‘Will the Independent Group break the mould of British politics? The odds must be against it, but perhaps they are not as poor as they first look’
On March 2, 1981, ten MPs resigned the Labour whip, joining two who had already done so, over the party’s direction under a left-wing leader. What made the defecting MPs feel they could no longer stay put was the Labour leadership’s increasing anti-Europeanism, its soft stance towards socialist dictatorships and embrace of unilateral nuclear disarmament, and the intolerance at constituency level for MPs who did not follow the new orthodoxy. On February 18, 2019, seven MPs resigned the Labour whip, joining others who had already done so — over the party’s direction under a left-wing leader. Their objections were remarkably similar to those of 1981 — with the one difference being that things have become rather more toxic in 2019; no one in 1981 accused Labour leader Michael Foot of tolerating anti-Semitism.
In 1981, a further 16 Labour MPs — and one Conservative, Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler — defected to the SDP. Despite the SDP/Liberal Alliance gaining more than a quarter of the vote, of these 29 MPs only four retained their seats at the 1983 general election. In addition, Roy Jenkins retained the Glasgow Hillhead seat he had won in a 1982 by-election and Charles Kennedy was elected to the Commons for the first time. Perhaps the most surprising thing here from a 2019 perspective is that a non-Scot could be elected for a Scottish seat then, something quite unthinkable now.
The SDP was born in much more auspicious circumstances than today’s Independent Group. The Gang of Four had all been cabinet ministers with Jenkins having been Chancellor, Home Secretary and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party; David Owen had served as Foreign Secretary. Of the seven Independent Group MPs, only Chris Leslie has served even as a junior minister, while the others have at most been PPSs whilst Labour was in office. Admittedly, Leslie, Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger have all served briefly in opposition in the Shadow Cabinet. So will this new breakaway face the same fate as the SDP — but perhaps without the earlier incarnation’s meteoric rise? The SDP/Liberal Alliance led in the opinion polls, topping 40 per cent during the autumn of 1981, yet still did not break through.
There are three reasons for arguing that things might be different this time. Labour is not today where it was in 1981; it is in a much worse place. Foot was no Corbyn, but an intellectual, perhaps the most intellectual postwar British politician, who had been at the forefront of Labour thinking for decades, albeit on the Left of the party. He had been a top-tier politician, taking part in all the party’s major policy debates. Foot’s socialism was anchored in the traditions of Tribune, the left-wing weekly he edited in the 1940s and ’50s; Corbyn’s socialism is anchored in the traditions of the Morning Star, the Communist Party newspaper that he wrote a column for until being elected Labour leader.
In 1981, the equivalent position of Corbyn would have been occupied by Tony Benn. Had he been elected Deputy Leader, against the wishes of Foot in 1981, many Labour politicians of the time have since argued that he would have destroyed the party. Even the comparison between Benn and Corbyn is, however, much too generous. Benn had dubious associations and his Diaries show him to be ludicrously forgiving of the Soviet Union’s transgressions. He did not, however, employ in his office people like Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray, whose whole outlook has been shaped by fighting internal battles, on the side of reaction and pro-Soviet orthodoxy, within the Communist Party. Those around Corbyn are trying to engineer the permanent and irreversible transformation of Labour into what they have always dreamed of: a Marxist party with a mass membership. This is much more important to the Corbyn clique than winning office. If they succeed, there will be no place in Labour not just for the seven defectors but a broad swathe of the parliamentary party. Many more MPs might then defect.
In addition, Brexit makes today’s situation very different from 1981. The issues around which Labour split then did not require immediate action. Unilateralism would only become relevant once a Labour government had been elected, and leaving the EEC seemed a rather unlikely event just six years after resounding approval for the UK’s membership in a referendum. Brexit cuts across the parties and is something politicians need to take a stance upon now. It has the potential of splitting not just Labour but also the Conservatives, even if some version of Theresa May’s deal is approved. Many commentators argue that what hampered the SDP more than anything was its inability to attract Tory defectors other than the obscure backbencher Brocklebank-Fowler. The fact that the Independent Group has managed to recruit three high-profile Conservative MPs — Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston — could be a game changer.
A Labour breakaway has the option of either positioning itself as the true voice of Labour, arguing that the old party has abandoned what Labour stands for, or making the case for a new centre politics. Both strands were visible with the formation of the SDP, with Jenkins representing the centrist current, and Owen, oddly considering his later trajectory, wanting the party to be more solidly grounded in the Left. With Umunna’s pronouncements, it is clear the Independent Group is positioning itself as the new centre. This in turn makes more Tory defections a possibility.
Class allegiance to parties has become much weaker. The 2017 general election showed that age has become a better indicator of voting intention than class. This might mean that people will find it easier to cast aside their traditional allegiances.
Will the Independent Group break the mould of British politics? The odds must be against it, but perhaps they are not as poor as they first look. And what would represent success for the new party? Becoming a permanent major player in British politics obviously would, but simply stopping Corbyn from becoming Prime Minister might be enough for the time being.