February 18, 2019. In the future, we may look back upon this date as the moment when the British political system, characterised by its seemingly innate constitutional conservatism, finally entered a long-overdue process of change – either that, or it will conjure up thoughts of a group of MPs who, in taking a principled stand against their party’s leadership, ended up bringing their parliamentary careers to an abrupt close.
I am of course referring to the decision taken by Labour politicians Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker, Chris Leslie and Ann Coffey to quit their party and form the “Independent Group”, whose title is self-explanatory; disillusioned for a variety of reasons with their party’s leadership - among them its stance (or lack thereof) in regards to Brexit, its insidiously lax approach to combating anti-Semitism within their ranks, and radical economic policy. They have come to the conclusion that their future no longer lies with Labour.
While their launch did not include a clear policy platform – a list of broad statements of intent on their site would fulfil this role – the group’s direction of travel upon first glance seemed at least somewhat clear: it would serve as a centre-left, pro-EU (and non anti-Semitic) alternative to the current Labour party, seeking to attract ex-colleagues less than enthusiastic about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The defection of Joan Ryan the following day proved consistent with this narrative; the Labour member for Enfield North had been a tireless critic of the leader, in particular over anti-Semitism, and had received the ire of the hard left over what were at best trumped up, at worst utterly concocted, claims that she was colluding with the Israeli government to undermine Corbyn.
It would be the group’s acceptance of three Conservative MPs into their fold on its third day of existence – Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry – that would cast doubt over this narrative. To those who have observed the careers of Wollaston and Allen, two politicians whose dedication to Conservative doctrine has always been slightly tenuous, their decision to join up with a group of Labour MPs isn’t too surprising. Allen, in particular, prides herself on being somewhat of a maverick, using her maiden speech upon first being elected in 2015 to criticise her own party’s tax credit cut. However, Anna Soubry, in spite of her socially liberal and pro-European credentials, is a firmly centre-right politician; a strong advocate of laissez-faire and the decision to impose austerity. It is difficult to conceive of how she could share an electoral platform with figures such as Mike Gapes, a veteran Kinnockite, or Chris Leslie, a shadow minister under Ed Miliband, whose opposition to austerity was a central component of his platform.
To those that support the above analysis, I would propose that the narrative I established earlier on in the piece, that the presence of Conservative MPs supposedly contradicts, only provides a fraction of the picture, and by extension what I believe the real purpose of the Independent Group is (or at least should be in my mind).
I feel as though both the title of this disparate group of MPs and the rhetoric they have already employed are particularly revealing. While the names that political parties adopt often have little bearing on their actual ideological position – as an example, the Japanese “Liberal-Democratic Party” primarily consists of hardline social conservatives and nationalists – “The Independent Group” has no immediate ideological connotations whatsoever; all it indicates is that this new group of MPs is, well, independent, and will act in a manner befitting of their title. However, more intriguing is the tagline that visitors of their website are immediately greeted with: “Politics is broken. Let’s change it”. This isn’t the language of a grouping that is seeking solely to provide a “sensible”, pro-European centre-left alternative to the existing parties; there is evidently greater ambition here – ambition to achieve fundamental reform of Britain’s political system.
With this established, reconciling the ideological differences between the grouping’s members is no longer necessary, as if the Independent Group are setting out constitutional change as their primary objective, it is rendered very feasible that, rather than laying the groundwork for a singular, new party, their intent was instead to form a short to medium-term vehicle to achieve said objective.
This is how I would envision the grouping’s development: it would gradually recruit MPs from either side of the aisle who no longer identify with the doctrine and policy espoused by their respective parties’ leaderships, until consolidated within the Commons to the extent that neither Labour or the Conservatives would be able to amass the parliamentary arithmetic necessary to govern (unless they formed a grand coalition, which under the current polarised climate wouldn’t be feasible). As a result, either of the parties would be forced to form some sort of supply-and-demand agreement with the Independent Group in order to control the executive – a scenario in which the latter would be able to demand a concession in the form of sweeping political or electoral reforms.
While I am willing to accept that, in most cases, this scenario would be a wildly idealistic one, we live in unprecedented times, where the stakes in political decision-making have seldom been higher; say, for example, the Conservative party lost enough MPs to the Independent Group that it would have to rely on them to form a government. They would mostly likely relent and swallow even deep concessions, as for many Conservatives a Jeremy Corbyn-led administration is perceived as too much of a risk to bear; likewise with Labour party’s perception of a no-deal Brexit, a policy that many Conservatives would be comfortable with, as an existential threat to the country’s prosperity.
After achieving this goal – fixing “our broken politics”, as they would put it – I would envision the Independent Group splitting back into different movements that more closely reflect the ideological preferences of its members, whether they be Anna Soubry’s socio-economic liberalism or the old-school social democratic doctrine of Mike Gapes. After all, if electoral reform were achieved, these different movements may actually have a hope of independently surviving without having to be subsumed into the two-party framework.
Again, the scenario I have just outlined is by no means assured: if the Labour and Conservative parties agreed to hold an election within the next month, for instance, the newly independent MPs, lacking the campaign infrastructure that a major political party provides, would likely be all but wiped out – yet the two parties are also very much wary of how poor the optics would be if they called another general election, in this moment of national crisis, to an increasingly cynical electorate.
It remains in the hands of the MPs who constitute the Independent Group what their next course of action is – but in their current predicament, positioning themselves as a short-term alliance of convenience for the achievement of the common goal of political reform could likely be the most rewarding strategy, both for their own parliamentary futures and the health of our decaying political system. From the language that has been used so far, there is cause to be hopeful that they have realised this is the case.