Labour's Split Is Group Therapy for Centrists

'The Independent Group' want to end tribal politics because the tribe left them behind.
February 18, 2019, 5:11pm
Chuka Umunna
Chuka Umunna (Mark Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo)

"Change" – whatever that means – has always been a great way to get elected. In recent times, this classic life-hack has jumped up a gear. Europe bubbles with insurrectionist movements. Italy is run by a coalition of insurrectionist-left and radical-right. Syriza still ran Greece the last time anyone checked, and in the north, only a lop-sided grand coalition keeps the Sweden Democrats away from government.

Then there's the uniquely modern phenomenon of the insurrectionist centre. Emmanuel Macron's En Marche! Came from nowhere to blitz the French election with a strange, rather brilliant proposition: that radicalism's true home wasn't at the extremes, but sat dowdily in the middle.

This morning, Chuka Umunna situated himself within that odd new lineage: "If you’re sick and tired of politics-as-usual, well, so are we. That is why we have done what we have today – and why we commit to doing things differently."

The thing is, three years ago the Labour Party decided it was sick and tired of politics-as-usual. Presented with three stunningly safe pairs of hands, they committed to doing things differently, and elected Jeremy Corbyn. Now, Chuka Umunna – the man Malcolm Tucker's writers must have been thinking of when they coined the phrase "brushed aluminium cyberprick" – would like us to believe that he is the one true heir to Rosa Luxembourg.

The old trope about how capitalism sucks up and reconstitutes its opponents as capitalist products – that "They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, maaaan" line – applies just as well to politics.

Post-recession, the system has been slow to respond, but it seems like it has finally taken stock of the populist wave and is attempting to replicate its manners. In the past two years, everyone has sensed the ground shifting from under the duopoly that has run us for a century. The polls tell a tale – "Not Sure" has beaten "Jeremy Corbyn" and "Theresa May" in YouGov’s tracking poll for eight straight weeks now. Barely a third of voters actually align themselves with either major party anyway – but we've known that for ages. The one fact that changes the game is that the percentage who align their identity with Leave or Remain is now higher than the party-loyal number. Which sets the stage for a tectonic realignment.

So it was a sign of something that, by mid-2018, there were at least six new parties of the centre waiting on the runway. First there was ex-Brexit adviser James Chapman's abortive "Democrats". Then United For Change, launched by the millionaire who started LoveFilm. Or how do you fancy a party featuring Rachel Riley from Countdown and Tony Blair's former chief-of-staff, with JK Rowling touted as a future leader? The desire for mould-breaking has become so ardent in certain circles that even a man who already owns a centrist anti-Brexit party – Vince Cable – was forced to deny speculation that he was setting up a new one last year.

For all their dangerous insurrectionist notions, like PFIs and Academy Schools, the font on their podium could have been Arial Bold – except it wasn't quite so bold. It said simply: "The Independent Group". This was a holding place for a party.

The rhetoric was holding place too. Chuka directed the press to a website (which then inevitably crashed), where they could read The Independent Group's statement of principles: these appeared to be Change. And Hope. And Optimism. And Diversity. And Unity. Truly, a list only worth skimming if you've run out of Ambien.

It's true that there’s nothing wrong with taking time to formulate your ideas. As Chris Leslie pointed out: "We’re leaving the Labour Party. That’s a pretty big step in itself, isn’t it?"

Only, there’s no sense that they’re actually leaving the Labour Party – The Labour Party left them. And now, high and dry, these marooned MPs talk of how they "no longer recognise the party I joined 40 years ago". It wasn't a press conference, more a group therapy session for the dispossessed. "This isn’t the man I married." "I just can’t get over the sense of betrayal."

The press conference was long on personal narratives – how MP Mike Gapes had been a student Labour leader fighting Trots; how Chuka’s dad had believed in Great British opportunity when he came to this country – but short on ideology. For a group proclaiming an end to tribal politics, the message was not that they had a bold new way of doing things, merely that they felt abandoned by the tribe. So far as anyone could work out, this is a not-quite-a-party whose founding principles are anti-anti-Semitism, and anti-Brexitism. And a vision written entirely in the negative is doomed to fail.

Given that the Labour anti-Semitism crisis is now no longer within their power to change, for the next few months their sect will become little more that the People’s Vote Party. And far from becoming his number one headache, perversely, that will make life easier for Corbyn. It has lanced a boil for him. Now, the opposition to his Brexit policy is on the outside, not inside Labour. Now, the problem is these wretched splitters – and giving them the second referendum they want will be seen as giving-in. So the easiest way for him to seem strong and capable is becomes to proceed down exactly the path he’s already on – saying no to a "People’s Vote".

To close the gap, they announced that they were going to hand it off to the public – they want you to tell you what their ideas should be. Crowdsourcing is a system that seemed to bring in the numbers for Italy’s Five Star, and France’s En Marche!, but it’s also an admission that the Independent Group have nothing to sell here, except seven safe Labour seats.

They will hope to double that in coming weeks – mainly incentivised by the left’s ongoing attempts to deselect centrist MPs. It was this, after all, that made the likes of Chris Leslie desperate to jump before they were pushed. It goes without saying that none of these lovers of second-votes will be fighting a by-election on principle, as Douglas Carswell did when he resigned from the Tories to join UKIP.

There are a lot of blanks yet to be filled in by this lot of blanks.

"We don't have all the answers," Chuka acknowledged, "so we will treat people like adults and be honest about the tough choices facing Britain."

The tough choice facing Britain is how to tell these guys they’re sunk.