Brexit has broken British politics and Labour is next
An electoral system designed to foster coalitions within parties now seems incapable of sustaining those big tents
Luciana Berger (centre) speaks during a news conference announcing her resignation from the main UK opposition Labour Party in London, UK on Monday, February 18th, 2019. Berger is one of seven members of Parliament saying they will stand as independents after quitting the Labour Party over issues including Brexit and antisemitism. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg
It is easy to dismiss the seven Labour MPs who have resigned to establish a new political grouping. They are Blairites; no-marks; embittered enemies of Jeremy Corbyn.
Their launch event on Monday was muted. The website crashed. The electoral system is loaded against them. There is no clear leader. Chuka Umunna is too slick and the others not slick enough. The venue could barely have been less momentous, an anonymous conference room normally rented out for management team away-days.
In almost every respect the launch of The Independent Group (even the name is hopeless) was underwhelming. The values statement was bland and there was a bizarre invitation to the voters to help crowdsource their policies.
The timing - with Brexit still not settled - was also odd. Those gathered to watch did not emerge feeling they had been present at a moment of history.
The seven splitters are planning a dance of the seven veils, hoping to build momentum and interest as they evolve
The last major Labour breakaway, the Social Democratic party, promised to break the mould of British politics.
This gang did not look like they could knock the skin off a rice pudding.
And yet there were moments when you thought, “just maybe”. For a start, there is their undeniable courage. For all the chin-stroking debates on how this will change politics (my own contribution to follow) we must not lose sight of their main message: that Mr Corbyn would be a disastrous prime minister and that his Labour party has been characterised by anti-Semitism, bullying, apologia for murderous dictatorships and complicity in facilitating Brexit.
Voters should heed the insiders’ horror at what a Corbyn government might be like. They should see a party gone so horrendously off the rails that the splitters were fronted by a heavily pregnant woman who suffered such racist abuse that she needed a police escort to her own party conference.
Tactically they also showed signs of learning from their populist adversaries with their repeated mantra that “our politics is broken”. This is the key emotional connection the seven want to make with voters.
If modern British politics is increasingly about identity, then this is the new group’s key identifier. They are talking to those who think the party system no longer works and yearn for something different. This is why they did not come with a preset tablet of policies - values and emotional identity comes first.
Hence the seven splitters are planning a dance of the seven veils, hoping to build momentum and interest as they evolve.
Building from scratch brings problems. The group ruled out merger with the Liberal Democrats, but some relationship will be needed. No Tories have signed up, though some surely will, especially if the party takes a further turn rightward. Labour’s social media army will be relentless in its attacks.
But Labour’s fury comes from a place of fear. Its leaders understand this could wreck the Corbyn project, which makes it all the more remarkable that they did so little to head it off. Mr Corbyn allowed his allies to hound Labour moderates out of the party because he wants their safe seats for true bloods. Now he must face the consequences.
Does he continue with the deselections, knowing each one is another boost to the breakaway group, or does he finally try to build a broader tent?
Like the SDP before it, the splinter group may fail to break through but succeed in forcing parties away from the extremes
The union leader Dave Prentis said Labour must look “long and hard” at why this happened. Sadly, Corbynites are not given to such self-reflection.
But moderates also face a choice. The new grouping is a standing rebuke to those other Labour MPs who share their views but choose to remain. The seven are right. Our politics is broken. Parliament is driving through a Brexit most MPs consider a disaster.
The government is increasingly in thrall to its own nationalist rightwing. The main opposition has been taken over by hard-left extremists who have forced decent MPs from its ranks.
An electoral system designed to foster coalitions within parties now seems incapable of sustaining those big tents. But while there may be a political gap in the market it is not clear that there is a demand from voters.
Yet the centre will not wait to be filled. If the main parties abandon it, someone will step into the breach forcing them to close the gap or see their vote fall. While Labour has more to fear initially, a successful centre party could take votes from both sides.
Like the SDP before it, the splinter group may fail to break through but succeed in forcing parties away from the extremes.
So there is good reason for scepticism, but less call for cynicism. This may not be the solution to our broken politics, but it is the first step towards finding one.
The odds are against the seven. But you can’t fix a broken system without first taking a stand.
Robert Shrimsley is a columnist with the Financial Times
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019