It’s the early hours of Friday 9th June 2017. At Stockport Town Hall, Ann Coffey is momentarily lost for words. The returning officer has just declared that she has been re-elected as Stockport’s Labour MP on a 13.4% swing to Labour with an extra 6,511 votes. How could this have happened? In June 2016, Coffey tabled a motion of no confidence in her own party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, citing his inability to provide leadership and the unelectability of his policies.
Less than 12 months later, under Corbyn’s stewardship and the most radical political manifesto in a generation, Coffey increased her majority to a whopping 14,477 and Labour enjoyed its biggest increase in the vote share since 1945. It wasn’t meant to be like this. Coffey is stunned. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party had confounded the predictions of the political commentariat.
Fast-forward to 18th February 2019 and Ann Coffey resigned from the Labour Party alongside six other MPs – Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker and Angela Smith. Although this ‘Independent Group’ formally tendered their resignation in February 2019, later joined by Joan Ryan, the truth is that Ann Coffey has been Stockport’s Labour MP in absentia and in name-only for many years.
At the press launch of the ‘Independent Group’, Coffey claimed that “any criticism of the leadership is responded to with abuse and accusations of treachery”. The truth, however, is that Coffey distanced herself from the local party over many years. Labour members in Stockport campaigned tirelessly to increase her majority – with no hint of abuse or accusations of treachery – and if Coffey treated local activists with respect rather than disdain, by attending and reporting back to meetings, she would know that.
Coffey did not attend a CLP meeting in over four years and failed to provide regular parliamentary reports for local members. Despite nominating and campaigning for Owen Smith to replace Corbyn as leader, Coffey did not even attend Stockport CLP’s nomination meeting to argue her case. More recently, she refused to make herself available to help local Labour candidates campaigning in local elections.
Despite arriving to much media fanfare, the Independent Group have so far failed to present a policy agenda or platform beyond support for a “People’s Vote” or second Brexit referendum. Their mission statement includes a pledge that they should be “held accountable by their whole electorate”, yet they refuse to allow their constituents a by-election so they can choose who represents them. They criticise the main parties for “putting their own interest before the national interests” but, at the same time, they refuse to risk their £77,379 salary as MPs.
It would be wrong, however, to view Coffey’s and other Independent Group MPs’ resignations as simply a result of self-indulgent egotism, self-interest or contempt for local party members, constituents or democratic institutions. The true reason for the Independent Group’s departure is their virulent opposition to the progressive politics of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. There is a common thread running through the politics of the Labour deserters: every one of them abstained on the Welfare Bill in 2015, they have consistently voted for military intervention abroad and against an inquiry into the Iraq War, and they continue to champion the supremacy of the market.
Although the group claims to represent a ‘new’ politics, their launch has already been riddled with incompetence and rank hypocrisy. Although they sit in parliament as a group, they’ve not registered as a political party, which means they can funnel donations through a private company and avoid scrutiny. Transparency in political funding is a fundamental tenet of our democracy as it allows us to see in whose interests political parties operate. But one look at Angela Smith’s declaration of interests and it becomes clear whose interests the ‘Independent’ Group represent. Smith consistently spoke against Labour’s manifesto commitment to renationalise the water industry, before it emerged that she and her husband were repeatedly taken to football matches and dinner by Whitehouse Construction, a subcontractor to Anglian Water.
Labour fought the last election on its manifest For the Many, Not the Few. The resignations of the Independent Group renegades were designed to cause maximum damage to the Labour Party and undermine what is for them a radical and unpalatable political programme. The fact that they have since been joined by three Tory MPs – who are complicit in inflicting pain and misery on our country – shows their true colours.
They have shown that they represent the few and not the many. Local Labour Party members understandably feel affronted and betrayed, however we should take advantage of this opportunity to select candidates who hold genuine labour values and will fight for a Labour government that will deliver the permanent redistribution of power and wealth to working people.