By Thomas Sherlock
It’s 1981 all over again…kind of.
Instead of the ‘Gang of Four’ (4 MPs who broke away from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party in 1981), there is a ‘Magnificent Seven’. Angela Smith, Ann Coffey, Chris Leslie, Chuka Umunna, Gavin Shuker, Mike Gapes and Luciana Berger have resigned from the Labour Party and formed The Independent Group.
First of all, this is not a political party…yet. It is only a parliamentary grouping at present. However, Umunna’s comments at the press conference launching the Group indicated they intend to build a party around it, with him calling today’s events ‘the first step’. On their new website the Group set out their values on a wide variety of topics, including the economy, devolution, public services and (of course) Brexit. So the groundwork is there, whether it can be turned into anything concrete remains to be seen.
So what might become of this new group? Ultimately it could come to nothing. The MPs involved are unlikely to vote any differently to how they have been already, so Labour can probably rely on their backing for most of their proposals in Parliament anyway. If they do manage to build a party structure, there is a very low chance of success. First past the post has long guarded the dominance of two party system. Therefore chances of electoral success for this new Group, at least on a national level, are limited.
There is the possibility that other MPs defect to this new Group. Some moderate Tory MPs are not particularly quiet about their discontent with the party’s approach to Brexit, and it did seem that Umunna was pitching to them by inviting MPs from ‘other political traditions’ to join them during the press conference. Of course it remains to be seen whether there is enough discontent amongst the moderates for them to breakaway. Might other Labour MPs join their ranks? It’s possible, the decision may seem somewhat easier now that someone else has made the first step. As for relations with the remains of the original 1981 splinter group, the Liberal Democrats, Umunna explicitly ruled out a merger and Vince Cable has said he’ll aim to work with the Group, a message echoed by other Lib Dems.
What of Labour? With it now down to 248 MPs, the press conference was not short of criticism of party, with Berger stating that Labour was ‘institutionally anti-Semitic’. Jeremy Corbyn expressed disappointment in their decision, echoed by Tom Watson who claimed in a video statement this was a wake up call for the party. Unison leader Dave Prentis said similar, claiming Labour’s ‘overriding concern’ should be to address the reasons the MPs felt they had to leave. What, if any, action will this result in, who can say. There does seem to be a vocal part of Labour dismissing the Group as traitors, perhaps most obviously displayed by Young Labour this morning who tweeted lyrics from Labour’s anthem The Red Flag: ‘Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the red flag flying here’.
Whether The Independent Group achieves success as a party will ultimately be a matter of waiting and seeing, what is clear though is that today marks a clear failure of the ‘broad church’ characterisation of Labour. There are also broader implications. Could it be that Brexit has fundamentally broken the two-parties that have for over a century dominated British politics? With the recent turmoil in the Tories and now this splintering of Labour, it seems quite possible.