They've been praised for embodying a new type of politics. But in reality, the Independent Group are a symptom of a bigger breakdown in the party political systemby Tom Clark / March 1, 2019 / Leave a comment
Absence, the post-modernists say, is just a special form of presence. The Independent Group (TIG) of MPs is so half-formed, so hazily-defined that it is more of a gap in the party system than anything else. In terms of ideas, its founding statement offered only negation, vowing its as yet unstated policies would be “not led by ideology.” The same document proposed to “fix our broken politics” but didn’t say how; two of the first eight Labour MPs involved, Angela Smith and Joan Ryan, had championed “No to AV” in 2011, when Nick Clegg was making similar noises in the name of changing the old voting system. One of the first Conservative members, Heidi Allen, almost immediately pledged to do nothing to bring down the May government, which—in conventional terms—would render this more of an adjunct to the Tories than an independent outfit. But who is to say whether she was speaking for a bloc of some sort, or only for herself?
Despite this long run of negatives, however, TIG could still be a something—or perhaps a non-thing—that proves to be the start of something big. Its arrival was followed within days by big shifts on Brexit policy on the part of both the government and the opposition front bench, and, in some circles at least, the excitement went wider too. Centrist Westminster commentators expressed a thrill at hearing centrist voices unleashed, and I know of temperamentally moderate voters hundreds of miles from Big Ben—the sort who regard compromise itself as a virtue—who also aired relief and enthusiasm about something being unjammed. The early polling suggested there might be quite a lot of them.
The individuals involved are not without talent: Anna Soubry’s fearless intelligence, Chuka Umunna’s fluent charisma and Sarah Wollaston’s proven independence of spirit are all valuable political commodities. But such personal merits do not stack up to a programme. And the history of specifically centrist breakaways in Britain is, as the boxes across and overleaf lay bare, a long and punishing one. So what reason—if any—is there to think things could turn out more happily for today’s middle-of-the-road deserters?
The grounds for the breakaway being, well, Tiggerish, are less to do with what it is or isn’t, than about what is revealed about the old parties by the fact of multiple defections from across the Commons. Most of the commentary, not least from TIG itself, has described both Labour and the Tories as having darted off to the wild extremes. And there is little doubt that the anti-semitic aspect of factional agitation against Luciana Berger in her local party had made Labour an intolerably uncomfortable place for her, nor that Allen’s inclination to speak out against benefit cuts made her an uncomfortable fit in the Tory party.
Even so, I’m not sure that ideological polarisation is the chief issue here. Brexit aside, today’s Conservative programme is no more right-wing than that of the 1980s or even David Cameron’s time. The pace of spending cuts has slowed, ministers are no longer talking about new grammar schools but reducing recourse to prison and, rhetorically at least, industrial and economic policy is no longer dogmatically laissez-faire. As for Labour, it has certainly moved to the left by comparison with Tony Blair. But then the country has also moved a long way since the bankers’ crash. As Andrew Gamble explains in this month’s Prospect, the thing the “moderates” can’t swallow is Jeremy Corbyn’s scepticism about the western alliance and particularly his automatic opposition to western military intervention. But 16 years on from Iraq, I still wonder whether the foreign policy “grown ups” have fully grasped how profoundly that misadventure redefined the mainstream here. Besides, if polarisation were so repulsive to the electorate, it would be hard to understand why the Liberal Democrats have remained on the floor for so long, or why—under the same leaders as now—the old Labour/Conservative duopoly could vacuum up a higher combined share of the ballot in 2017 than in any election since 1970.
Don’t rush, then, to pin the frailty of the old parties on extreme ideas—but don’t go into denial about that frailty either. Their crumbling has not come out of nowhere, and it could go a lot further, perhaps quickly. All that is solid in politics has, after all, been melting into air for a long while now. In 2015, we saw the sudden and total collapse of Labour Scotland, from 41 MPs to just one, and also the arrival of Corbyn from Leftist obscurity; 2017 witnessed Emmanuel Macron’s journey from centrist isolation to the Élysée; and—in the year in between—we saw the conquest of all British politics by the previously fringe idea of Brexit. There is certainly no orderly march of ideas here, but there is an awful lot of pop-up organising that has shown it can fell venerable political structures with remarkable ease.
Social media, which disrupts top-down flows of information and authority, has a lot to do with that of course. But the thing that makes the TIG moment so mercurial, and the thing that just might make it important, is the growing incapacity of the old parties to hold themselves together organisationally and, in particular, to keep their operations in Westminster and their base in the country bolted together. The Parliamentary Labour Party has been in a continual nervous breakdown since the moment Corbyn won the leadership without its support. The plotting and shadow cabinet walk-outs started almost immediately, soon followed by an overwhelming—but futile—vote of no confidence. Even the historic fillip of a 10 percentage point gain in the vote share in 2017 soothed the mood for no more than a few months. Some of this has to do with Corbyn’s rigidity, his limitations as a manager and his lack of interest in building a broad parliamentary team. And it is notable that Theresa May’s own failings on exactly the same fronts have contributed to current convulsions on the Conservative side. Witness serving ministers—including in cabinet—giving interviews and penning op-eds to set out the red lines that would cause them to resign.
Nothing like this has happened before, and the Brexit emergency is a big part of that. But the fraying started much longer ago. Back in the 1950s, there were whole parliamentary years in which not a single government MP rebelled on anything. By the supposedly turbulent 1970s, disobedience had picked up a bit, but the “troops” (who often still had real military experience) were kept in line by the likes of former Major Bob Mellish, as they would soon also be by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
It was in the 1990s that rebellion began to rise in earnest. The new disobedience made John Major’s life a misery, and discipline has never been restored since. Under Tony Blair, defiance of the party line rose yet again—and kept rising. Rebellions were seen on 8 per cent of all divisions in his first term, expert Philip Cowley calculates, which then rose to 28 per cent in New Labour’s last spell, before rising again—to 39 per cent—under the Cameron coalition. Everyone knows the defeat of May’s deal by 230 votes in January smashed the records, but what’s less appreciated is how it stands on the crest of this historic wave.
Then, on top of the turbulence in Westminster, there’s the trouble outside. In recent decades, the MPs in both parties have ceded the final say on the leadership to the rank and file. As a result, we have had Corbyn, and the breaking of the century-old pivot between the parliamentary party and the Labour movement. The full implications for the Conservatives are yet to be seen, because two leaders, including May, have been annointed by MPs closing ranks, cutting out the members. But Brexit divisions will surely preclude another “unity” candidate emerging. An ageing and self-selecting membership will—for the first time in history—soon pick a serving prime minister. Reported entryism by Ukip activists ramps up the chance of an explosive result, then more desertion by MPs who don’t like their new boss.
Add to all this how prized authenticity is, and the way in which many MPs are successfully cultivating their individual character on platforms like Twitter, and you can imagine how a band of independents with little cohesion could just be the political future. That could render the country ungovernable, but then it’s long been heading that way already.
In context: 200 years of centrist splitters
It isn’t only centrists who break away—from Oswald Mosely’s New Party in 1930 to Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party in the 1990s, more extreme forces have done so too. But long before TIG, centrists did more than their share of splintering: from the patriotic National Democratic and Labour Party (1918-22) which broke from the socialist cause to the Pro-Euro Conservative Party (1999-2001). Both these outfits eventually found their way into the Liberals. And yet there have historically been so many splits from the Liberals themselves that they are worth discussing separately (see overleaf).
Concentrate on the four most significant breakaways of the last 200 years and two conclusions jump out. First, splitters can often jolt others into embracing their ideas. But second, there has never—at least until now—been any escaping the bifurcating logic of the British electoral system. Centrist breakaways have always ended up merging into one established party or another—normally the opposite of the one they came from.
1. Peelites: 1846-59
Trade relations with the continent and beyond were a charged issue on the right long before the ERG’s backstop obsessions drove any of today’s centrist Tories away. Most of Robert Peel’s Tory MPs refused to back his repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846. Those who stuck with him began to function as a separate bloc. It had big hitters, including future PMs Gladstone and Lord Aberdeen, and it could claim to have “won the argument” when the Tories embraced free trade in the 1850s. But the scores of MPs at the outset dwindled to just two dozen over a decade, and in 1859 merged into the Whigs to create the new Liberal Party.
2. Liberal Unionists: 1886-1912
“Moderates” on the Liberal right were bound to dislike Gladstone’s embrace of Home Rule, but the serious schism set in when radical Joseph Chamberlain couldn’t stomach it either. His non-conformist base was rallied to anti-Catholicism, while Liberal Unionists in parliament propped up Conservative governments—initially from the outside, and later in coalition. There, the energies of Chamberlain, who was every bit as patriotic as TIG’s mission statement, were diverted from social reform to Empire. He did bequeath one big idea: Imperial Preference, a form of protection which the Tories would falteringly embrace and much later implement. But it wasn’t enough to keep his group independent. Constituency associations began merging with the Conservatives from the 1890s, and in 1912, the national party was formally folded into the Tories.
3. National Labour: 1931-45
This breakaway was so patriotic it was, in effect, called into existence by the king. The cabinet of Labour’s first PM, Ramsay MacDonald, was paralysed by division over austerity, but George V persuaded him not to resign but split with his own side, stay on and govern with others. An election soon loomed, and his roughly TIG-sized bloc of MPs scrambled to create a new party. While Labour was routed and the Conservatives cleaned up, MacDonald clung on as PM and most of his splinter held their seats too.
Branded with green rather than red, National Labour held up cross-party working as an end in itself, an early pamphlet hailing government policies that embodied “the traditional doctrines of not one, but all, Parties in the State,” a 1930s version of today’s TIG talk about evidence-based, post-ideological ideas drawn from all sides. And despite its orthodox economics, from public health to social housing, the National Government did implement some worthy social reforms. But National Labour wrote its own eulogy when, months before Labour’s greatest triumph in 1945, it wound itself up and urged “all men and women of progressive outlook” to re-elect Churchill instead.
4. Social Democratic Party: 1981-88
The most recent precedent is also the most talked about, and it’s not hard to see why. Four Labour deserters—Roy Jenkins (pictured), David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers—despaired at the party’s leftward march and its refusal to embrace Europe. And they found a ready audience among centrist MPs who then, as now, feared being deselected by local Labour parties.
There are, however, differences too: the SDP was an avowedly centre-left project, which only ever won one Tory defector, whereas the less defined TIG had three in its first week. The Limehouse declaration that instigated the 1981 split was also more full-throatedly liberal, without the stress on national security in TIG’s mission statement. A non-aggression “Alliance” with the Liberals was soon reached, but it could not save the new party from First-Past-The-Post which, in both 1983 and 1987, turned impressive vote shares into a miserable rump of seats.
Much SDP policy was eventually embraced by the Blair government—the quip goes that “New Labour was the SDP for slow learners.” But setting the agenda did not guarantee survival. In 1988 it merged to form the Liberal Democrats—although not without tiny breakaways, independent Social Democrat and independent Liberals, splintering from either side.