The British public was told on Monday that “politics is broken. It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s change it.” Chuka Umunna and six other Labour MPs invited parliamentary colleagues and activists to visit the website of their self-styled Independent Group of former Labour MPs to end “tribal politics” caused by “broken parties.” Since then another four – three, vitally, from the Conservatives – have joined them.
Parliamentarians and commentators of a maturer vintage were put in mind of the day in January 1981 when four former Labour Cabinet ministers – against a background of Tory-led economic crisis, a Labour lurch to the left and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ which rather pointedly was No 1 – resigned the party to set up a Council for Social Democracy. Within two months the Council had morphed into a party – the Social Democrats – which recruited thirty MPs, 100,000 members and (with the Liberals) six million voters to keep Labour from power for more than a decade. ‘Are you happy with things the way they are?’ asked the SDP’s first recruitment leaflet with Umunna-like guile.
What will come of this week’s breakaway? Some – including academic observers like Richard Carr from Anglia Ruskin – immediately argued that Umunna’s magnificent seven “could break Britain’s political deadlock” in the same way that the SDP promised to ‘break the political mould’ in 1981. A closer look at British politics today, the history of the ‘centre’ in Britain, and the long view of national political history, suggests that their impact may be shorter-term.
Success has to be measured against aims, and the first seven MPs’ aims were evidently varied from the outset, ranging from Labour’s rule by a clique of “left-wing intellectuals” to Corbyn’s attitude to foreign affairs, to the party’s alleged “institutional anti-Semitism”. Adding Conservatives to this mix will make it more difficult for the Independents to establish a long-term ‘brand’. It was Umunna who developed a more holistic critique, appealing to a wider political community, possibly the sort of people who supported the founder of LoveFilm.com, Simon Franks, when he launched ‘Project One’, a sort of non-party movement aiming to challenge the political establishment with a centrist agenda a year ago. That project seems to have ebbed away.
If these MPs are ready to sacrifice their political careers as a warning to their parties about their internal politics and outward image, they have already succeeded: West Bromwich MP and Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson on Monday immediately issued a Facebook message telling Labour activists to reflect on why the seven had left rather than what they felt about them, and the reported ructions at Monday night’s Parliamentary Party meeting presumably included debate about how to treat the ‘traitors’. All MPs remained significanty silent about the defections during PMQs on Wednesday. Perhaps most importantly, the new group is now liberated to give an open voice in the Commons, if only a handful of votes, to supporters of a second Brexit referendum in all parties.
On the other hand, if the Independent Group hopes to break the party system they are setting themselves a major challenge: the eleven MPs are less recognisable than the Social Democrats’ leaders and in any case MPs are less well liked collectively by the public; and whilst in the parliamentary deadlock we have they may enjoy moments of influence, they will also strengthen the party loyalties of those they have left and of the government’s supporters. Within 24 hours the Independent Group had been pushed out off the top of the news by Honda, and was fielding questions about racism. It will rely on a string of coups to keep in the news.
The SDP never broke the mould of British politics, which is centuries old: David Owen, one of the first SDP leaders, said at the end of his career that he was happy that the split of 1981 had brought Labour back to its senses by the 1990s. For this 26 MPs who defected to the SDP lost their seats; millions of votes and pounds were invested by the SDP through a decade in which they, and Labour, failed and Margaret Thatcher ruled. Both the price and the achievement of the Independents of 2019 will probably be less dramatic – but still well worth watching.