A divided Labour could hand the Tories another 12 years of power

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

In September 2016, the Labour party reached a turning point but then failed to turn. The re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader with an increased majority, despite the opposition of two thirds of his own MPs, seemed to make a split inevitable. But it wasn’t until this week that Labour MPs found the nerve to leave the party and begin to form a new one: the Independent Group.

Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Mike Gapes, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker and Ann Coffey all quit citing various aspects of Corbyn’s leadership as their reason for going. Then on Tuesday night, Joan Ryan followed suit. On Wednesday morning, three Tory MPs — Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen — joined them. The rebels want to realign British politics, challenge Brexit and stop Corbyn from becoming prime minister. Their success or failure will go a long way to determining the future of this country.

The first thing to say about this split is that it is not a rupture. This is far from the unilateral declaration of independence by the Parliamentary Labour Party that was talked about in the early days of Corbyn’s leadership. Instead, it is a breakaway made up of less than 4 per cent of all Labour MPs and three Remainer Tories.

But it is now much simpler to set up a new political party than it was in the 1980s. The success of Vote Leave shows how technology can help a political movement to get going. The biggest problem for this group, though, may well be that it defines the centre ground as being economically and socially liberal while the electorate’s view is very different. Voters are often more socially conservative and more heterodox in their views on the economy. The danger for the group is that it tries to party like it’s 1999, when voters have other ideas.

The most immediate effect of this new group will be to hurt Labour. The departure of these eight MPs, and in particular Luciana Berger, highlights Corbyn’s failure to tackle anti-Semitism. A Jewish MP leaving a British political party because she has concluded that it is ‘institutionally anti-Semitic’ is quite something. It should give even the most ardent Labour supporter pause. By contrast, those Tory MPs who are leaving are going because of policies clearly set out in the 2017 Tory manifesto.

Seventy-two per cent of voters are currently dissatisfied with the job Corbyn is doing. That a bunch of his own MPs have quit because they can’t in good conscience urge voters to make him PM is going to compound doubts about him. What makes this so dangerous for Labour is that scores of Labour MPs privately share this view. Can they really go into the next election as Labour candidates when they think a Corbyn premiership would be bad for the country?

All 11 of the Independent Group MPs support Remain, and all of them back a second referendum. The Labour eight would have left the party earlier if it had not been for Brexit. They stayed because they believed that only the Labour party could stop, or significantly soften, Brexit. But they have now given up any hope of Corbyn backing a second referendum. The rebels hope to do what the Liberal Democrats failed to do in 2017 and sweep up the votes of impassioned Remain supporters.

Never have a group of people who have had their holidays cancelled sounded as happy as cabinet ministers do this week. They think that this Labour split has significantly increased their chances of winning the next election — though as one secretary of state cautions, the Tories would not reap the full benefits of this new group in a snap election. The Tories need to give the new party time to put down roots, select candidates, and raise and spend money if there is to be an electorally significant split on the left.

As one cabinet minister argues, the formation of the Independent Group will be beneficial for the government even though three Tory MPs have defected to it. The minister’s logic is that Tory voters are roughly speaking where the Tory leadership is on Brexit, and it is hard to imagine many of the party’s supporters being attracted to a group made up of the most ardent second referendum enthusiasts.

The question now is whether other Tory MPs will follow the three’s lead. However, Tory MPs who are worried about a Brexit–ultra becoming PM lose little by waiting to see what happens in the coming leadership contest. Indeed, if they wanted to inflict maximum damage on a new Tory leader, they would wait until May’s successor was in place and then quit.

The split in the Labour party also highlights what an opportunity the Tories have. If they can control their passions on Brexit and deliver an orderly withdrawal, then they could have 12 years in government ahead of them. This would enable them to define what kind of country post-Brexit Britain will be.

The Independent Group’s statement of principles doesn’t seek to carve out any new ideological space. Rather, it is something that pretty much any social democrat could sign up to. But the addition of the three Tory MPs is a challenge to it. Already they are talking about backing the government when they agree with it on the economy, public services and security. This means that the group can’t just be New Labour in exile.

The defection of these Tories, whose reason for leaving is Brexit, emphasises the Independent Group’s standing as a pro–second referendum party. But time is running out for this. Indeed, the only route one can now see to a second referendum is if this new group started to look as if it were taking a large chunk out of the Labour vote. In these circumstances, the Labour leadership might feel obliged to embrace a second referendum. But short of that, it is hard to see Corbyn changing his mind. He doesn’t want another vote and he is clearly worried about what backing one would do to Labour’s electoral standing in Leave-voting regions across the country.

Brexit is also a limiting factor for this new group. Its pro-Remain position means that its initial appeal will be limited to the 48 per cent. The genius of Tony Blair when he burst onto the political scene was to offer something to everyone, which this group will not be able to do. ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ — the phrase he coined as shadow home secretary — had appeal right across the political spectrum.

There is, nevertheless, a comfortable political niche to be carved out as the party that continues to oppose Brexit. Even once Brexit has gone through, there will still be a considerable group of voters who would like to return into the EU. A party that sought to represent these voters could probably secure 12 per cent of the vote or so without much difficulty. It wouldn’t realign British politics or claim many seats under first past the post, but it would exercise some influence on the process in the way that Ukip did in the years before the referendum.

The last three elections have produced two hung parliaments and a Tory majority of 12. If this new group can win a handful of seats at the next election, it may have enough MPs to act as a constraining influence on the government of the day. Indeed, given the current parliamentary arithmetic it might even be able to fulfil that function in this parliament. Tellingly, one cabinet minister doesn’t rule out doing deals with the Independent Group ‘if it were big enough’ — and it now has more MPs than the DUP. Another secretary of state predicts the group can influence government more than the SDP ever did, as ‘they can play a shorter-term parliamentary game in terms of agreeing to stuff’.

The Independent Group might like the prospect of being the British En Marche! — of smashing up the party system as Emmanuel Macron has done in France. But it is unlikely to have anything like Macron’s success. It might stop Corbyn though. If so, history will be kinder to it than to those Labour MPs who chose to stay despite everything they know about their leader.

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