On Monday, seven MPs resigned from the Labour Party – though not from their seats in the Commons – to form a new ‘Independent Group’ in Parliament. An eighth joined them yesterday, and three Tories today. Few people, arguably including the splitters themselves, have much confidence that the breakaway group can garner significant public support, or achieve any particular objective. They have not yet tried to launch themselves as a political party, but only issued vague murmurings about doing so at some point in the future. Their departure will do nothing to help avert Brexit. The most likely effect – if a breakaway of such unimpressive proportions is to have any significant effect at all – will be to scupper Labour’s chances at the next election, delivering yet another period of Conservative government which few can afford.
Corbyn and his supporters used to be accused of an irresponsible lack of interest in attaining power, of sacrificing ‘electability’ for a ‘politics of protest’ – a chorus eventually quietened if not entirely silenced by the 2017 election result, in which Labour made striking gains and relieved the Conservatives of their majority. But when self-styled ‘centrists’ act in ways that risk undermining the party’s prospects of electoral success, it’s different: evidence not of irresponsibility and a lack of concern for those they were elected to represent, but legitimate and principled dissent which must be protected from condemnation.
The deputy Labour leader, Tom Watson, rather than condemn the splitters or defend the programme he supposedly wants to see implemented in government, intervened to warn people not to use the word ‘traitors’. Meanwhile, in the absence of any credible suggestion as to what their departure might positively achieve, the Independents are not to be criticised, but praised for their ‘courage’ and ‘conscience’.
Anti-Semitism and Brexit are among the issues cited in the MPs’ explanations of their decision to leave Labour, but their statement doesn’t say how the proposed new party would tackle anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, or anything about Brexit – except that the Labour Party ‘has failed … to provide a strong and coherent alternative to the Conservatives’ approach’. The statement is composed almost entirely of platitudes:
The people of this country have the ability to create fairer, more prosperous communities for present and future generations. We believe that this creativity is best realised in a society which fosters individual freedom and supports all families.
There is nothing here to distinguish this from the current rhetoric of the Conservative Party.
Individuals are capable of taking responsibility if opportunities are offered to them, everybody can and should make a contribution to society and that contribution should be recognised.
Punctuation aside, Margaret Thatcher would be pleased enough with that.
It isn’t that the Labour defectors don’t stand for anything, or that they have nothing in common. Angela ‘funny tinge’ Smith is passionately opposed to the renationalisation of water. Chuka Umunna opposes Labour’s plans to bring the Royal Mail back under public control – despite overwhelming public support for the policy – and Chris Leslie is sceptical of nationalisation in general. Any embarrassment fellow Independents may feel about Gavin Shuker’s views on abortion and homosexuality is offset by his belief in the importance of ‘national security’, which Umunna emphasised in his column for the Independent shortly after the split. Umunna is worried about Labour’s ‘lukewarm attitude towards Nato’ and ‘reluctance to act where necessary’. Mike Gapes voted not only for the Iraq War, but against inquiries into the invasion. He has opposed calls for sanctions on Saudi arms sales as British bombs rain down on Yemen.
The emptiness of the Independents’ alternative programme and the vagueness of their complaints indicate a partial recognition that the Blairite model of neoliberalism at home and aggressive interventionism abroad cannot simply be rerun, as do their unconvincing efforts to capture what they see as a pissed-off but basically irrational ‘populist’ zeitgeist. Umunna gives it his best:
There are those who say there is no alternative. That we are doomed to be saddled with the same old politics. That we have to settle for voting for the least worst option or simply to make sure the other lot don’t get in. That no matter how incompetent they are, we have no option but to vote for them. We reject this.
But they know at some level that nobody is buying this slick patter. Otherwise they would resign their seats and stand again as Independent candidates. This is protest politics at its crudest.