It will be an uphill struggle and there will be inevitable setbacks. But Berger, Leslie, Shuker and colleagues have a chance to foster a more tolerant, progressive politicsby Jane Merrick / February 18, 2019 / Leave a comment
It had been a long time coming, but when Labour’s split finally came, the charge sheet from those leaving the party was damning: under Jeremy Corbyn, they said, the party has become institutionally racist, antisemitic, a threat to national security and international alliances, fostered a culture of bullying and intimidation, and enabled Theresa May’s version of a hard Brexit.
The seven MPs who walked out on Monday morning made clear they still had the values of social justice and anti-racism that compelled them to join Labour years ago—it was the Labour Party itself, under Corbyn, that has changed, in their eyes, beyond recognition.
There are many other Labour MPs, activists, members and voters who will be feeling the same yet haven’t yet made the decision to quit. Now, they have a progressive, tolerant and welcoming place to go.
The creation of the Independent Group—while not yet an official political party—is just the start of a new movement. The statements of Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Ann Coffey, Mike Gapes and Gavin Shuker felt like a collective sigh of relief for centre-left moderates everywhere.
As Berger pointed out, Labour under Corbyn has fostered a “culture that seeks to suppress speaking out.” And it is true that Labour MPs who have defied the leadership over its failure to act on antisemitism, its weak stance on Brexit and its anti-West, pro-Putin and pro-Maduro foreign policy posture have found themselves relentlessly abused and targeted online on social media and offline in party meetings.
Moderate Labour MPs who are staying with the party spoke of how sad and disappointed they were that the split had happened—but let’s be clear, they should be sad and disappointed with Corbyn and his allies, because this is all their doing. If Labour fail to win the next election, it will not be the fault of the breakaway MPs, but Corbyn’s.
It had been long-rumoured that a split was on the cards for soon after Brexit at the end of March, because a breakaway would be too messy for Commons votes and negotiations still to come. Yet Corbyn’s letter to the Prime Minister earlier this month made clear that the hopes of anti-Brexit Labour MPs, that they could get the Labour leader to swing behind a People’s Vote and stop a damaging EU withdrawal, had faded.
His letter, while listing Labour demands on workers’ rights and a customs union, marked a departure from the party’s policy agreed at conference last year that they would keep a second referendum on the table.
Yet while Corbyn’s position on Brexit has precipitated the breakaway, it is, of course, not the only reason behind it. For those seven MPs—and for many others considering their positions—Corbyn’s attitude to the antisemitism problem in Labour has been a clear-cut reason to quit.
It is not only about the shocking, widespread rise of antisemitic abuse from Labour councillors and members, but the dereliction of duty by Corbyn and senior figures in the party to tackle it.
And when those who have suffered the worst abuse—like Berger and Dame Margaret Hodge—have complained directly to the very top of the party, it is those victims of the abuse who have been made to feel responsible for it. Why else was Hodge pursued by an internal party disciplinary inquiry last summer? Why else did John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, suggest to Berger she should make a pledge of loyalty to the leadership to make the threat of deselection in her Wavertree constituency go away?
The seven MPs who left Labour on Monday cited various reasons for going, and if more MPs decide to follow them—and I am sure they will—there will be further reasons still. Being anti-Brexit may not be the defining feature.
This breadth is reflected in the wider public: an Opinium poll for the Observer at the weekend found that 59 per cent of the public would consider voting for a new centre-ground party at the next general election.
The breakdown of traditional politics, and the transformation of Labour, transcends Brexit—it will still be there after March 29th, no matter what the shape of May’s final deal turns out to be. This diversity will be the new movement’s strength: it won’t be one that demands its MPs and members sign pledges of loyalty to the leader, whoever that is. It won’t quash dissent or disagreement, or bully or harass individuals for speaking their minds.
Given their small number and demands for by-elections in their constituencies, it will be an uphill battle. There will be inevitable setbacks to its central purpose—particularly when shocking comments like Angela Smith’s about race, only hours after the launch, undermine the message. Her comments should be denounced by her fellow members, or risk blowing the credibility of the whole project.
But ultimately, the new movement will be united around a more progressive, tolerant and positive way of doing politics, that rejects blind tribalism, harassment and abuse. If the last three years of British politics has felt nasty and divisive, maybe a corner has finally been turned.
Now read Joana Ramiro on why the Independence Group should face by-elections