Leaving the party that got you elected is very rare in Britain. So, too, is the emergence of a new party. That makes the joining of eight ex-Labour MPs with three ex-Conservatives in the Independent Group the most significant since the launch of the Social Democrat Party in 1981.
The timing of the defections is a perfect distraction for Theresa May’s latest mercy mission to Brussels, though they probably won’t make her task of getting a Brexit deal through Parliament any easier, and will make a general election slightly more likely.
More important is whether they are the start of a radical re-alignment of British politics.
In their resignation statements, the ex-Labour MPs cited a combination of anti-Semitism within the party and their party leader’s stance on Brexit as the main reasons for leaving. For Tories Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen, Brexit and the transforming of their party into ‘Ukip-lite’.
All eleven come from the centre or moderate wings of their party and all are staunch Remain supporters.
British politics is stuck in a terrible malaise and deeply polarized between two parties who appear equally incapable of governing. Labour has surged to 500,000 members, most of whom have joined since the leftist Jeremy Corbyn became leader, and are willing campaigners.
But analysts and party insiders are keenly aware that Labour should be 20% ahead of a government as weak, divided and ineffective as May’s. Instead, most polls suggest a small Conservative lead. Despite the nearly weekly humiliations, most Britons view May as a more capable prime minister than Corbyn.
Is the Independent Group the answer?
At this stage, the answer is probably not. The SDP was launched by four senior former cabinet ministers, one of whom, Roy Jenkins, was President of the European Commission. Of the eleven Independent Group MPs, only Tory Anna Soubry has served as a minister.
Chuka Umunna was once touted as a future Labour party leader but abandoned his leadership bid in 2015 within hours of launching it. Most of the eleven faced the threat of deselection by their local parties.
If another 30 or 40 MPs were to join the new group, attitudes would change. And that is not as unlikely as it sounds. There are about 15-20 Tory and Labour MPs who could break ranks; some of the Tories are currently ministers. So, too, could the eleven Liberal Democrats. At that point, a splinter group would become a viable centre party.
History suggests that the Independent Group won’t break the mould. The SDP folded in under a decade. Coalition with David Cameron’s Conservative killed the Liberal Democrats for a generation.
Ukip may have plagued the European Parliament with third rate MEPs for nearly twenty years but could never manage more than one MP in Westminster. Labour is, in fact, the last third party to break through the establishment – that was a century ago.
The Independent Group will probably fail, in other words. But the SDP succeeded in dragging Labour towards the centre-left, while Ukip, lest we forget, are on the brink of obtaining their objective of the UK leaving the EU. The Independent Eleven could force the Tories and Labour to re-engage with the silent, and currently ignored, majority.
by Alexandra Brzozowski
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Have a look around Europe of this morning with The Capitals featuring Brexit Zealots, a possible pact with Catalan separatists and Renzi in trouble.
Look out for…
Jean-Claude Juncker and young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg talk at European Economic and Social Committee.
Views are the author’s
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]