A rare thing happened in British politics this morning as Brexit took a back seat to the news that seven Labour MPs have resigned from the party and formed a new Independent Group in Parliament. The dramatic move has been building ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader in late 2015 – but was no less seismic for the long build-up. It is the biggest breakaway on the centre-left since the “Gang of Four” left Labour to form the SDP in 1981.
What has happened?
· Seven Labour MPs today dramatically resigned from the party in protest at the direction it has taken under Jeremy Corbyn. The group of seven, who will sit as a new Independent Group in Parliament, are Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna, Gavin Shuker, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes and Ann Coffey. Jeremy Corbyn has said he is “disappointed” at their decision, but some of his hard-left acolytes celebrated the move.
· The MPs, who spoke one after the other at an emotional press conference, did not hold back in their criticism of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. Luciana Berger said she could not remain in a Party that is “institutionally anti-Semitic”, as she decried “a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation”. Chris Leslie attacked the “machine politics of the hard left”, and Gavin Shuker described Labour has having “turned its back on the British public”.
· They also sought to recruit others – in Parliament and beyond – who feel that politics is currently “broken”. Chuka Umunna declared it was “time we dumped this country’s old-fashioned politics”, casting the new Independent Group as the beginning of a movement to “leave the tribal politics behind” and fix the political system.
· The new group made clear they are independents, not a party, and are hoping to develop over time; they are clearly “centrist” in tone and have indicated that they would work with other parties on a case by case basis; they made clear they will not merge with any other party and that they have no formal leader. They have published a set of values, and indicated that specific policy positions would be developed in the future as their movement takes shape.
Why does it matter?
· A split in the Labour Party has been talked almost from the moment that Jeremy Corbyn was elected as Leader, and today it finally happened. The timing may seem unusual, but the twin failures of the leadership, in the eyes of the seven, to properly tackle anti-Semitism and oppose a hard Brexit appear to have pushed them over the edge.
· This will not have been an easy decision for any of the group, who expressed their sadness at leaving Labour. Two of them have been Labour MPs for almost 30 years – indicating how far they think the Corbyn project has taken the party away from its core values.
· Their decision to leave, and to attack the current state of Labour in such vocal terms, will increase pressure on other Labour MPs to follow their lead or face challenging questions as to why they are staying put.
· Against all the odds, it means Labour are now more visibly split than the warring Tories – presenting an opportunity for the Conservatives if they can somehow find a uniting position around Brexit.
· That said, although clearly positioned as on the centre-left, the group does provide a landing spot for disaffected Tories such as Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry if the Tories also split.
· The departure of seven Labour MPs will do little to change the overall Parliamentary arithmetic. On most day-to-day issues they are likely to broadly continue voting as they would have done anyway: in opposition to the Conservative Government. That the seven are all backers of a second Brexit referendum means that today’s proceedings will not directly make a difference to the Parliamentary numbers around the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal.
· It is also unlikely to shift Jeremy Corbyn and those around him from the direction they have set. If anything it will entrench their positions, while some vocal social media supporters celebrate the departure of “traitors”.
What comes next?
· The new Independent Group of MPs will hold their first meeting in the coming days, where they will look to determine spokespeople for various policy areas and determine how they work with other parties and MPs across Parliament.
· The key question will be whether any other MPs – either from Labour or the disaffected Tories – follow them. Further Labour MPs could exit the party for the new group if Corbyn fails to support the call of some Labour backbenchers (the “Kyle/Wilson amendment”) for a final public vote on the Government’s Brexit deal, with remain also on the ballot, as part of the February 27 Brexit “meaningful vote”.