The MPs breaking away from their parties in favour of the Independent Group show the cracks in established politics, but do they have the authenticity and drive to drum up widespread support for their independent movement?
On Monday morning, the Twitter account for Young Labour tweeted: “Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the red flag flying here.” As I read this, it made me shudder. There’s a chillingly brutal socialist tone that continues to run through the party’s reactions to any criticism of their agenda and methods.
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the red flag flying here.
— Young Labour (@YoungLabourUK) 18 February 2019
The message, of course, was in response to the announcement of seven Labour MP resignations that same morning. Together, the MPs formed the so-called Independent Group – an affiliated collection of independent MPs, who cited antisemitism and Corbyn’s stance on Brexit as their reasons for leaving their party. Mike Gapes, MP for Ilford South, and Ann Coffey, MP for Stockport, were the longest serving Members of Parliament to be hanging up their hats as part of the group of seven. Both Gapes and Coffey were first elected to their current posts in 1992.
In recent months, Labour ceased to be a party speaking with one voice. Murmurings from Corbyn skeptics, which were always audible from the backbenches, became rants and shouts. As Prime Minister Theresa May’s botched Brexit negotiations unravelled into chaos, Labour MPs across the party have clashed over how best to respond to the country’s imminent needs, and the fractures worsened.
Of these seven MPs, five hold seats in constituencies which supported Remain in the Brexit referendum, and two are from constituencies which predominantly voted Leave. 61% of voters in Penistone, South Yorkshire voted to leave the European Union, and since their MP Angela Smith has campaigned prominently for a second referendum, she may struggle to retain local power if she were to fight a by-election. The Guardian reported on some local opinions in Penistone, and some residents suggested that they would prefer to vote Labour in the future, once a new candidate is in place.
Labour supporters in constituencies affected directly be the resignations were fast to take to Twitter to share their views. After Luciana Berger, MP for Liverpool Wavertree, published a letter to her constituents on Twitter, in which she described her resignation as a “very difficult, painful but necessary decision”, she was met with mixed messages in response. Some supported and congratulated her, whilst others urged her to stand down so that they could vote in a new Labour MP.
Today I have resigned from the Labour Party. It has been one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made. But I am convinced it is the right one. Letter to my constituents here >>> pic.twitter.com/DOI5iUhsU2
— Luciana Berger (@lucianaberger) 18 February 2019
One Streatham constituent tweeted to Chuka Umunna; “Your resignation means I am no longer represented by the party I and 38,000 others voted for. If you really are putting your constituents first, then please resign your seat and fight a by-election”.
In his column for The Independent, Umunna wrote; “It is time we dumped this country’s old-fashioned politics and created an alternative that does justice to who we are today and gives this country a politics fit for the 21st century – not the last one.”
These words seem encouraging on the face; strong, reassuring, certainly what a lot of people want to hear right now. But whether Umunna is able to carry out the change he describes is another matter. He previously put himself forward for the Labour leadership election in 2015, and pulled out before things really got off the ground. The reason he gave was that the pressure of candidacy was too uncomfortable. “One can imagine what running for leader can be like, understand its demands and the attention but nothing compares to actually doing it and the impact on the rest of one’s life”, he said. Those who remember these words might have reason to doubt Umunna’s authenticity. Has anything really changed since last time he came close to an extended period of limelight?
“If the Independent Group is to win some hearts and minds from Labour’s current market share, they will need to speak through a single voice.”
The Independent Group, which has already been described as “Blairite” on the Spectator blog, has since inspired one further defector from Labour, and three defectors from the Conservative party. Among the Conservative MPs is Sarah Wollaston, who has publicly backed a second referendum. She tweeted on Wednesday; “So grateful for the thousands of emails, texts & WhatsApp messages. 95% of them warmly supportive.”
Thus far, the movement seems to be less of a carefully considered coup, and more a banding together for mutual support of various individuals who reached their respective points at around the same time. It seems to me that it risks watering down support for existing minority opposition parties, like the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party. Perhaps if these three entities were to join forces, that could be a more interesting proposition. If they continue to operate in silos, they could end up taking bites out of each other’s already meagre segments of voice and power.
There’s also a real need for a charismatic leader. If the Independent Group is to win some hearts and minds from Labour’s current market share, they will need to speak through a single voice. They will need strong words and the actions to match, from a leader as doggedly dedicated and hungry for change as Corbyn was when he won control of the Labour party in 2015.