The breakaway group of Labour MPs are more united than what they are not than what they are. Nevertheless, their position statement is revealingby Tom Clark / February 19, 2019 / Leave a comment
After endless months of speculation, we finally know who the MPs are who can longer tolerate life in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.
Do we, however, have any idea of what they and their new “Independent Group” stand for? To an extent the answer is “no”—and by design.
In Westminster, they are hoping to lure a handful of Conservative colleagues they have spent a lifetime opposing to join them, a tricky task which will only get trickier the moment they start talking about specific policies. And in a country where many polls have shown “neither” besting both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn in the “best PM” stakes, positioning their new outfit as a “none of the above” party is arguably shrewd.
But even a proto-party can’t openly stand for nothing, and Labour’s seven leavers have published a statement spelling out their values. Although they brush off any comparison with the SDP, if you want to get a sense of the ideas animating them, it is instructive to measure their words against the Limehouse Declaration that the Gang of Four issued in January 1981. That came at a similar stage of the SDP adventure—a couple of months before the formal creation of their new political party.
Although it is forgotten now, this—like Brexit—felt like a moment of national emergency. Until the 80s, it had been assumed that unemployment of over a million was unsustainable politically and socially. But the deepest recession since the war was taking hold, joblessness was rocketing towards triple that, and, on her quest for sound money, Margaret Thatcher appeared to regard it with equanimity.
The starting points for both breakaways was a howl of anguish against the condition of the Labour party. Indeed, the splitters of 1981—who eventually managed to recruit only a single Tory MP, Christopher Brockleback-Fowler—were more upfront about this in their statement.
Limehouse opens by decrying the “calamitous outcome” of a special Labour conference which had removed MPs’ monopoly on picking their leader and handed much of the say to the trade unions. The anti-Semitic aspect of the recent factional agitation against Luciana Berger lent the new group’s attack on Labour in their press conference a particular moral force, but in their formal statement they are—by contrast with the Social Democrats—keen to turn fire on all sides. “None of today’s political parties,” they open by charging, “are fit to provide the leadership and direction needed.”
The clearer focus on Labour, however, may be because the SDP’s was self-consciously an initiative of the centre-left. The very name of the body announced at Limehouse—a “council on social democracy”—made this leaning clear. Today’s “independent group,” by contrast, suggests that there is no longer the need to make the old push-comes-to-shove choice between left and right.
Several values are common to both the Limehouse and Independent Group lists: a mixed economy, public services that respond to individual needs and multilateralism overseas. The inclusion of environmental sustainability in the 2019 list is a reminder that the boilerplate requirements of political respectability have evolved in 38 years. Today’s Breakaway Seven also record Parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and a free media in their little list: the Gang of Four never bothered with that. Those who harbour the darkest fears of the Corbyn project may say this was necessary today because today’s hard left challenges these things in a way Michael Foot’s Labour party never did; others will suspect it is more about padding out a threadbare offer.
A more important difference between the two statements is tonal—Limehouse is more sharply defined, more upbeat and more liberal. There is a clear aim, “reversing [economic] decline,” and the hope is that this can be done by emulating successful social democratic governments elsewhere, with ideas like shared ownership and competition within the public sector offered up as possible means to get there.
Although the traditions of tribe render it impolite to say so, it really does read like an early script for New Labour’s first chapter. The first SDP leader, Roy Jenkins, was an unapologetic metropolitan liberal who wasn’t given to flag-waving nationalism, or playing the security card, and there is none of that here.
By contrast, the first value for the Independent Group is patriotism—pride in a great country, together with stern insistence that “the first duty of government must be to defend its people and do whatever it takes to safeguard Britain’s national security.” Other little code-words like “taking responsibility” call to mind not the liberalising reforms of Jenkins’s home office in the 1960s, but rather than crackdowns of Tony Blair’s Asbo era. While much of the country has grown weary in the extreme about foreign meddling after Iraq, a line about Labour’s passivity “in circumstances of humanitarian distress” refers to Syria and suggests that these MPs remain as committed to liberal interventionism as ever.
There is considerable overlap in the meritocratic language in both Limehouse and this week’s statement, but the 2019 document is the less egalitarian of the two. Whereas the Social Democrats simply said they wanted “to promote greater equality,” the Independent Group are careful to specify that inequality should be “reduced through the extension of opportunity.” The agenda is one of skills that offer a ladder up, rather than levelling outcomes. Likewise, where the Gang of Four vowed to “eliminate poverty,” the new Independents write of sweeping away the barriers it creates.
Even within the new micro-grouping, there will be some important divides. After all, they are chiefly united only by a dislike of Corbyn, and they all had their own personal reasons to go. Where Chuka Umunna has over time become an urbane social and economic liberal in the Macron mould, Angela Smith’s (at best) unfortunate stumbling about “funny” skin colours is reminder that much of the Labour Right is a long way from cosmopolitan. And whereas the young Umunna opposed the Iraq war from outside Parliament, Mike Gapes—until this week a solidly Labour stalwart of half a century’s standing—gained his highest profile in the aftermath of that conflict, when he would defend the integrity of the government’s efforts and honesty of its intentions, even when ministers themselves had all but given up.
But putting everything together, the Independent Group’s offer is—as with Limehouse—very much New Labour. The twist, however, is that the new breakaway appears to offer more late than early Blair: less “a new dawn has broken” than “the rules of the game have changed.”