This isn't "Corbynism without Corbyn" or Conservatism without the ERG. But it's not clear what it is, eitherby Chaminda Jayanetti / February 20, 2019 / Leave a comment
Having failed to break up with their party on Valentine’s Day—and on many other days before—this week Corbynsceptic MPs finally signed the divorce papers, walked out of the family home and into a cauldron of television cameras.
What this does or doesn’t mean will not be clear this week or next. The immediate fallout—crossfire and torrents of relief; despair and abuse—say nothing about the fundamental prospects of the new grouping, or whether it can develop into a party.
What is it that has been born, this lovechild of mutual hate? The Independent Group (TIG) is deliberately vague in every sense: its name means nothing beyond an absence of greater definition; it has settled on vague worldviews rather than specific policies, knowing that in the early stages of a new relationship it’s best not to talk about marriage or who’ll take out the bins.
But, despite now being joined by three former Conservative MPs, most of TIG’s statement of values resembles those of New Labour: strong national security, sound public finances, funding services from the proceeds of growth, equality of opportunity over result, and a contribution-based view of society that suggests a belief in benefits conditionality.
“Corbynism without Corbyn” this is not.
By avoiding firm policy positions at this stage, TIG has avoided early divisions and left the door open for others to enter.
But eventually they will need policies—and that’s where the trouble will come.
For all that people are desperate for a moderate-sounding party that lacks the toxicity of both the Labour and Conservative fringes, aspects of those fringes do have public appeal; otherwise, politics wouldn’t be where it is today.
What appeals to the public now is far more contradictory than in 1997. Electoral ‘toxicity’ doesn’t just stem from bigotry; it comes from policy positions of all kinds, with different groups of voters choking on different aspects. The electoral compass of Britain is daubed with enough red lines to make Jackson Pollock blush.
Whilst TIG’s founding statement is not explicit on Brexit—realising, perhaps, that come the next election it may not be in a position to undo what has been done—the new grouping is clearly not going to target pro-Brexit voters.
As for anti-Brexit voters: how many will tolerate some continuation of austerity, especially without a protest politician such as Jeremy Corbyn to paper over it? Will the party back a referendum on rejoining the EU if we have already left? Will they attempt to triangulate on immigration while doing so? Will they head down the road of ID cards, threatening any alliance with the Lib Dems?
The trouble facing TIG is two-fold. First, New Labour triangulation can work for a major party with millions of habitual voters that only needs to nab a few swing voters. But a party that is just starting out needs to inspire the loyalty of a base of voters. Think-tank technocracy won’t cut it—which is why the Lib Dems, in their peak era, always sought headline-grabbers.
The second problem is economics. Centrists have struggled to carve out any coherent response to the financial crisis. New Labour funded public spending off the back of a deregulated financial sector, debt-fuelled consumption and a housing boom—a model lacking credibility in 2019. So, what will TIG’s political economy look like? Smaller parties don’t usually need a credible manifesto in order to make a splash—but if TIG’s pitch is that they’re the grown-ups in the room, their support will rest on credibility as well as voters identifying with their values.
TIG won’t try and outflank Corbyn on reversing austerity. Will they have the stomach to outflank him on liberalising drugs laws, criminal justice, immigration, or protecting the environment? Will they opt for “tough on crime” instead? Or will they plump for “radical centrist” unicorns such as Universal Basic Income and a Land Value Tax, both of which are liable to collapse under scrutiny?
TIG’s one solid commitment in their founding statement is towards more devolution—a policy one suspects has more support from wonks and columnists than the actual public.
However, the immediate prospects for growing TIG are solid. The new grouping will be attractive to ex-Labour members, many of whom will quickly identify with it and allow it the leeway to adopt policies they’d condemn from others. Labour councillors, under fire from local activists, may defect in numbers, giving the fledgeling party a local base and possibly upending control of certain councils.
The abject failure to deal with anti-Semitism likely played a role in all eight Labour defections so far, not just that of Luciana Berger. This week’s events ought logically to spark a leadership clampdown on anti-Jewish racism and the harassment of MPs. Instead, Labour’s decision to allow Derek Hatton to rejoin is an idiotic own-goal that could easily encourage more MPs to defect,if they can look past sharing a grouping with former Conservative colleagues. Centrist Labour MPs likely feel more connection and solidarity with each other than to the leadership—a trickle can quickly become a flood.
Strength in numbers is what TIG badly needs at a parliamentary level in order to overcome the hurdles presented by the electoral system. The more credible the party as a parliamentary force, the more people will bet on them rather than voting tactically.
Today’s defections by three anti-Brexit Conservative MPs could draw in disillusioned Tory voters as well. There are far fewer Tory centrists than Labour centrists, but the move by Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry puts the government’s majority on the line to the point that a general election may soon result. An early election would provide TIG with both the zeitgeist that could work in their favour, and the tight logistical timeframe that could prevent them from exploiting it.
Timing matters. There is no doubt that Berger and other Labour MPs simply could not face any more abuse from left-wing activists. But there is a paradox in that for both the Corbynites and the Corbynsceptics, the split has come too early. Corbynites would rather have avoided a split this side of a general election; Corbynsceptics would have had their greatest tactical strength holding the balance of power in an unstable Labour government, waiting for Corbynomics to fail—as they assume it will—before striking out on their own in response. Instead, TIG must try and survive as a parliamentary force for when, or if, that happens.
How very 2019 for this to happen at a time that suits neither side—but as with Brexit, should a great schism come to pass, history will not remember the details.