Jonathan Korn argues that the newly-formed Independent Group will be lucky to succeed in the current electoral climate
Can you even have a group of independents? Because I’d have thought you stop being quite so independent once you team up with loads of other people. Not that it really matters.
The new Independent Group, formed of eight Labour (Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith, Chuka Umunna and Joan Ryan) and three Conservative (Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston) MPs disillusioned with the state of their parties, hasn’t got the legs to last.
We’ve tried this before. The Social Democratic Party of the 1980’s promised a new kind of politics, pledging to fill the vacuum left by the Tory move rightwards and the Labour shift leftwards. It had considerably more high-profile figures in its ranks than the current Independent Group, and significantly more support amongst the general public. And it still failed, because Britain is a two-party system. Be it due to entrenched tribalism or the peculiarities of the First Past the Post electoral system, it is enormously difficult for a new party to break through.
This group also seems a single issue one. Granted, Heidi Allen spoke out against austerity, and Luciana Berger bravely called out anti-Semitism within the Labour ranks. However, the only thing that really unites these eleven MPs is their opposition to Brexit. We’ve already seen that simply being a ‘Remain’ Party does not translate into electoral success – just ask poor Vince Cable. And once the question of Brexit is eventually settled (a far-flung utopia as things stand), what really unites these MPs? Opposition to Corbyn and the European Research Group is not enough for electoral success.
The Independent Group (IG) has already been extraordinarily effective as a pressure group. Jeremy Corbyn’s glacial move towards backing a Second Referendum has picked up pace, as the Labour leadership scrambles to avoid further defections, both from Remain-backing MP’s and from Party members disgruntled with Brexit. Similarly, Theresa May’s decision to allow a vote on delaying Article 50 rather than risking a no-deal Brexit has IG fingerprints all over it. The defection of three Tories has reminded the Prime Minister that Cabinet colleagues like Greg Clark and Amber Rudd will walk if the government appears to be leaving the EU without an agreement. With a majority of just eight, May has to keep such people on board if she wishes to go on governing, and the defections of Allen, Wollaston and Soubry are a stark reminder of that.
Oddly, the most obvious political comparison to the Independent Group is that of UKIP. As a pressure group, Nigel Farage and co were extraordinarily successful in getting David Cameron to call the 2016 Referendum. The fear of backbench defections was so strong that for purely party-political reasons, the then PM was bounced into a promise he never really wanted to make. Yet UKIP’s success was also its gravedigger. Following the Leave vote, UKIP were rendered pointless, having achieved their sole aim as a movement. The Tory shift to the right allowed them to recapture the Brexiteers who had gone purple in 2015. And even at UKIP’s high-water mark, they only ever won two seats in Parliament, because of the UK’s electoral system.
The Independent Group are the same. If they continue to push both parties to the centre, they’ll be happy, but they’ll also lose the distinctiveness which is the basis of their appeal. Voting IG to get a Second Referendum is pointless now – you can just vote Labour. And once Brexit is done, the IG, like UKIP, will likely fade into the dust as an internally divided and insignificant footnote of history. However effective they are as a pressure group, they can’t ever succeed as a party. And they know it, hence their collective refusal to call by-elections. For a group of politicians who call for a second Brexit vote because ‘Circumstances have changed,’ this is the height of hypocrisy. Soubry, Umunna and co surely cannot be arrogant enough to think they won their seats because of their individual capabilities rather than their political party.
Elections are a fight between parties, and the electorate votes on party lines. The people of Broxtowe were promised a Conservative MP for the duration of this Parliament, and now are left without one. For the Labour MPs who achieved increased majorities on the back of the ‘Corbyn bounce,’ it is even more hypocritical to cling on as Independent MPs. It is only right that all eleven should call by-elections so that voters can make it clear who they want representing them. Without the Party machine supporting them, both ideologically and organisationally, it is hard to see many getting re-elected, and they know this. Hence the pretty shameful decision to carry on as if nothing has happened.
By-elections aside, I wish I was less cynical about the Independent Group. As the Labour Party membership shifts irreversibly to the left, and the Conservative government continues to resemble a hostage in the grip of the ERG, there is certainly an ideological vacuum in the centre of British politics. For those who champion capitalism whilst wishing to curb its excesses, and who emphasise the importance of enterprise and aspiration alongside fairness and social justice, the last few months have been a depressing affair. You can see how much the struggle has worn down the eleven MPs who defected, and the palpable relief on their faces that they are free from the chains of party.
However, the IG’s portrayal of themselves as providing a political home for millions of the disenchanted doesn’t really ring true. Beyond Brexit, there seems to be no vision for improving the country. There is no obvious leader amongst the eleven who can inspire the British people. And in a two-party system, the odds are heavily stacked against them. A lot can change very quickly in politics, but as things stand, a radical reshaping of the British political system seems a long way off.