20 February 2019

No definition, no soul, no purpose – what is the point of the Independent Group?


And then there were eleven. The “Independent Group” of MPs can, for the time being, field a cricket team. They now hold more seats in the House of Commons than the Democratic Unionist Party. They are not so much a third way as the fourth force in Parliament. This is no small thing, but it is a complicated one and, perhaps, also a contradictory one.

The addition of three Conservatives – Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston – to the eight disaffected Labour MPs who have rebelled against Jeremy Corbyn’’s leadership gives the Independent Group a patina of bipartisan respectability. At a moment when neither major party commands the confidence of the electorate, that is a valuable commodity. There are many voters – millions of them, in fact – who have tired of traditional party politics and may be ready to embrace almost anything that styles itself as an alternative to the current, evidently knackered, system.

Even so, this is less a clarifying moment than a complicating one. The Berger Seven who resigned from Labour on Monday (since joined by Joan Ryan to become an Eight) had a clear message: Jeremy Corbyn is not a fit and proper person to be prime minister. It was a rebellion, and a brave one at that, against the hard-left faction that now runs the Labour Party. The readmission of Derek Hatton, late of Militant, merely confirmed the extent to which today’s Labour Party is not Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party, never mind that led by John Smith, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or even Ed Miliband. The Trots have taken over.

That being so, Labour MPs who have little confidence in Corbyn’s leadership and no greater faith in the journey the party is making to the left had – and for those who remain within the fold, still have – a choice: is an ordinary Tory politician such as Theresa May less of a danger to the country than an extraordinary Labour politician such as Jeremy Corbyn? The implied message sent by the Berger-Umunna group is that Mrs May is the lesser of two disagreeable alternatives. As it happens, this is a message the country as a whole can agree with: according to YouGov, just one in five voters think Corbyn better equipped for high office than May.

As a single-issue proposition, the Labour rebels had a clear and easily-comprehended position: stop Corbyn, for he and his tribe lie firmly outwith the mainstream of British politics. As a first step, this was a good one. It might not be enough in the longer term, but it ensured the Eight would not need to arrive as a fully-fledged political entity. They did not need policies, per se, because thwarting Corbyn would be enough.

Adding three Tories to the group muddies this message and carries considerable risks for the new venture. I wonder if it is too much, too soon. At the very least, it prises attention away from the crisis unleashed upon the Labour party by the Eight’s defection. It gives swithering Labour MPs – for there are many who secretly and sometimes less than secretly agree with the defectors’ views on Corbyn – an excuse to cancel their appointments with their consciences. Plenty of Labour MPs could imagine themselves joining an explicitly anti-Corbyn group; the bar for joining what now effectively becomes a new political party is much higher.

In the longer-term, of course, any new party needs to be more than just an anti-Corbyn alliance. But, at first glance, it is difficult to see what this new grouping really stands for. Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna might be closer to one another than either is to their respective leaderships but that does not make them close. A group that is a little bit of this and a little bit of that is a group that lacks definition, soul, and an underlying philosophy.

Moreover, it is not in control of its own destiny. It is a rebellion against things as they are, not a basis for a new and transformational party. It is born out of frustration with the current trajectories of the Labour and Conservative parties. For the moment that may be enough. But if you accept the proposition each of the traditional powers has been captured by extremism and that this is the justification for your new enterprise, you also accept that the basis for your new venture collapses the moment either – or even, in a merciful universe, both – return to something approaching normality. The Independent Group is a reaction to the weather, it does not make it.

It is, therefore, supported by external forces that may be strong enough, for the time being, to bind dissident Tories and disappointed Labour MPs together. But as soon as one of those external forces collapses, so does the rationale for the new party.

That is not all. The new group now needs policies; it must be about more than frustration and disappointment. It begins as a state of mind – one that, as I say, is not obviously out of kilter with the temper of the times – but cannot remain as just an attitude forever.

Breaking the mould is all very well and good but you have to replace it with something else. Opposition to Brexit is not enough, not least since eventually even Brexit, like Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, must come to an end. At that point, the problem of “centrism” reasserts itself: we know what you are against but what are you for? This, you may recall, is a question the Liberal Democrats, the traditional home for “plague on both your houses” voters, have long struggled to answer. I see no signs that Anna Soubry and Luciana Berger, for all their bottom and courage, have a satisfactory set of answers to that question either.

But perhaps I am mistaken. These are not times for confident prognostication. Even so, I cannot quite avoid the thought that, from the perspective of the original Labour rebels, welcoming Tories into the fold is at least a short-term mistake; nor can I quite discern what the Tory rebels hope to achieve beyond expressing their disgruntlement with the state of the Conservative Party.

Hence this irony: an independent group of MPs drawn from both parties might be more popular in the country as a whole but less persuasive in the House of Commons. And since the independents must  grow in the Commons before they can take anything to the country, moves that reduce the likelihood of winning new converts at Westminster are prejudicial to the group’s own long-term interests. If, that is, there is to be a long term at all.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator.