The Independence Group will fade into irrelevance, just like the SDP

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The Independence Group will fade into irrelevance, just like the SDP

The seven Labour defectors may have caused a media frenzy, but they won’t have any long-term impact on our politics. Chuka Umunna and the other rebels do not have a proper policy platform and they are doomed to fade into irrelevance, argues Laura Bierer-Nielsen, Director of Policy, Labour Leave. 

The decision yesterday morning by seven Labour MPs to form a breakaway group, the Independent Group, ignites a strange sense of déjà vu for those with any historical understanding of the Labour Party. In the 1980s, Europe was cited as the catalyst that finally made defectors jump ship to the Social Democratic Party. The months of criticisms thrown at the leadership from remainer MPs, like Chuka Umunna, from everything from Brexit to their austerity policy, had been an indication that history may repeat itself. 

However, the issue of political defections is no more than a red herring in reality. At this stage of the Brexit negotiations, a breakaway party is not only entirely self-indulgent but a politically futile act. Although, there is no doubt, in the short term this new party is whipping up a political frenzy, with endless streams of news coverage, in the longer term the party is likely to drift into insignificance. The central reason for this is that it is likely to be a one-policy party: a party formed on the failings of both the government and the opposition to put forward credible pathways to the Brexit impasse. After the initial interest of centre ground rebels, the public will arguably become quickly disinterested in hearing the same anti-Brexit messages from the same anti-Brexit MPs. Surely a different party name on their political rosette would not be enough to spark the interest of a Brexit-saturated population? 

In reality, what policies is this new group going espouse? The opening mission statement was no more than liberal, non-descriptive, vague commentary. What is particularly unique and distinguishable about the message of these MPs? Well, arguably nothing. It is unclear what these defectors believe that is so at odds with the majority of the Labour Party. The belief in social justice, redistribution of wealth, public services, all remain core to what the Labour Party, the leadership and the Shadow Cabinet represent. Other than the issue of Brexit, what is it that grates on Chuka’s membership of the Labour Party? What makes him question his membership card every morning? Is it Labour’s policy on a significant increase in public funding to the NHS, a pledge to build one million council houses by 2020, or maybe its desire to build a National Education Service? There is no clarity on what distinguishes this new centre-ground party from a party such as the Liberal Democrats, and just look at how well they are doing.

The lack of a holistic strategy to the Independent Group, highlighted by their lacklustre mission statement and underdeveloped website, implies this has been driven almost entirely by a desire to push the Labour leadership to a more pro-European Union stance. It is interesting to note that the reports on a new party gathered new momentum following the publication of Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to Theresa May, which controversially did not give reference to the issue of a second referendum. Maybe Labour MPs have finally caught on to the fact that their leader is in fact not ideologically in favour of another vote. He accepts the democratic decision taken in 2016 and is, undoubtedly, secretly wholeheartedly in favour of the decision made. 

The MPs called the Labour leadership’s bluff, but in reality how much will this affect Jeremy Corbyn? With only seven defections at their launch, most of whom are not household names, surely this will be more of a relief than anything else. It removes a thorn in the side of Jeremy Corbyn. Unless next week sees a trickle of senior defections from both Labour and the Conservative Party, all that will evolve out of this event will be the end of the career of seven mediocre parliamentarians. 

Even if one were to give this new party the benefit of the doubt, and with good Saatchi and Saatchi messaging, maybe they will penetrate the political ether of some of the population, but how will this be sustained until the next general election? The biggest factor which stunted the growth of the SDP in the early 1980s was the inability to control national crises. Although, in the Brexit-weary state of the country, it seems no other issue could ever be discussed or feature at all in political discourse or a general election, this would be a mistaken assumption. The SDP assumed that the issues of Europe, failing Conservative economic policies, and the militant tendencies within the Labour Party would dominate the next General Election. They were wrong, and it cost them their future. The Falklands War of 1982 not only dominated much of the political discourse of the year, but created a patriotic feeling within the country that very much carried Margaret Thatcher to one of her greatest victories in 1983.

Defectors should be wary, and look to history for direction. 

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    Laura Bierer-Nielsen
    Laura is Director of Policy and Research at Labour Leave.
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