National Comment Comment

Independent Group: a problem not a solution

The Independent Group will not stop Brexit but it could inadvertently help keep the Conservatives in power

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Image Credit: Chatham house

Like many Labour members, I cannot claim to have been particularly surprised when eight MPs elected as representatives of our party decided to leave and form The Independent Group,aiming to force a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

Labour now, for the most part,backs this, but the eight defecting MPs still believe that Labour is not pro-European enough and is still not really making the case for Remain.To be perfectly honest, I can-not even claim to be particularly disappointed that the likes of Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie have made the decision to quit the party. I want as much Labour representation in Parliament as possible,but despite most Labour defectors seeing their majorities rise in 2017 on the backs of mass campaigning, these embittered MPs worked tirelessly to overturn the democratic decisions of the wave of new members like myself. If they believe that they cannot support our platform then frankly I welcome their honesty in leaving.Two things, however, do concern me.Firstly, the departure of Luciana Berger should ring alarm bells, as it is worrying that a Labour MP cites anti-Semitism as a reason for leaving our historically anti-racist party.Berger has other political reasons for leaving too, but one anti-Semite in the party is one too many, and we do not want to lose any MPs, members or supporters from the Jewish community.

Secondly, The Independent Group will achieve little more than sustain the Conservatives position in power. Any support the group attracts will come primarily from Labour centrists and Remainers. Anti-Brexit Tories will not jump ship – they do not want a Corbyn government and will stay in the blue column to oppose Labour.While the number of voters tempt-ed by The Independent Group will be significant enough to split the progressive vote, it will not be world-changing.Voters are just not that bothered by the intricacies of withdrawal agreements and trade deals. At the 2017 general election, nearly 83 per cent of them backed parties whose manifestos recognised the majority decision to Leave.Issues like poverty and working conditions were, and remain, simply more pressing for ordinary people.For those Remainers who do still want to stop Brexit, Labour is now pushing for a second referendum, so if there is any movement away from a main party at all it will be Leavers switching away from Labour. They will not be tempted by the splitters, for obvious reasons.How, then, can The Independent Group plot a path to winning even one seat if its Brexit platform will not attract voters?

It's centrist ideas about other issues like education and welfare certainly will not help it – ‘New’ Labour lost seats at every election from 1997 until 2017 when it turned to the left,while Liberal Democrat support has hovered around a rock bottom 8 percent since 2015.Voters are at best ambivalent about stopping Brexit, and they are even more indifferent about resurrecting the politics of the 1990s that the Independent Group represents.The problem faced by those who want to stop Brexit is that, regardless of Labour’s position on a second referendum, neither individual MPs nor voters are enthusiastic about holding one.Moreover, the public have no desire to return to the centrist politics of the noughties and continues-to polarise, sticking with either the leftward-facing Labour Party or the Conservatives.While the defection of unruly MPs will help Labour with party unity, The Independent Group will not succeed in holding its own seats.It will find no great vein of mass opposition to Brexit nor will it find much desire for a return to centrist politics.What it will do is pillage just enough progressive votes from Labour to keep marginal constituencies in Tory hands. The fact that eight Labour MPs have defected to the Independent Group so far is not surprising, but the ineptitude of the splitters and the tone-deafness of setting up an anti-Brexit centrist party in 2019’s political climate really is stunning.

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