Friday, 22 February 2019

A Declaration of Independence

I'm not convinced that the "Independent Group" will form a fully-fledged political party. As the name suggests, this is a opportunistic creation that bears an unflattering resemblance to the kind of volatile, minor formations you see in legislatures based on proportional representation. Their insistence on "policies that are evidence-based, not led by ideology, taking a long-term perspective to the challenges of the 21st century in the national interest, rather than locked in the old politics of the 20th century in the party’s interests" is Blairite boilerplate at its worst, suggesting that the original seven who quit the Labour whip on Monday have invested little time in developing a policy platform beyond the usual shibboleths around national security, business-friendliness and individual responsibility, despite their departure being long in the making. They are obviously centrist and establishment-minded, but nostalgia for the coalition years isn't a growth market. Attempts to fill in the gaps by their media chums have led either to ridiculous claims that the two main parties are intellectual voids or to the revival of ideas that have proved unpopular and tin-eared in the past, such as identity cards and conditional benefits.

One feature that is evident in their thinking is that an active party membership, beyond the contribution of canvassing and funding, would not be welcome. Chris Leslie, who for want of an alternative must be considered the new group's chief ideologue, has rejected Corbyn's legitimacy as Labour leader by dismissing party members: "Everybody has genuflected to membership, but that membership is a tiny fraction of the public at large… MPs have to, by the nature of our constitution, have confidence in their leader." This, together with the hoary references by their media supporters to Burke's independently-minded representative, suggests a reluctance to constitute a formal party in the modern British tradition, with a preference for a looser social association (i.e. focused on fund-raising in the American manner) and an appeal directly to the electorate via press and TV. That might work in a presidential system, as it did for Emmanuel Macron in France, but it stands no chance in the UK's system of first-past-the-post constituencies and an executive formed by the legislature. More generally, it is hard to see the "business-firm party model" thriving in a political culture that still values tribalism and mass-membership despite the scolding of centrist commentators.

The parallels with Macron and En Marche are misleading but still instructive. While he promised social liberalism and pain-free economic modernisation on the campaign trail, in office he has exhibited a haughty authoritarianism and pursued a stale neoliberalism that has borne down on the working class while privileging the rich. His unpopularity is hardly surprising. His success was entirely due to the existence of a presidential system and a relatively even distribution of first-round support among the four leading candidates that allowed him to qualify for the run-off with only 24%, and additionally gave him an "anyone but" opponent in Marine Le Pen. Apart from these structural advantages, the most obvious difference between the UK and France is that the new group does not have a charismatic individual to coalesce around, and the early indications are that there is no consensus among its members as to who might act as leader. The idea that David Miliband might return in glory strikes me as implausible, because he is no more charismatic or intellectually coherent than Anna Soubry, while the notion of a "clean skin" in the manner of Macron seems too alien for Britain's political culture to easily absorb. That bookies are offering 5/2 on Tony Blair becoming leader isn't a good sign.

In theory, the group could be market-testing under a placeholder name with a view to forming a party later this year, but that seems unnecessary. There has been no lack of polling and focus-grouping by rich donors keen to create a centrist party over the last three years, and no lack of media commentators running up dummy manifestos. But all the evidence of that polling suggests that the centre of the political spectrum may not be as heavily-populated as is usually assumed. While it is true that both Labour and the Conservatives have shifted left and right respectively in terms of their programmes, this appears to reflect the long-standing views of the population rather than a sudden shift engineered by "entryists". Cameron's modernisation project failed to take either party members or electors with it, hence the long-running sore over Europe and the difficulty in securing a majority, while Labour's membership and electoral support has always been more to the left than the PLP. Both Cameron and Blair were supported under sufferance by many, hence the steady decline in turnout since 1997. The true centrist bloc of voters is little bigger than the Liberal Democrats' core support, and they obviously won't welcome the competition unless there is an electoral pact in the mode of the 1980s Liberal-SDP Alliance.

It is not at all clear why the original seven decided that mid-February was the optimum time to launch, though the growing hostility of their constituency parties might be a factor. Even the decision of the three Tories and two other Labour MPs to join forces (very loosely in the case of Ian Austin), which was obviously triggered by Monday's announcement, seems oddly-timed. They are not going to stop Brexit and, however slow and halting, Labour has begun to take action against anti-Semitism in its ranks. Of course, nothing that the current Labour leadership might do in regard to either issue will ever satisfy its critics, and the formation of this group means that there will now be an irreconcilable and noisy anti-Corbyn claque for the duration of the Parliament, but that paradoxically is bad news for its ostensible causes. Achieving a Commons majority to either prevent no-deal or secure a second referendum has now got marginally harder, while the charges of anti-Semitism against Labour will increasingly look politically-motivated, particularly if the same energy isn't devoted to calling our the various "tinges" of racism within the Conservative Party.

For the nine Labour defectors, their fundamental motivation is presumably to act as a goad and spoiler for their former colleagues. This was made plain by the decision of the Labour Friends of Israel group to keep Joan Ryan as its Parliamentary chair, a move that defies logic unless you see the Independent Group as the Labour Party in exile. Indeed, the addition of ex-Tories to their ranks is probably unhelpful insofar as it disrupts their media strategy by diverting attention away from Labour and Corbyn. For this reason, it strikes me as more likely that the group will remain a loose association rather than constitute a formal party and thus be faced with the challenge of developing a shared platform. While it isn't difficult to find common ground between Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry on most topics, their joint position would be hard to distinguish from the Conservatives in areas such as the economy and social policy. As these are the areas that ultimately determine elections, rather than essentially supra-party issues like Brexit and racism, it is likely that a new centre party would come to be seen as just another expression of conservative establishment politics, as happened to the LibDems in the coalition years. The early comments of the group have done little to dispel this belief.

One thing that is already clear is that the three ex-Tories have no intention of voting against the government on a confidence motion, and I suspect the ex-Labour MPs would probably abstain on the grounds that they wouldn't do anything to advance the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn entering Number 10. There is even the suggestion that they would prop up May's administration if she promised a second referendum, which in turn suggests they might settle for a more modest quid pro quo post-Brexit and compete for business with the DUP. Though I wondered initially if the original seven moved this week because they thought a snap general election was imminent, and calculated that this would be the best way of damaging Labour's chances and so forcing Corbyn out as leader in the aftermath of a clear Conservative victory, I now think they intend to hang on grimly until 2022, sniping from the sidelines and cluttering up TV studios. They remain unreconciled to the leftward shift of Labour, but dismissing party democracy (and refusing to submit to by-elections) isn't going to garner widespread support so they are obliged to claim victimhood. The problem is that the aggrieved divorcee look quickly palls in the eyes of the electorate, if not commissioning editors.

Brexit may well be a done deal in six weeks time, and while re-accession to the EU could be a viable basis for a new party in the medium-term (though I imagine the Liberal Democrats will seek to monopolise that cause), it is not going to provide an agenda in the short-term if the Article 50 process completes. A policy of close integration with the EU post-Brexit would be indistinguishable from Labour's current position and probably that of the Lib Dems after March as well. Anti-antisemitism isn't a viable basis for a mass party, or for any hope of significant electoral success, not least because in those constituencies with a significant Jewish population the Tories will not welcome a split in the anti-Labour vote (the exception that proves the rule being Enfield, where Joan Ryan is the incumbent). That said, it would be amusing to see how the likes of Stephen Pollard might react should Luciana Berger decide to stand in Barnet. Ignoring Brexit and antisemitism, is there a viable space in British politics for a new centrist party? There has been plenty of talk about a realignment along a values dimension of "open" versus "closed" mindsets, but a more careful consideration of the evidence suggests that the untapped potential of the electorate is still largely to the left of the centre imagined by the Independent Group.

There is no evidence that the new group are particularly socially liberal, and some to the contrary when you consider their voting records and public statements. On economic matters they are clearly right-of-centre, which puts them at odds with public opinion. Praising austerity, as both Anna Soubry and Chris Leslie have done, is a bad look at the best of times, while Angela Smith's cheerleading for water privatisation isn't popular anywhere outside of the City of London. Viewed through the perspective of class interests, the Independent Group is not only a regressive attempt to return to the "happy days" of the late-90s, but a defence of the privileges of a professional and managerial elite that has lost the grudging public tolerance it enjoyed before 2008. Ironically, the interests of the wider managerial and professional class that the group ultimately represents are more likely to be served after Brexit by a Labour victory that leads to a revival in the public sector, investment in domestic industry and substantive action over housing and inequality. The paradox of this declaration of independence is that it shows an inability to break free from the grip of the past.


  1. 'Chris Leslie's chief ideologue'

    Extract from a letter to the Guardian from David Hinchliffe Labour MP for Wakefield, 1987-2005

    "In trying to understand their thinking, I was reminded of being on a train travelling south with Chris Leslie, then MP for Shipley, not long after his election to the Commons in 1997. During a conversation with another northern Labour MP, Alice Mahon, and myself, we were both astonished when he informed us that he had always wanted to have a career in politics but had been genuinely unsure as to which major party to join."

  2. Perhaps the members of the Independent Group think it's formation makes the chances of Parliament gaining control of the Brexit process more likely. Hence the need for it this week. Maybe now there is an official Independent Group of MPs other Remainer MPs of both parties will be emboldened in some way.

    I'm still thinking the Government deal will get through in some form. There seems to be a group of Labour MPs (John Mann, Caroline Flint et al) willing to vote with the Government to get Brexit through. Maybe the Labour Leadership wouldn't be too unhappy to see a large group of Labour MPs vote for May's deal. As long as Labour can still label the deal a Tory Brexit.

    The trouble for me is I no longer trust my own thinking on Brexit having guessed wrong on all the major Brexit events.

  3. Would the lack of a membership really hurt them as long as it was something the press were loathe to write about?

    They aren't likely to be able to build up a significant movement on the ground even if they did have membership, and there'll be plenty of business interests who will fund them given the current trajectories of both Labour and the Tories.