Labour MPs form breakaway Independent group

Today, seven MPs resigned from the Labour Party in order to form an Independent Group of MPs.  The Independent Group has a website, has published a full statement on their shared values (available here) and a Twitter account (here), meaning this breakaway could form the basis of a potential new political party.

The rationale for the resignations focussed on a number of key issues, including: assertions of a broken political system where the existing two parties had failed to represent the views of the British people; a failure to lead over Brexit and a betrayal of the Labour Party membership in backing the Government’s Brexit-vision; accusations that Labour had become institutionally racist and anti-Semitic; and broader criticisms of the leadership on issues such as business and international relations.

The seven MPs who have resigned are: Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree), Chris Leslie (Nottingham East), Chuka Umunna (Streatham), Angela Smith (Penistone & Stocksbridge), Mike Gapes (Ilford South), Gavin Shuker (Luton South) and Ann Coffey (Stockport).

Analysis

This is a smaller group of MPs than had previously being touted as potential ‘splitters’ from the Labour Party, but on the day the number of MPs surprised slightly on the upside. The event that they put together was professionally run and the individuals concerned have spoken calmly, with passion and confidence. (This compares well with, for example, Chuka Umunna’s botched leadership platform in 2015 where he was clearly nervous and somewhat out of his depth.) On this basis, we should expect the independent grouping to have a little bit of a media honeymoon, alongside the inevitable rough ride from Corbyn supporters.

Other notable ‘centrists’ within the Labour Party such as Peter Kyle committed to staying in the Party for the time being in order to fight Brexit as they see remaining within the Labour Party as the strongest vehicle for securing a meaningful change in direction. The success of this endeavour will be in the extent to which other Labour MPs can be persuaded to join it, and the propensity of MPs from other parties prepared to join forces with these previously-Labour MPs. The group will also need to work to convince the UK electorate of the overarching message that British politics is indeed ‘broken’. If the discussions focus on internal Labour-party splits and an anti-Corbyn narrative, the new grouping may struggle to gain significant traction, but it seemed clear that there is a desire to ‘reach across the aisle’ to MPs and supporters of other parties.

The electoral system remains a huge obstacle to the development of a real centrist party, but this is a strong start, some other Labour MPs will probably join in the coming days giving a sense of momentum, and the splits on the Tory side enhance the sense that our whole politics is in flux.

Impact on Brexit

In the long run we will probably look at this the other way around as Brexit impacting on party politics, with the split symptomatic of its corrosive effect on established groupings. For now though it is worth noting the second referendum issue was not central to the “independent” press conference which showed how the MPs don’t want this to be framed narrowly as a referendum grouping. Nevertheless it is a fact that the “People’s Vote” has considerable emotional attachment in this grouping, as well as among other disaffected MPs and the wider activist base. This is a delicate situation for Jeremy Corbyn –  if he is seen as merely paying lip service to the referendum issue, then disenchantment may spread dangerously. Thus it might become harder for the Labour leadership to justify supporting anything along the lines of Theresa May’s deal in future because of the risk of party unity completely unravelling.

The Independent Group

The Independent Group itself argues that it will pursue “evidence-based” policies not led by ideology and taking a “long-term perspective to the challenges of the 21st century”. Taking a direct stab at what they see as an intolerant environment within the Labour party, it states that it will “recognise the value of healthy debate” and “show tolerance towards different opinions”, listing its values as:

  • Pride in the UK and the importance of safeguarding its national security;
  • The importance of a diverse, mixed social market economy;
  • Promoting individual freedoms in order to foster creativity among the community;
  • Respect for the free media, rule of law, and an open democratic society;
  • Strengthening of the multilateral, international rules-based order;
  • Protection of the environment and sustainable development; and
  • Increased devolution to the “most appropriate level”.

The group said that they will hold their first formal meeting in the next few days and at that point they will begin thinking about assigning formal roles. It remains to be seen whether this will include a leader of the group.

Polling

According to polling from Opinium, the idea of a new Party is popular in principle. A large proportion of the public are disillusioned with the two-party system with almost half (41%) believing that both Labour and the Conservatives had become “extreme”. A similar number (42%) believe neither party stands for anything. Additionally, two-fifths (40%) think a new political party would be the best way for people like them to be represented, while 59% would consider voting for a new centre-ground party. However, the level to which this favourable polling would translate in a true general election setting is unclear, particularly when the hypothetical party is forced to provide clear, and sometimes controversial, policy positions. This coupled with the usual challenges new parties face in the UK with name recognition in a first-past-the-post system.

 

Reaction

Reacting to the split, Jeremy Corbyn stated: “I am disappointed that these MPs have felt unable to continue to work together for the Labour policies that inspired millions at the last election and saw us increase our vote by the largest share since 1945. Labour won people over on a programme for the many not the few – redistributing wealth and power, taking vital resources into public ownership, investing in every region and nation, and tackling climate change. The Conservative Government is bungling Brexit, while Labour has set out a unifying and credible alternative plan. When millions are facing the misery of Universal Credit, rising crime, homelessness and poverty, now more than ever is the time to bring people together to build a better future for us all.”

The Liberal Democrats, however, made welcoming noises, arguing that it was “open to working with like-minded groups and individuals”. However, it focussed predominantly on its calls for a second Brexit referendum.

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