Seven Members of Parliament dramatically announced their departure from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party this morning, forming what is now being called the Independent Group.
Independent Group: “no confidence” in Labour leadership
At 8:30am this morning UK time, news emerged that a group of Labour MPs were officially splitting from their party. After an hour of frenzied media speculation, seven MPs (Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith, Chris Leslie, Mike Gapes and Ann Coffey) appeared at a press conference to confirm the rumors.
Umunna, a former shadow front-bencher and perhaps the best known member of the new group, explained that it was “time we dumped this country’s old-fashioned politics.”
“We have taken the step in leaving the old politics behind and invite others to do the same,” he said.
Citing Labour’s ongoing and well-publicized struggles with antisemitism within its ranks, Jewish MP Berger explained, “I am leaving behind a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation. I look forward to a future serving with colleagues who respect each other.”
Other MPs mentioned Labour’s pro-Brexit stance, and the increasing influence of the “hard left” within the party when explaining their decision to leave.
But although the new group looks somewhat like a political party, it currently also lacks some essential ingredients. According to a tweet from ITV’s Paul Brand, the Independent Group are independent but not a party, could vote with parties on a case-by-case basis, are centrist, but have no leader or plans to merge with another party.
Jeremy Corbyn reacts
Predicting splits in the Labour Parliamentary Party has been a favorite political parlor game for much of the last two years. Though not unexpected, seeing a split actually happen is still proving to be something of a shock for the “Westminster village.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn issued a somewhat restrained response to the news:
“I am disappointed that these MPs have felt unable to continue to work together for the Labour policies that inspired millions at the last election and saw us increase our vote by the largest share since 1945.”
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, the Labour #2, called on Independent Group members to resign and stand for re-election.
Laura Parker, a spokesperson for the increasingly influential, pro-Corbyn, far left group known as Momentum said, “These MPs want to take us back to the politics of the past. With a back to the Blair years programme of privatisation, tax cuts for the rich and deregulation of the banks, they offer no concrete solutions, no new ideas and have no support amongst the public.”
Ghosts of the SDP
Today’s group resignation is being compared to a similar event in 1981, when Labour last endured a substantial split in its ranks in somewhat similar conditions.
In order to escape what they saw as a takeover of Labour by the hard left, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers left the party to form their own centrist group: the Social Democratic Party (SDP). 24 more Labour MPs joined the initial group, and the party captured 11% of the vote in the 1983.
But despite the high vote tally, the SDP ended up with only 6 seats in the new Parliament. In subsequent elections it formed an “Alliance,” and eventually a merger with the Liberal Party. The combined party is today known as the Liberal Democrats, and currently has 11 elected MPs.
The Labour/SDP split of 1981 is remembered as an electoral catastrophe by many Labour party loyalists, and is blamed by many for what was another 15 years of Conservative Party rule in the UK.
Vince Cable, the current leader of the Liberal Democrats and himself a former SDP member, has previously hinted that his party would possibly merge with any new centrist group. In a statement on the LibDem website, he makes his approval of the new Independent Group clear:
“It’s never easy to walk away from a movement you formerly believed in. The breakaway MPs are right; Labour and the Conservatives aren’t fit for purpose. Politics is broken – that’s why we’re reinventing our party to be more open, outward looking and to demand better for Britain. We welcome and applaud the Independent Group’s bravery and hope that other MPs will follow them.”