By Campaign Agent Joe Monk
The question for many is whether British politics is broken or not. The phrases ‘changed the locks’ and the eradication of ‘sensible middle ground politics’ resonate with the former Labour MP Angela Smith who, along with six other former Labour colleagues, have now established the Independent Group which seems to represent the cohort of a disillusioned faction of the Labour party that operate the middle ground.
This decision to form a breakaway movement has not come lightly and isn’t solely down to the consequences that Brexit has brought to the party. Clear divisions exist between members that want a second referendum and the leadership that seems to be flirting with the Tories on a compromise in the government’s withdrawal agreement. The split is due to discontent concerning the direction of the Labour party, with increasing criticism of the incompetency of the leadership in dealing with anti-Semitism. This depicts a dark picture of the party, with an investigation showing 673 allegations of anti-Semitism have been made in the past ten months. The framework of the party has very much changed, not just in terms of policies but also its makeup given the rise in membership since Corbyn became leader.
Other colleagues that have joined Angela Smith include senior prominent figures such as Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and Chris Leslie. All are very critical of the Corbyn leadership and have shown this for quite some time, thus it shouldn’t be of surprise to any that this split has come about; it was a case of when rather than if. Luciana Berger, in particular, has faced the sheer force and dark factions of the momentum group that gives impetus to Corbyn politics. Anyone that shows any sign of criticism or concern is immediately vilified and faces threats of deselection given the powers party members now hold since the reforms under Ed Miliband. Berger, as a prominent voice for Jewish politicians, has faced significant anti-Semitism within the party, which has culminated in bullying accusations that forced her to attend her own party’s conference with security guards. Most recently, the Labour Liverpool Wavertree group, the constituency she represents, have threatened to deselect her and regard her claims of anti-Semitism as outrageous. There is very much a toxic nature within Labour at this time, and the lack of leadership many identify in Corbyn’s approach to tackling anti-Semitism is now being exploited. Now, I think it is imperative for Labour to seriously consider the stance they take on this issue. Corbyn lacks credibility for his approach, as was seen with the long investigation into Ken Livingstone and remarks he made. It seems he wants to avoid punishing those closest to him, yet is ready to jump the gun with those critical of him- for example, when sacking Owen Smith over his views on Brexit.
In their speech to the British press, the seven colleagues made it clear that the decision wasn’t taken lightly, and rightly so. This is the party that they have grown up with and associated themselves with throughout their political lives. The purpose of political parties is to bring together like-minded people with the same ideologies and vision for governing and promoting the best for its citizens. The fact that they have had to resign and also put their political careers in jeopardy shows how serious this situation is for the party. It’s not clear at this moment what direction the movement will take but they have made assurances that they want people to join so that they can tell them, as their representatives, what direction to take. I think that instead of being outcasted as traitors, much sympathy must be given. They know that this gives more chance of Tory success at the next general election, and the fact they would make this a possibility rather than stay and help form a Corbyn government speaks volumes.
On Wednesday, three MPs also resigned from the Conservative party to join the Independent Group. Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen voiced their disappointment that the government had let the "hard-line anti-EU awkward squad" take over the party. With the possibility of others joining them, we could see a major realignment of British politics which resonates with the formation of the Liberals and Social Democrats back in the 1980s. It will be very interesting to see how long this new Independent Group can last, and if so whether it can cause an earthquake in British politics. The party will mainly be comprised of members that want a second referendum on EU membership which would appeal to many and certainly contest for votes from the Liberal Democrats. It does beg one question - why Vince Cable hasn’t pushed for disillusioned members within Labour and the Conservatives to join them and make the case for a second referendum. Furthermore, the new Independent Group will look to counter the rise of the newly formed Brexit party that include the likes of Nigel Farage and several former UKIP MEP’s that left the party after Gerard Batten took the party further to the right.
This year has hardly begun, yet the British public has seen the formation of two new groups that were long in the making. Despite my admiration for these brave MPs to speak out against their party and put their careers on the line for the interests of what they believe is best for Britain, it seems only likely that their departure will fracture the momentum for progressive politics and allow for the Conservatives to take full advantage. Will this new group really field candidates in marginal seats that could create space for Tory majorities? Labour could really make ground in remain Tory constituencies at the next election and in marginal seats such as Amber Rudd’s, who only won by a few hundred votes. However, all of this could be at risk if there is party fragmentation in progressive politics. I think a realignment in British politics is much needed, but it is hard to see whether it will last, given the two party nature of the political system in Britain.
Sources and Further Reading:
Jacob Jarvis - `Labour party split: Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and the MPs who have quit the party`, Evening Standard (18th February, 2019)
Press Association - `Labour leadership criticised after anti-Semitism expulsion figures released`, Evening Express (11th February, 2018)
Marco Giannangeli - `Labour in turmoil over claims of ‘bullying’`, Daily Express (18th February, 2018)
BBC - `No-confidence vote in Labour MP Luciana Berger pulled`, BBC Staff (8th February, 2019)
Tim Sculthorpe - `Nigel Farage backs new BREXIT PARTY and warns Theresa May he will ‘step back into the fray’ to defend leave vote if exit is delayed`, Daily Mail (20th January, 2019)
Image: UK Parliament @flickr