On Monday morning, a group of 7 Labour MPs took the unprecedented step of leaving the Labour Party and forming a new centrist “party”, taking the incredibly bland name of ‘The Independent Group’. Except it was not unprecedented at all – most of these MPs, such as their ringleader Chuka Umunna, have been vocally and visibly opposed to the Labour Party ever since 2015, when Jeremy Corbyn achieved a landslide victory in the leadership election. They were also part of the 2016 coup when the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) forced Corbyn into another leadership election, which he won with an increased vote share. The leaks about a new centrist party have been going around for months so this came to nobody’s surprise. So why did they join with three ex-Conservatives and leave Labour?
Their official Statement of Independence cites that they believe “none of today’s political parties are fit to provide the leadership and direction needed by our country”. They say their aim is to pursue “evidence-based” policies not based on ideology. Such a display of ignorance would be quite shocking for seasoned politicians if it didn’t fit in with the usual centrist talking points. All politicians are led by ideology, and according to the statement theirs is an ideology of Blair and Clinton’s Third Way from the 90s, of a “social market economy” and a pro-war, pro-intervention military state. They believe that a bit of regulation and welfare on an otherwise neoliberal capitalist system is enough to combat the issues of rising inequality, economic exploitation, homelessness and climate change. Angela Smith, one of the seven, has been a supporter of Thatcher’s water privatisation, having vested interests in the industry. They even draw from Conservative talking points, claiming that opportunity is the way for individuals to leave poverty, rather than committing to eliminating poverty altogether. The verdict is clear; it is fundamentally a capitalist ideology that fails to address its inherent contradictions. To claim that they are not led by ideology is contradictory to the rest of their statement and intellectually dishonest.
This is why I say good riddance. As a Labour member I am not interested in sharing a party with politicians cosying up to Tory MPs and those who believe that the 2017 manifesto is “too radical”, because it really isn’t. It is the bare minimum that this country needs and policy by policy is what the public overwhelmingly back. The UK centre ground is in favour of an end to austerity and social democracy: having the wealthy pay their fair share, having strong public services with universal healthcare and free education from cradle to grave, and taking water, energy, gas, the buses, the railways etc back into public ownership so profits can be reinvested into making our experiences better, cheaper, and greener. It is in favour of bold solutions to fight the climate crisis facing us today. The centre ground is with Labour’s 2017 manifesto and that would be just the start of the political revolution that needs to take place in post-2008 austerity Britain.
These MPs stood on that manifesto of hope, and each one of them increased their vote shares in the 2017 General Election, securing their jobs as MPs earning more than £77k per annum. They stood wearing the red rosette, committed to implementing these policies and supporting the future Labour government. They benefitted off the money the party and trade unions poured into their campaigns, as well as the hard-working activists who door-knocked and canvassed for them – ordinary citizens suffering under a Tory government but volunteering their own time to get Labour candidates elected. Their constituents voted for a Labour MP standing on the 2017 manifesto, and by resigning their Labour membership to form a coalition with the Tories, they have betrayed each and every one of their voters and past supporters who got them these jobs. They refuse to stand down as MPs and call by-elections to campaign honestly on their new platforms. That’s a personal sacrifice they are not willing to make for their new politics. Instead they have formed a political grouping, ‘The Independent Group’: it is asking for donations, asking for people to sign up, it is speaking as one voice – in short, acting like a political party. However, they have not registered as a political party, but instead as a private company that does not have to disclose its donors. Every action they’ve taken is shady and dodgy, and shows they lack any conviction in their own political beliefs.
The conversation wouldn’t be complete without mentioning another reason that these MPs cite for leaving: the problem of antisemitism in the Labour Party. Luciana Berger is a Jewish woman who is one of these MPs and has faced disgusting abuse from some members of the party online and in her constituency, and her leaving with antisemitism as one of her reasons serves as a real wake up call for the Party’s disciplinary processes, which need to be stricter and swifter in combatting antisemitism. Even one Jewish member leaving the party due to antisemitism is too many, and Labour needs to urgently improve its processes and embark on a programme of political education to ensure those members realise the damage they do when they use antisemitic tropes, and especially how left-wing views regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict can sometimes become too accommodating to antisemitic rhetoric in the fringes. Momentum, the successor of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign, has done some excellent work producing educational videos that reach the very minority that espouses this racist rhetoric; but we need the Party to take inspiration from them and listen to Jewish members in order to truly eradicate antisemitism from our movement.
The other MPs cite antisemitism as a reason for them leaving as well, claiming that this new “party” will be a socially progressive voice. However, this claim quickly collapsed a mere 3 hours after the launch, with the group being embroiled in a racist scandal – Angela Smith went on national TV and referred to ethnic minorities as people with a “funny tinge”. Smith issued a weak non-apology later, apologising for “any offence caused” and claiming she misspoke. For 1/7th of the membership of a new ‘anti-racist’ party to promote racist rhetoric within three hours of launching must be some sort of record. None of the other six MPs denounced the comment, with Chris Leslie saying in response to the hypocrisy that their leaving wasn’t just about antisemitism, but about policy as well. Choosing to conveniently brush aside antisemitism when it suits them, to the point of not even mentioning it on their official Statement of Independence despite mentioning it in their televised speeches, makes their commitment to anti-racism questionable at best and a cynical political lie at worst.
There are also rumours that the group will welcome ex-Labour MPs John Woodcock and Ivan Lewis, both formally accused of sexual harassment and resigned before the Labour Party investigations into them could be completed. Among the seven is also Gavin Shuker, who threatened to resign from the Shadow Cabinet if the Labour Party supported gay marriage – in the end he abstained on it. It is evident that ‘The Independent Group’ are not a socially progressive group by any measure.
Labour, while not perfect, is still the best vehicle for any sort of progressive politics. With a mass membership of half a million making it the largest party in Europe, it is backed and funded by ordinary people from all over the country. Due to the massive ongoing democratisation project, it has become the only party where ordinary working people can take part in politics and make their voice heard – where members are valued and not just treated like a campaigning tool.
Unfortunately, it is clear that The Independent Group is just another regressive Third Way tribute act from the 90s, trying to resurrect a zombie politics that has long been dead. They claim to oppose a right-wing Tory Brexit, but by standing against the Labour Party they have made that outcome much more likely, risking the country facing a disastrous no deal Brexit because of their opportunism. Ultimately, they will fail like the SDP before them and merge with the Liberal Democrats, but until then, they are only assisting the Tories in their pursuit of a tax haven austerity Britain.