With 11 MPs having resigned from the Labour and Conservative Parties, what does the Independent Group stand for and what kind of impact will they have?
The rumours of splits within the Labour Party have been circulating for almost as long as Jeremy Corbyn has been leader. This week the rumours proved to be true and seven Labour MPs resigned from the Party to form an Independent Group. Their reasons for resigning were manifold, ranging from Corbyn’s unwillingness to take a stand against Brexit to anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. An eighth Labour MP, Joan Ryan, chose to resign and join the group later.
The Independent Group formed on Monday and were joined by three Conservative MPs on Wednesday. Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry had been a thorn in Theresa May’s side for a while, espousing a more ‘one nation’ conservatism than the right-wingers of the European Research Group whom May must win over in order to secure parliamentary support for her floundering Brexit deal. The ‘gang of three’ are all pro-Remain and advocate for a People’s Vote on any Brexit proposals, giving them at least one thing in common with the Labour founders of the Independent Group.
Anna Soubry was typically uncompromising with her words, making it clear that whilst Brexit might have been the catalyst, her resignation was about more than just this, stating “The right wing, the hard-line anti-EU awkward squad that have destroyed every leader for the last 40 years are now running the Conservative Party from top to toe. They are the Conservative Party.” Heidi Allen, citing Conservative policies on poverty as a reason for her move, claimed that there were more Conservatives “keen” to join the group.
What does all this mean for UK politics? The Independent Group already has as many MPs as the Liberal Democrats and rumours in Westminster suggest that there are at least another four Labour MPs poised to join them, whilst Conservative whips are nervously eyeing some more pro-Remain MPs and trying to secure promises of loyalty. However, none of these defecting MPs have so far felt confident enough to announce that they will put themselves before their electorates seeking a mandate for their membership of the new grouping. Whilst it was just ex-Labour MPs there was clearly a danger that the Independent Group would merely split the centre-left vote and allow the Conservatives to pick up some previously safe Labour seats, as has happened in the past when Labour has been beset by splits. The defection of some Conservatives doesn’t mitigate this totally, but clearly it is now an issue for both parties to grapple with.
The new group is unabashedly ‘centrist’. Whilst this has become a term of abuse from many on the left, there is plenty of support for centrist policies from within the Labour Party and the electorate. However, the addition of the three former Conservative MPs has allowed the narrative being pushed by the likes of Momentum, that this is a group of Tories and neo-liberal Blairites, to gain ground. This will likely put off many within the Labour Movement who feel that it will be better to ‘stay and fight’ for the soul of the Labour Party rather than join with Conservatives in a new group. Similarly, for many traditional Labour voters, getting the Conservatives out is the more important than stopping Corbyn, even if they do not agree with his stance on many issues. We know what the Independent Group are against, but we don’t really know what they are for. Will they be able to form a political party? To unite around a manifesto? This is all very much up in the air at the moment.
I was a member of the Labour Party for 21 years before reaching the decision that it was impossible to remain within the party last August. I had struggled with the decision for a while. I had argued with myself that it was better to stay and fight for my party. But there comes a point where you have to decide what you are prepared to accept in order to remain part of a group. I could no longer tolerate anti-Semitism, misogyny and weak leadership that allowed newly-joined activists to abuse those who had devoted their time and energy to the movement for years. My resignation letter to my constituency secretary elicited a reply that encouraged me to stay. It was clear that a majority of members in my constituency were feeling the same as me but were staying put because they believed that the Labour movement remained more than Corbyn and Momentum. I was, and remain, unconvinced that this is the right decision. Remaining in the party under these conditions seems to me to be an endorsement, however reluctant, of the current leadership. It is a stance many MPs and members continue to take and therefore we may not see mass defections to a centrist group who are willing to embrace disaffected Conservatives as well.
Sir Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has suggested that his party may not contest constituencies where members of the Independent Group are the sitting MPs. He stated that “It would be foolish for my party and this Independent Group to fight with each other. His support for the “courage” of the defecting MPs suggests that the Liberal Democrats see an opportunity, perhaps suggesting that this is indeed going to turn into a re-run of the SDP. Again, this may prove off-putting to many anti-Corbyn Labour MPs and members.
The irony of David Cameron’s calling of a referendum on membership of the EU to settle the divisive issue of Europe within the Conservative Party is that it has actually fractured both of the main political parties. Brexit has been a catalyst for those unhappy with their party’s lurches to the left and right. It may be that the biggest impact the Independent Group has is waking up the leadership of political parties to the fact that if they claim to be broad churches, they must value all sections of the party and allow all a voice. Otherwise, splinters, if not splits, will continue to occur.