22 February 2019

Ian Austin and the Brexit Day waiting game


That a number of unhappy Labour MPs were planning to shred their party membership cards was Westminster’s worst kept secret. That they chose the beginning of this week to declare their intentions remains a bit of a puzzle.

The point at which Britain left the EU – whether the planned day of March 29 or somewhat later – was always assumed to be the crucial milestone that would trigger a wave of defections. After all, once the greatest public policy challenge had been disposed of – however unsatisfactorily, depending on your point of view – MPs could afford to spend a bit more time on considering their own situations. And their own parties.

Assuming that after we leave the EU there will be no immediate public demand to submit a fresh application for membership, March 29 could have been the point at which politics in the UK started to return to whatever counts these days as “normal”. Yet, with their timing, the eight Labour MPs who joined the Independent Group (TIG), have ensured that at least for the moment their central mission will be seen, in the main, as opposing Brexit.

That perception could be hard to shake, even after exit day, and could present a barrier to other MPs of all parties who may find life in their own parties uncomfortable but who also want to honour the result of the 2016 referendum. That certainly seems to be what is preventing Ian Austin, the Dudley North MP, from joining his eight former comrades in TIG.

Austin is one of the highest profile MPs to ditch Labour since Jeremy Corbyn assumed the leadership and started the process of transforming Labour into a hard left Marxist vehicle. A former spin doctor and parliamentary aide to Gordon Brown, Austin’s adopted parents are Jewish, and he has been sorely and personally affected by the rise of anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks. All politics is personal, and for Austin, that meant the question of his departure from Labour was also only one of timing.

It’s not said often enough that the wrench of leaving one’s party, especially after a lifetime’s membership, is a painful one. That’s all the more true if you’re a serving MP. Luciana Berger, the Liverpool Wavertree MP, moved many to tears as she explained that Labour’s foot-dragging approach to anti-Semitism – perpetrated entirely by Corbyn’s supporters – made her staying in Labour impossible. Austin’s own personal hurt plays as big a role in his own decision. Given their backgrounds, no one has the right to question or contradict their motives for finally cutting ties with their former party.

Still, Austin would have been a significant addition to TIG. And the reason he has decided to sit as an independent outside the group – for now, at least – is his support for what the large majority of his own electorate voted for: Brexit. While he has much in common with the eight former Labour MPs who were joined earlier this week by three ex-Conservative MPs, he has made the judgment that until Britain has departed the EU, common cause would be a difficult aim to achieve.

There’s also the problem of association. Would Austin wanted to be known to his constituents as part of a group attempting to hold the government to ransom over their demand for a second referendum?

The dilemma facing Austin – and indeed, the one still facing most Labour MPs as they view the short term future – will become somewhat clearer after Brexit Day, whenever that falls. Brexit has meant a single issue dominating our political discourse, as well as the airwaves, for the last three years. It would be naïve, of course, to assume that post-Brexit Day there will be no need to discuss EU matters any more; arguments over the economic impact, positive or negative, of our departure are here to stay. Forever.

But a new phase of our nation’s political life, when departure is a done deal (or no deal) will allow our political leaders to return to issues that have been carelessly and disastrously overlooked since the referendum. The most important of these will be how the party political landscape should be transformed.

TIG’s foundation this side of March 29 has meant a bit of a false start to that process. Yes, there are many scores that MPs want to settle with their parties, but psychologically, most of them are not prepared to contemplate that task until after Brexit has been completed.

Repugnance of, and the fight against, anti-Semitism leaves MPs who feel strongly enough little choice but to act on their consciences, regardless of timing. The fight against Brexit, if it must be fought at all, could have been continued inside the traditional party structures for a few weeks more. That collision of priorities means that post-Brexit Day, TIG is going to have to contemplate not only a new line-up, but a relaunch.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and the author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.