Yesterday saw seven MPs quit the Labour Party to form ‘the Independent Group’ in the House of Commons. The departing MPs were Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Gavin Shuker and Ann Coffey. The ongoing anti-Semitism row, Corbyn’s position on Brexit, an alleged culture of internal party bullying and the perceived grip of the far-left on Labour politics made them go, they said.
Putting aside the allegations of entrenched anti-Semitism within Labour, the real totem for the Independent Group will be long-term misgivings about Labour’s approach to Brexit specifically, and Corbyn’s leadership generally. Regarding both, the Independent Group’s criticism of Corbyn’s leadership comes from a politically centrist point-of-view.
Of course, Theresa May and her team will be thankful for the distraction internal Labour strife has provided from the ever-hectic Brexit process. This relief is obviously diminished by the prospect some of her own MPs may jump ship. Her knife-edge majority in the Commons could easily become nothing with a new cluster of anti-Brexit MPs forming a growing block, taking MPs from both major parties.
Even though it is early days, the Independent Group is not simply a group for disgruntled Blairites; it may prove to be something with greater appeal. This has led to speculation that strongly anti-Brexit Conservative MPs could seek a similar exit from their party to join a movement at the ‘political centre’. A sizeable number of MPs will be attracted by being free from what some see as a right-leaning Conservative Party and a left-leaning Labour Party. The thinking is: there’s a middle-ground and we want to occupy it.
Future defections from the Conservatives
Tory MP Anna Soubry is widely speculated to see the allure of the Independent Group. Dr Sarah Wollaston is also one to watch, as are Heidi Allen and Nick Boles. All continue to flex their pro-EU muscles despite the ire it tends to attract in their own party. This could even see them de-selected as parliamentary candidates.
Could the new Independent Group have its Independents’ Day and snatch the much sought-after middle ground, which the Liberal Democrats seem to be failing to attract? It depends on greater numbers in the Independent Group’s parliamentary cohort and a broadened appeal beyond the Labour Party. It cannot just be a refuge for Labour MPs.
The Group is likely to boost its numbers with further Labour defections, despite promises from John McDonnell that the party is triggering a “mammoth listening exercise.” Tom Watson, Corbyn’s deputy, has already conceded that “unless we change we may see more days like this.” So now the spotlight is firmly fixed on internal Labour Party management to see whether it adds to, or halts, the momentum of the Independent Group.
Forging real clout in Parliament
If the Independent Group wants to forge real clout in national British politics, it may wish to consider forming a new political party per se. Should it do so, it will be interesting to see if Lords, councillors or regional assembly members follow. For example, it would be easy to see Lord Adonis fall into the Independent Group should it gain traction outside of the Commons.
However, in the short-term, key to its centrist political appeal will be a more diverse background of MPs favouring less ideological approaches to causes like social justice, progressive politics and being generally pro-EU/anti-Brexit.
New recruits are essential for its future success and its survival. If the Independents are to have their day, they must grow and change.
Picture credit: The Independent