The majority of the Labour Membership will be delighted with the loss of some of its most rebellious MPs. Figures like Leslie and Umunna are strongly disliked by the Labour faithful and members have long spoken openly about the need to replace MPs who clearly do not have the best interests of the party at heart. But beware sometimes in politics it is best to keep your enemies close.
2 of the 7 MPs had already faced votes of no confidence from their local parties but by jumping they now may cause a huge problem to Labour and the progressive cause in general. In a better democracy, they’d have to call by-elections, and Labour would gain 7 real socialist MPs, but now isn’t the time for hypotheticals about alternative realities. Labour need to gauge the damage the could do to the progressive cause if they formed a party to run in national elections.
Left as they are these MPs will achieve little. Their votes in Parliament aren’t going to change and their habit of throwing grenades at Labour in the media may become less effective now they’ve left the party. Alone they are nothing.
However, if the group became a real nationwide party, in a General Election, they could cause problems. For everyone but the Tories.
While it hasn’t been a fantastic “party” launch, Angela Smith kicked it off by saying something racist on the BBC while journalists such as those at TPN exposed the dodgy legal setup of the party, Labour should not dismiss the group. Labour’s own internal polling should make the leadership very aware of the danger that the group could cause if they form a new centrist party.
In recent polling 17% of those who voted Labour in 2017 said they would be “very likely” to support a new centrist party committed to opposing or overturning Brexit. Another 27% said they would be “fairly likely”. Among Labour’s remainer voters this jumps to 23% and 36% respectively. Support for such a party is highest in London. In seats like Putney 47% of Labour remainers would defect to a new party while in seats like Wimbledon, a key target for Labour, it is 37%.
These aren’t majorities for the Independent group, in any general election I would expect them to win anywhere between zero and five seats but that doesn’t matter. This siphoning of Labour votes would have a dramatic effect on what seats Labour could win. Targets such as Wimbledon would become unwinnable, while seats won in 2017 such as Warwick and Leamington would become nightmare defences.
If the general election in 2017 had happened with a new centrist party the political landscape might be very different. Here is a model of the results of the election with 17% of Labour voters voting for a new centrist party as predicted from Labour’s polling.
It is clear that even if Labour loses a small number of its voters the repercussions on national politics will be dramatic. Some may ask if the Tories will bleed votes to the centre as well but I think this is unlikely. 75% of Conservatives voters voted to leave and therefore the Tories are less exposed to a new political party dragging voters to the centre. A new pro-EU party’s target demographic is Labour’s metropolitan liberals though the Liberal Democrats should also be worried.
There are reasons for Labour to be optimistic. Firstly once Brexit occurs the appeal of a party to overturn Brexit will be gone. It is likely that the Independent group will be a flash in the pan nothing more.
Equally, few politicians and donors want to be part of a party that wins less than 7 seats. The reward is just not worth it. The money and support required to run a national campaign could be seen as lacking especially when members will be seeing a pitiful seat return.
First Past the Post could be Labour’s downfall or its greatest defence. It depends on where the Independent group go.
If they remain 7 defectors, their split will be of no significance. However, if this is the start of a new party then Labour should be worried, and the Tories should lick their lips.