Jeremy Corbyn

Well they’ve only gone and bloody done it, haven’t they? In the UK, seven Labour MPs have quit the party, and announced that they will sit on the crossbenches. They’ve named themselves “Independent Group”, announced that they won’t be forming a new party, yet, and that they have no leader. Their most prominent members are north London MP Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna, the slick half-Nigerian MP for Streathem in South London, who had once been spoken of as a possible leadership contender.

Who are they?

The seven independents are all from the right of the party, and they variously argued — at a press conference stuffed into a small Westminster room, enlivened by a hot-mic’ed BBC tech mumbling “we’re actually fucked” at various moments — that Labour had become a dictatorship of the leadership group, imposing socialist ideas far to the left of Labour, refusing to campaign for a second referendum because they are secret Brexiteers, and failing to tackle anti-Semitism within the party, which they claim to be of epidemic proportions.

Hasn’t this happened before?

The launching of a Labour split inevitably brings to mind the formation of the Social Democratic Party in 1981, after Labour responded to the victory of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 by staying on the left, with its leadership group advocating new nationalisations of industry and unilateral nuclear disarmament.

That time, however three of the four who split away  — Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and David Owen — were leading figures in the party, who had held major cabinet posts. None of the seven “independents”– the name “TIGgers” is already being bandied about some corners online — have held anything more than a parliamentary secretary (i.e. very junior minister) post, and Umunna has only ever been a shadow minister.

Back in 81, the SDP came roaring out of the gate, with a 25% approval rating, and persuaded around 25 Labour MPs, and one Tory, to defect to them. But the effect was to cannibalise the left vote, and make Thatcher’s assured victory after the Falklands in 1982 into a landslide. They allied with the Liberals, and were then taken over by them in 1987 — although it was politely called a merger — and disappeared from history.  

The TIGgers are hoping that 30-40 Labour MPs will join them, which, would see Labour lose about 15% of its MPs. But if the first-past-the-post system made it difficult for a defined party such as the SDP to make gains, it will prove near-impossible for the TIGgers, with no core beliefs — the phrase repeated over and over at the presser was that “politics is broken” — and no defined positions on policy.

Unsurprisingly, their commitment to a “new politics” that represents “the people”, didn’t extend to resigning and then recontesting their seats at byelections. “Byelections are the last thing the British people need now,” Mike Gapes, an Iraq War hawk noted. Well, the last thing that seven British people need. Their sudden enthusiasm for the difficult but resolute path of independence, blah blah, may be not unrelated to the moves to deselect them by Momentum, the pro-Corbyn group that exists both inside and outside the party.

What does this mean for Corbyn?

Nevertheless, their departure is a bad break for Corbyn Labour, which is under pressure from all sides.

Corbyn’s election was due to a rebellion of Labour members against Labour MPs, who never wanted him; now Corbyn and his leadership group find the membership turning against them. Corbyn and Co are Brexiteers. But 80% of Labour’s members — the waves of young, educated activists, and left-wing workers who came in after Corbyn’s victory — are Remainers, who want a second referendum.

However Labour’s core vote, in the north, are firmly pro-Brexit. They barely trust Corbyn now; committing to a new referendum would sour them on him, drive them to the Tories on a one-off Brexit vote, and tempt May to a snap general election.

A whole section of the middle class wouldn’t vote Labour on Brexit alone. But a section of the working-class would vote Tory, and that would hand May victory, and perhaps a renewed majority.

What happens next?

What the TIGgers must be hoping for is for May’s commitment to a “no-deal” exit to persist; or even better, for May to be deposed and replaced by a hard-line no-deal Brexiteer such as — god help them — Jacob Rees-Mogg, or — god help Britain — Boris Johnson. Then, they might get an influx of Tory Remainers, have the March 29 departure date delayed, and get a second referendum.

Only by being a genuine cross-party do they have a chance of winning some seats, in an early election, or holding together until a scheduled one. The TIGgers paradox is that they’re prating on about a new politics, while their refusal to face a byelection test is the worst of the old politics.

Should Tory Remainers regain hold of their party, several TIGgers may well end up crossing over to it. Their complaints about anti-Semitism are genuine, it would appear, but that also counts simple support of Palestinian struggle (five of the seven are Labour Friends of Israel members). Meanwhile, one was a proponent of water privatization (while holding shares in water companies); Chuka Umunna is a smooth-talking professional politician of “the new politics” and fools nobody; and Luciana Berger has attacked Corbyn’s leadership relentlessly since he was elected.    

But that’s a while away, and the next big Brexit vote is scheduled for February 27. A week isn’t always a long time in politics, but this one will be.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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