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7 MPs quit Labour Party to form new independent group

Tom Hamilton

More MPs may be watching the formation of The Independent Group and considering making the leap themselves.

The reaction of many of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters to the resignation of seven Labour MPs today has been to attack them as unprincipled right-wingers who have no place in today’s Labour Party, and simultaneously to complain that in resigning, they have made it more likely that the Conservatives will win the next election. As the old joke goes: “Such bad food, and such small portions!”

The seven – Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith and Chuka Umunna – were all known to be unhappy with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and at least some of them were at serious risk of deselection by their local parties. Their experience as MPs spans the 1992 to 2010 intakes, and their constituencies include the very ‘Brexity’ Penistone & Stockbridge (Smith), which voted 61% Leave, and the not at all ‘Brexity’ Streatham (Umunna) which voted 79% Remain. They will now sit as an independent group in Parliament, and for the time being have neither joined a rival political party nor set up a new one.

The claim that they are ambitious careerists is obviously laughable. The best course of action for ambitious Labour MPs would be to keep their heads down and back Jeremy Corbyn; the most likely outcome of today’s announcement is that these MPs will no longer be in Parliament after the next election and that in the meantime they will be the subject of significant amounts of personal abuse. Many in the Labour Party have still never forgiven the founder members of the SDP for leaving in 1981, even though the evidence that they cost Labour the 1983 or 1987 elections is mixed at best.

So in answering the question of why they chose to leave it is best not to search for hidden explanations but simply to listen to what they say themselves. Luciana Berger – who introduced herself this morning as a “Labour MP” before correcting herself – has been the subject of vast quantities of vile antisemitic abuse, much of it from Labour supporters, and has spoken out about the Party’s failure to tackle it. When she says she believes that Labour has become “institutionally antisemitic”, and that she is leaving behind a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation, she means it.

When Chris Leslie says that he believes it would be irresponsible to allow Jeremy Corbyn to become Prime Minister, he means it. When Mike Gapes says he believes Jeremy Corbyn and those around him are on the wrong side on many international issues including Russia, Syria and Venezuela, he means it. It is perfectly possible to disagree with them about all of these, but they are good reasons to leave a political party, and they are sincerely held. If anything, staying in a party when you feel this way about its leadership and direction might be seen as a bigger betrayal than leaving it.

The truth is that for most Labour MPs who are opposed to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the objection is not to most of his domestic policy platform (here Angela Smith, who has strongly criticised the water nationalisation policy in the 2017 manifesto, is something of an outlier) but to his foreign policy agenda and his failure to deal with racism and abuse within the Labour Party. It was notable that Jeremy Corbyn’s official response made no mention of any of this, focusing instead on the popularity of Labour’s policies. Labour’s call for the seven MPs to stand down to fight by-elections might have had more force if it had made the same demand of Jared O’Mara, who resigned from the Labour Party last year and whose Sheffield Hallam seat looks highly vulnerable to the Liberal Democrats.

The seven are not “centrists”: all are firmly left of centre – they have represented the Labour Party in Parliament for well over 100 years between them – although all have been highly critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. However, the statement of values on The Independent Group’s website (which crashed an hour after it was launched) contains little that could not be agreed to by most members of most political parties: there is no policy to speak of yet, and the only mention of Brexit is a line criticising the current Labour leadership.

It is probable that they will be hoping for more MPs to join them, both from Labour and from other parties. But finding a policy platform that can unite both those who – for example – vigorously opposed George Osborne’s austerity programme (like all seven of today’s defectors) and those who backed it enthusiastically may prove challenging. It is easy to find politicians of all parties who agree that Brexit is a terrible idea, support gay marriage and want to tackle antisemitism; it is much harder to find common ground on economic policy.

Other parties have responded to today’s events in predictable ways, with the Tories seizing on the defectors’ criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable expressing a willingness to work with them to stop Brexit – despite their notable failure to join the Lib Dems, which remains the only “centrist party” actually in existence – and Nigel Farage talking about the realignment of British politics. He may be right. But many Labour MPs, including several other prominent critics of the current leadership, have made it clear that they have no intention of quitting the Party.

Loyalty runs deep, not just to Jeremy Corbyn but to long-standing friends and comrades, and to Labour as an institution and an idea. Even so, there will be plenty of people watching today’s events and considering making a similar leap themselves – and the seven MPs who left today have given them some cover. It is always hardest to be the first to leave. Part of the test of this morning’s events will be whether today’s defectors are the last.

Prior to joining MHP, Tom Hamilton was a Labour Adviser for 10 years – most recently as Head of Policy to Labour Deputy Leader, Tom Watson.