A few stubborn and isolated MPs, or a future political party? What could The Independent Group become?

The landscape of British Politics took a massive turn when seven Labour MPs decided to resign their party whip and start up their own party group in the Commons called The Independent Group. Their main reasons for leaving were; antisemitism, toxicity and entryism within the Labour Party alongside their opposition to Jeremy Corbyn’s acceptance of Brexit as an inevitability. Other reasons likely include their different economic and social views, with most of these MPs being from the political centre of the party.

The next day, these seven ex-Labour MPs were joined by three Conservative MPs, with similar albeit different reasons for defecting. These reasons being; isolation from the party leadership over Brexit, toxicity of the party due to entryism and being held ransom by the European Research Group (ERG- a group of right-wing Tories) and the Vote Leave campaign. They were also joined on that day by another ex-Labour MP, totalling them now at 11: the same number of MPs as the Liberal Democrats.

They all left for similar reasons, but do they actually have similar political views?

As The Independent Group regularly says: they are neither an official party (yet) nor contesting elections. Therefore they do not yet have a manifesto or any concrete policies- which is logical because they aren’t an established party- although it does play into the ‘centrists don’t actually have any policies’ myth. So far though, we can see a few rough themes forming which could plant the basis of a future political party.

The movement is quite clearly pro-EU in all of its forms, from accepting EU regulations and environmental standards to accepting free movement of people. The only solid policy we can see that all of The Independent Group’s MPs support is a People’s Vote, with the goal of remaining in the EU. The group tends to favour multiculturalism and traditional feminism which could manifest itself into policies in the future.

Although some accepted that austerity was necessary during the recession whilst some don’t, they have a general consensus that they don’t want more austerity, as shown by ex-Conservative Heidi Allen admitting that the Tories have “deepened suffering” when they could have reduced it. Chuka summed up his view saying that the “circumstances of your birth [shouldn’t] dictate your future”. He has also said that they are “leaving old, tribal politics behind” and many, when asked about policy, have used words such as “evidence” and “expert[s]”, overall suggesting that when it comes to policy formulation, they will look at what policy works, is popular and overall benefits the most people, rather than what a party or certain ideology dictates.

This is further supported by Heidi Allen’s comments, that they will determine their support for policies “not in a right-left way…but [based off of] what’s actually going to work”. It seems so far that what they have in common would form the backbone of any future political party which they might evolve into: pro-EU, pro-migration, multicultural, compassionate, transparent and fiscally responsible.

What does the future of this group look like?

The MPs have have been subtly threatening their old parties that if they don’t change, more resignations could follow. This has been humoured more seriously by Tory MPs it seems than Labour ones, although it would be expected (based off the current defection numbers) that more Labour MPs are likely to join. From the Tories though, there are moderate MPs that feel isolated from the party due to its Brexit stance and internal toxicity. Soubry says that she received “smiles” and “waves” upon entering the Commons chamber and sitting on the opposition benches. She also admitted to receiving “lovely texts” from her former-colleagues.

Three likely defectors are Justine Greening, Dr Phillip Lee and Dominic Grieve; all threatening to leave the Conservative Party if they end up accepting no deal from the EU. Lee says that he “can’t guarantee” that he’ll stay and that there would be a “stampede” of MPs leaving the party if the government was to go ahead with a no-deal Brexit. Another moderate, Nicky Morgan, however has recently written an article on why moderates should stay in the party and fight rather than flee, which sounds very similar to what Ruth Smeeth has written, albeit for the Labour party. The Labour Party seems to have divided into four different takes on the split. Looking at these four different takes is a good way of differentiating between those who plan on keeping everything the same, those who seek to amend their errors and those that plan on leaving.

Take 1: tends to be a grassroots approach, seen a lot on Twitter from people with Twitter handles including JC4PM (Jeremy Corbyn for Prime Minister) and GTTO (Get The Tories Out). This take denies that there is an antisemitism problem within the party overall and takes the form of retweeting the likes of Galloway and Hatton. Take 2: this tends to be the more genuine Corbynite approach which is to acknowledge the problem, mentioning it and then taking no solid action on it. This is seen mainly in the Tweets, interviews and videos by Corbyn and his leadership team/close allies such as John McDonnell. Take 3: this is not just from the moderate MPs determined to fix their party, but from a wide range of Labour MPs: this take acknowledges that there is a problem and that they need to take firm action on it as soon as possible, an example of this is Tom Watson’s video statement and Barry Gardiner’s contribution to the antisemitism debate in the House of Commons. Take 4: threatening to leave the party if nothing changes, removing connections to the Labour Party on social media and retweeting/defending The Independent Group.

Very few, if any, of Labour’s current MPs have done the latter (threatened to leave in the same way as Greening, Lee and Grieve in the Conservative Party), but a few have been jumping to the defence of The Independent Group. Not many MPs fall into the Take 1 category. A few, mainly shadow cabinet, fall into Take 2. A majority fall into Take 3, even hard-core moderates and good friends of the defected MPs have doubled down on their support for the Labour Party and a dedication to right the wrongs from within. Moderates such as Alison Mcgovern, Tulip Siddiq (who said “I’m Labour to the core”), Peter Kyle, Neil Coyle, Dan Jarvis, Stephen Kinnock (saying “my dedication to my party is unconditional, my dedication to the leadership is conditional”) and John Mann all look like they are staying in the party. Hilary Benn hasn’t said much recently and Ben Bradshaw, although urging colleagues not to defect, says that the party is on the brink of being destroyed and that more MPs could break away. Owen Smith (who contested Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership back in 2016) said that he “might quit” back on the 7th of February, so he would probably be the bookies’ most likely to go next: but the general consensus is that there are more to come.

So is it just a group of disgruntled MPs or a future political party?

The Independent Group have put an emphasis on the fact that they desire to grow into a political party, saying how they want to be more than a group MPs in a committee room. They have already received thousands of small donations. However, the future for them is uncertain. The average majority for the group is 16,114 which is safe but contestable, especially if they are dropping their old party label, which can have a massive effect in places like Liverpool and Streatham.

Moreover, as shown earlier, a few of them are in leave-supporting areas and some have very slim majorities – such as Soubry and Smith. However, they seem to be doing well on the diversity front. Two-thirds of their MPs so far are women, which is the largest ever for any parliamentary party (discounting the Greens which naturally, with 1 MP, have 100% women). They have a decent mix (for their modest size) of minority representation in Berger and Umunna.

What is impressive though is their geographical diversity. Although they have no MPs from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, they do have commendable English diversity. From Liverpool, to Manchester, to Sheffield, to Nottingham to Cambridgeshire, to North London, to South London all the way down to Devon. English geographical diversity is not the only (usually overlooked) asset this group has: it also has a good diversity of opinion.

The main difference between the ex-Labour and ex-Conservative MPs are their varying views concerning Blair’s government compared to the coalition government. The ex-Labour MPs see Blair’s economic model as ideal (more government spending on public services through taxation) whereas the ex-Conservative MPs see the coalition’s economic policies as sound (less spending on public services and less taxation). However, it is this kind of difference in opinion, yet similar worldview, that they hope will form their party’s manifesto in the future. They seem to align on issues that they see as common sense: social policy such as civil rights, LGBT rights (with the historical exception of Shuker), feminism and multiculturalism but they disagree on issues that they see as less-contentious, such as economics, and therefore seem to have this smiley-harmony that no other group in the Commons possesses (other than maybe the Lib Dems who, like The Independent Group, have an advantage on the unity-front due to their modest size).

 

The Independent Group are definitely an interesting project and could provide the political shakeup that this Brexit stalemate needs. Don’t discount the power that small parties with 10 or more MPs can have in toppling or supporting governments. There have already been rumours about The Independent Group offering the Conservatives a majority through a confidence and supply agreement in exchange for a People’s Vote. These 11 MPs, along with the 11 Lib Dem MPs, could have a disproportionately large impact on the outcome of Brexit.

Wollaston has described them as a “third way” which is a phrase that has been used to describe Blair’s centrist agenda, although Umunna has made clear that they are “not the old tunes of the past” and he even rejected Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” as he sees it as an out of date prescription. Heidi Allen summed up their movement best. She puts forward a vision for a party of confidence, collaboration and expert analysis with an emphasis on care, compassion and fairness. She says she wants it to be a party of the best minds, biggest hearts and made up of effective communicators.

There has been speculation about who would lead this party but Umunna showed the radical nature of this group when, in his Channel 4 interview, he said that they don’t want the “soap opera” and “hierarchy” of the normal political parties, although acknowledging that “you need a leadership team” and that he wants to “play the biggest role possible”. This project is very risky and in the current political climate, it could either prosper massively or flounder awfully. With Brexit hurtling towards us, if it is to go ahead, with or without a People’s Vote, then it is hard to see what the future of this party would be; if we leave anyway then they become pointless and if we remain then surely they become unnecessary – that is, at least, if they fail to reach out and become a broader political movement.

Overall, this is a highly ambitious political project and despite one’s political views one can acknowledge that it takes bravery to start said project at such a crucial time, especially for people that have been such long-standing members to their previous parties- and in some cases even governments. These MPs have most likely thrown their careers under the bus (mainly due to how our current electoral system works) because they have seen the potential to change the country for the better in a way that the two main parties have neglected for decades. The odds are stacked against them, but as Heidi Allen said; “We might fail, but isn’t the prize worth fighting for?”

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