the 1980s to add to her win in 1979. The bitter legacy of that schism and the fact it handed power to Thatcher is the main reason Labour MPs who do not share Corbyn’s political outlook are reluctant to break away from the party. But according to sources familiar with the plan, Franks is prepared to lead the party himself.
Unlike Macron, Franks has never stood for office or been involved in frontline politics. He is said to be convinced, however, that his business acumen and political instincts, along with his deep pockets, means he is well-placed to lead a new political movement that could quickly establish a dominant position in the centre ground of British politics.