It finally happened: seven MPs quit the Labour Party yesterday, and they have formed “The Independent Group”. It is not yet a movement, nor a party – but Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker and Mike Gapes are happy to emphasise that “yet” is the operative word. Their first day didn’t go well at all, as I’ve written here: aside from the group being the centre of a racism row within hours of launching, the possibility that they have nothing to offer but anti-Corbynism and vacuous centrism was distinct.
Reaction from Labour figures was varied. Backbenchers expressed their sadness at the departure of valued colleagues, particularly mourning the loss of Luciana Berger. At the same time, John McDonnell was joined by many in his call for the MPs to stand down and fight by-elections. (Labour candidate selections will start in all seven seats next week.) The most remarkable response to the news was that of Tom Watson. “I love this party. But sometimes I no longer recognise it,” the deputy leader said in a video statement, before warning that Labour must “change” or “see more days like this”.
Will Labour see more days like this? McDonnell promised a “massive listening exercise” this morning but a number of MPs were very unhappy at last night’s PLP meeting, and the mood wasn’t improved by news of Derek Hatton rejoining the party. It is widely expected that while “The Independent Group” is not organised nor attractive enough to systematically lure away several MPs every day, there will be other defections. But they could come from the Tories too – and that would significantly raise the chances of a general election.