When seven MPs announced at a press conference this morning that they had left the Labour Party to form an “Independent Group”, the mood among the grassroots was unhappy. Activists were sad that elected representatives who were supposed to be part of the ‘Labour family’ had quit over what they saw as antisemitism going unchecked and a lack of respect for internal democracy, or angry that members of the parliamentary party would risk helping the Tories. Or both.
But amid all those feelings, and the rows over varying reactions to the news of a breakaway group, all party members soon turned their attentions to how well “The Independent Group” set up by Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna, Ann Coffey, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker and Mike Gapes was actually doing. And it turns out the answer was: not well.
The launch we saw this morning had been planned for months, and there was supposed to be a ‘Valentine’s Day break-up’ last week, though that didn’t happen. Choosing not to wait until another meaningful Brexit vote took place, it finally did today – partly due to Berger’s upcoming maternity leave, according to one source. You might think after such lengthy preparations, there would be a set of persuasive proposals ready, or at least a compelling launch statement.
Some have pointed out that the group’s lack of ideology is a strategy to gain wider appeal. In the style of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, this centrist grouping hopes it might win supporters by being anti-racist, anti-‘hard left’, anti-anti-capitalism and pro-EU. It’s true that pitching as “sensible”, with an emphasis on national security and opposition to Jeremy Corbyn’s economic and foreign policies will cause Tories to nod vigorously (though their support for a fresh EU referendum won’t take them far with the governing party).
But it is not unimportant that the claims made at the press conference often rang hollow. Umunna claimed to want to “dump” the “old-fashioned politics”, and said: “The usual way things are often done in Westminster, is a little bit, you know, you have a podium, someone goes up and tells you how it is going to be.” He offered this critique after having just addressed journalists in Westminster from a podium. In an even more tone deaf statement, he declared: “The idea that you can cook this up in Westminster is not the way people want things to be done.”
The splitters were also unable to give convincing replies when asked about refusing to stand down as MPs and fight by-elections, or even to answer those questions at all. “You’ll have to go out and ask them,” Smith told Jo Coburn in an all-round disastrous Politics Live appearance, apparently unaware of the irony. Mike Gapes said he wouldn’t be “forcing an unnecessary by-election”. But how does this sit comfortably alongside their demand for a ‘people’s vote’?
It was a bad first day for The Independent Group. That’s not to downplay that this was a bad day for Labour too. Tom Watson said the Seven had come to a “premature conclusion” – hardly a strong condemnation of their decision. He also warned that unless “we change, we may see more days like this”. There are rumours that if the leadership refuses to accept Peter Kyle’s amendment on 27th February, which calls for a public vote on Theresa May’s deal, more Labour MPs will quit. Is The Independent Group capable of having better news days until then – and then for long enough to set up a new party?