John Humphrys - Breakaway MPs: New Force or Damp Squib?

February 22, 2019, 11:41 AM GMT+0

It’s been a long time a-coming but finally the much-predicted fracturing of Britain’s two main parties has begun. Eight Labour and three Conservative MPs have now walked out of their parties and set up an ‘Independent Group’ on the opposition benches. Their group, of seven women and four men, is as big as the Liberal Democrat contingent in the Commons and one more than the Democratic Unionist Party that keeps Theresa May in power. The aim of the breakaway MPs is to convert their group into a full political party attracting votes from what is often called the ‘moderate centre’ of British politics. But is their venture either viable or even desirable? To put it another way, is their rebellion the beginning of a major realignment of British politics or will it turn out to be little more than another failed attempt to ‘break the mould’?

The break-up of party unity was always more likely to come first in the Labour Party. That’s because of the surprise election of the far-left, backbench rebel, Jeremy Corbyn, to the leadership of the party in 2015. He may have been idolised by party members around the country but many of his MPs have never become reconciled to his leadership nor to the prospect of his becoming prime minister. Yet attempts to unseat him have merely strengthened his position and the refusal of his critics to serve in his team has left him undaunted. Ultimately, it seemed, those Labour MPs who simply couldn’t stomach the idea of a Corbyn government would have to leave.

That’s what eight of them did this week. They cited three issues that had forced them out:

  • Mr Corbyn has refused seriously to tackle growing antisemitism in the party.
  • He is standing in the way of Labour backing a second referendum on Brexit, despite its being part of official party policy and supported by most members.
  • Worst of all, they allege, the party has been taken over at all levels by the hard left, represented especially by Momentum, the grassroots movement that was created to strengthen the left’s grip on the party

It is this, they claim, that has led to a culture of intolerance, intimidation and bullying.

One of the breakaway MPs, Luciana Berger, faced attempts to deselect her as Labour candidate in her Liverpool seat. She also had to be put under police protection at last year’s party conference because of attacks on her, including death threats, for her persistent criticism of Mr Corbyn’s failure to tackle antisemitism. Mr Corbyn strongly denies that he is personally anti-Semitic and claims the party is doing all it can to root out antisemitism in the party. But even one of his frontbenchers, Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, admitted, in an emotional speech in the Commons this week that the party had not done enough.

Ms Berger said: ‘I have become embarrassed and ashamed to remain in the Labour Party. The values I hold really dear and which led me to join the Labour Party as a student 20 years ago… have been consistently and constantly devalued, undermined, violated and attacked’.

All eight of the Labour defectors were supporters of Remain and back a second referendum but argue that Mr Corbyn is blocking Labour support for the idea, even though it was written into party policy at the conference last autumn, because of his long-stranding personal opposition to Britain’s membership of the European Union. Another of the defectors was Mike Gapes, a veteran Labour MP and former chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs committee. He said: ‘The Labour leadership is complicit in facilitating Brexit, which will cause great economic, social and political damage to our country’. Mr Corbyn’s defenders replied that the party’s manifesto at last year’s election committed the party to honouring the result of the referendum.

But it is the takeover of the Labour party by the hard left that seems to have persuaded the breakaway MPs that there was no future for them in their old party. One of them, Chris Leslie, a former minister in Gordon Brown’s government, said that the party ‘has now been hijacked by the machine politics of the hard left’. As if to confirm his point, on the very day the MPs left the party, membership was restored to Derek Hatton, the former deputy leader of Liverpool Council, who was expelled in 1986 for belonging to the Militant Tendency, a Trotskyist group accused of infiltrating the party. His readmission has subsequently been suspended, pending enquiries into his alleged anti-Semitic comments, but Mr Leslie and his colleagues see the fact that Mr Hatton could even be considered as a member of the Labour as all that needs be said.

One of the Independent Group, Chuka Umunna, said: ‘We’ve taken the first step in leaving the old tribal politics behind and we invite others who share our political values to do so too’. That’s exactly what happened on Wednesday, when three Conservative MPs abandoned their party to do so.

They were Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston and in some respects their reasons for doing so mirror those of their new ex-Labour colleagues. They too are former Remain supporters who back a second referendum and are appalled at the government’s handling of Brexit, and especially the continuing possibility of the government taking Britain out of the EU without a withdrawal agreement. And they too see Brexit as redefining their old party in broader terms. In their letter of resignation to the Prime Minister they wrote: ‘Brexit has redefined the Conservative Party – undoing all efforts to modernise it.’

Where their ex-Labour colleagues complain of Momentum’s power in their old party – a party within a party -- these ex-Tories complain of the undue influence of the European Research Group of hard Brexiteers and of the increasing presence of former UKIP members joining the party in the constituencies. Arron Banks, who helped finance UKIP, is bankrolling a campaign to encourage former UKIP members to join the Tories with the aim of deselecting unsympathetic MPs and moving the party to the populist right. This too is seen as a party within a party.

In short, the new Independent Group MPs see their old parties taken over by the extremes and want to create a new force that can attract moderate, centrist opinion. They believe that the great mass of British voters don’t like extremist parties and they know that with almost half of the public having voted against Brexit there is a substantial group of voters just waiting for a lead. That’s what they intend to provide.

But is their analysis correct? A sceptic might point out that there is already a long-established centrist party that is robustly pro-EU: the Liberal Democrats. But they are floundering with barely 10% support in the polls. Why should the new party be any different?

One answer might be that it needs the shock of the new to create momentum and that’s what the new group will provide. But we have been here before too. That’s exactly what the SDP offered when it was formed in 1981, mostly from breakaway Labour MPs complaining of exactly the same things in their old party (though not the antisemitism). Initially its fortunes soared, reaching over 50% in one opinion poll. But in the 1983 election, even though it polled 25% of the votes, only 2% behind Labour, in ended up with only 23 seats (to Labour’s 209) and leaving the Tories with a majority of 144.

It is Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system that produced this result and, say the sceptics, it is what will stymie the new party too. It’s true that attachment to the two main parties has been steadily falling since 1951, allowing scope for third parties to prosper. The LibDems won over 60 seats in 2005, for instance. But at the election last year this trend was reversed and the Tories and Labour between them secured 82% of the vote. It is only if the new party can successfully tar the old parties with the charge of extremism that it can have any hope of breaking through.

But there is another reason for scepticism. Although Europe and the alleged extremism of their old parties unite the breakaway MPs now, will that be enough? If Brexit becomes settled one way or another, it may turn into a less salient issue than it is now. There will be less interest in a second referendum if the issue seems to have been done and dusted. And on other issues there may be less meeting of minds in the new group. Although the ex-Tory, Heidi Allen, spoke of the need to tackle poverty as a burning issue – a view her new ex-Labour colleagues will obviously endorse – Anna Soubry defended the ‘austerity’ policies of the coalition government of which she was a member.

To the new group, however, this sort of scepticism is far too premature. They believe they are speaking not just for unrepresented millions in the country but also for many of their ex-colleagues still in their old parties. Much depends on how many now choose to join them.

The course of Brexit may determine this. If Jeremy Corbyn continues to resist another referendum, many may decide the time to leave has come. But perhaps more significant numbers may come from the Tory side. Heidi Allen claims a third of her old colleagues on the Tory benches are unhappy and next week many of them look set to organise to prevent a No Deal Brexit. If that creates civil war in the Tory Party, many may feel their future lies elsewhere. We shall see.

Meanwhile, the breakaway MPs have posed a series of questions. Is a new centrist party necessary and desirable? Are they right to claim that their old parties have been taken over by extremists or not? And if they are, does the sort of moderate, centrist party they aspire to create offer an attractive alternative, or are they, as their critics say, simply a new version of the old establishment which (they argue) failed and got us into this position in the first place?

So the questions for us, the voters, are: will we back it, or stick with the parties we have voted for before? And is it viable, or does the electoral system mean it is bound to fail, as the SDP did before it?

Let us know what you think.

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