The Independent Group: a Grey Wave?

Luciana Berger, former Labour MP and founder of the Independent Group. Source: FlickrLuciana Berger, former Labour MP and founder of the Independent Group. Source: Flickr

Wednesday morning saw the crisis unleashed by the resignation of seven Labour MPs take a new turn. Two days after the formation of the ‘Independent Group’, amidst criticisms of Corbyn’s Brexit policy, the party’s handling of antisemitism and concerns about Labour no longer being the ‘broad church’ it had once been, Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen, three of the Conservative Party’s most prominent Remainers, announced their own resignations. The Tories, they claimed, had become ‘Blukip’ and shifted to the far right, falling hostage to Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group.

Reactions to the original Labour breakaway have varied greatly. Some have dismissed it entirely, viewing it solely as a group of MPs who had never accepted Corbyn’s leadership and had ‘jumped before they were pushed’. Tribune labelled the Group ‘a tantrum thrown by careerists who found their avenues of progression closed off’, and a movement with ‘no policies, no ideas [and] no substance.’ Others have pointed to the daunting task ahead: a further 29 MPs (25 as of Wednesday morning) are needed to overtake the SNP as the third largest parliamentary party, thereby accessing both finance and the PMQ slots currently enjoyed by Ian Blackford. The German Süddeutsche Zeitung suggested it had but ‘slim chance of survival’, highlighting the First-Past-the-Post system and the seemingly small centrist electorate.

Of the two main issues leading to the Independent Group’s formation (Corbyn’s Euroscepticism and the alleged antisemitism within the party), it is the latter that seems least likely to be addressed as a result of the resignations. Any drastic steps, after all, could be seen not only as a concession towards ‘exiled’ MPs, but as a recognition that the policies adopted throughout the past year have been insufficient, something the leadership have consistently denied. The Independent Group’s resignation may have brought the issue back into the public spotlight, but is unlikely to have contributed to its eradication.

The Group’s success will ultimately depend on two factors: their effectiveness in Parliament, particularly when dealing with the final phase of the Brexit negotiations – their raison d’être –, and their ability to turn what is a relatively small breakaway into an actual political movement capable of gathering the momentum necessary to challenge a system (First-Past-the-Post) which has traditionally punished third-ranked parties. Wednesday’s increase in numbers will undoubtedly help, by giving the party both more parliamentary muscle and an image of being a cross-party endeavor, rather than an internal Labour conflict.

In the case of Brexit, however, it is unclear to what extent the Group will play a larger role than its individual members did. As their voting records show, most MPs hardly ever aligned with their party’s whip in key Brexit votes, their resignation therefore having a lesser impact than might be thought. The breakaway is, furthermore, unlikely to revive the option of a People’s Vote, a measure which would require either Corbyn’s or May’s support. The only scenario where the Group could play a decisive role is as a mediator between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the 1922 Committee. The current lack of consensus on anything beyond No Deal could, for example, be turned into support for a middle ground, be that Phil Kyle and Peter Wilson’s amendment (support for the deal followed by a binding People’s Vote) or the Norway plus model. Ultimately, much will also depend on who the Group manage to recruit. Big names such as Nicky Morgan, Yvette Cooper, Justine Greening or Dominic Grieve (of which the latter would arguably be the most likely) would improve the party’s image both within and outside the party, contributing to the second necessary element: a voter base.

Although the incorporation of Heidi Allen, Anna Soubury and Sarah Wollaston may work to alleviate Tribune’s image of a post-Blairite ‘tantrum’, it still seems difficult to see which specific demographic the Independent Group could target. Although a recent YouGov poll indicated that Corbyn’s favourability at an all-time low, this does not guarantee a mass defection towards the new party. After all, only 6% of those who disliked him indicated this was due to his failure to support a People’s Vote and a mere 8% cited antisemitism: for 27%, the issue was his lack of decisiveness, far too ambiguous a ground to infer enthusiasm towards a new centrist party. The Lib Dems’ voter share since the referendum, which has hardly ever exceeded the current 10%, again suggests that a party running mainly on a pro-Remain platform is unlikely to tap into a large share of votes.

This problem will be particularly evident when, at some point in 2019, the UK leaves the EU. At that stage, the Independent Group will have to choose between becoming a party mainly focused on re-joining the EU (with the Lib Dems, again, providing a disheartening precedent) or more clearly defining their political agenda. How they would reconcile their alleged anti-establishmentarianism (politics, in the words of Angela Smith, being ‘broken’ and ‘incapable of inspiring confidence’) with their socio-liberal values is difficult to see. Although nothing suggests the political center cannot make a revival (contemporary British politics is not known for its predictability), the 2017 election seemed to signal ‘the disappearance of the [political] centre’, with the two major parties obtaining a collective 82% of the vote. No less importantly, as Corbyn has rightly reminded his former MPs, they were elected on manifestos which have very little in common with the political positions they now espouse: after all, it is likely that an Independent Group manifesto would be too economically liberal for a large share of Labour voters and too socially progressive (on immigration and Europe) for most Conservatives. Internal divisions are also likely to arise at this stage: whilst the three Tories have openly supported austerity policies, the Labour MPs have said the opposite. To what extent a cohesive policy document could be drafted is therefore unclear.

Throughout the past few weeks, the analogy with the SDP’s 1981 split has been drawn to make the case for two propositions: on the one hand, that the split could destroy any hope of a future Labour government, and, on the other, that the Independent Group’s project will inevitably fail. The latter is possible: despite YouGov’s estimated 14% vote share, the SDP’s 1983 result (a mere 23 MPs with 25.4% of the vote share) exemplifies the problems they would face under First-Past-the-Post. A better chance for the Independent Group to ‘test the waters’ would have been be the upcoming European Parliament elections, with its Proportional Representation system. Once again, however, a larger breakaway from either party, or even that of significant figures such as Dominic Grieve, could trigger enough momentum for the party to become a force to be reckoned with.

That this new political movement will inevitably deprive Labour of a future government, however, seems more difficult to believe. At first sight, of course, it is a plausible statement: the aforementioned YouGov report suggests Labour would now poll at around to 26% of the vote, three points below Ed Miliband’s 2015 result. A further breakdown of the figures, however, shows that only 9% of former Labour voters would choose the independent group, in stark contrast with the 36% of the Lib Dems’ electorate. These statistics seem broadly coherent with YouGov’s last poll before the split, according to which Labour would have lost 8% of its votes to the Lib Dems. The change, therefore, appears to be less significant than is being claimed.

The narrative according to which the Independent Group will be to blame for a hypothetical defeat omits another important factor: faced with what is arguably the weakest post-war government, Labour have not managed to stay ahead in the polls. Rather than viewing the breakaway MPs as a cause of Labour’s weak opposition, it would better be viewed as a symptom thereof.

Perhaps Tom Watson’s comments that Labour has ceased to be a ‘broad church’ and ought to become ‘gentler and kinder’ should not be ridiculed, but taken seriously. If Labour follow this approach, taking stronger action to dispel the antisemitism rumours and adopting a coherent policy on Brexit, a potential haemorrhage can be avoided. If the split is merely dismissed as a ‘selfish’ centrist plot and is used to impose further ideological puritanism, the party is likely to further alienate voters – particularly if The Independent Group grows and establishes itself as more than a mere protest party.