After waves of rumour it’s final. Seven MPs including Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger left the Labour Party and chose to sit as Independent MPs. On Monday they addressed a packed press room with their own individual reasons for quitting. Of course, there have been continual resignations throughout the Brexit process — but at this point in time with only 38 days left until the Brexit deadline and politics more fractured than ever before, surely this only adds to the chaotic political climate rather than heals it?
There is not enough time left to stop Brexit — if this was the aim it really should have been done months ago. It all feels like too little, too late. Although, the seven have established themselves as out of the Labour Party and separate from the Tories they haven’t made it clear what their vision is. There is no immediate manifesto for people to get behind, or even a party. However, we are aware that this group advocate evidence-led policies over ideological ones and are against leaving the EU. Yet with only 7 MPs declaring themselves as ‘Independent’ you may be questioning whether this group will take off or just fizzle out — becoming yet another distraction.
The Liberal Democrats have hinted they would be amenable to the idea of joining forces with these MPs, with Vince Cable tweeting that:
‘The Liberal Democrats are open to working with like-minded groups’.
In terms of size, it would be mutually beneficial for these smaller parties to merge into a Centrist movement. However, the Independents have made it clear that joining the Liberal Democrats is not in their interests and that they represent a fresh alternative to current tired politics.
Splitting up the Labour Party will help no-one. Come election time the Labour vote will be split as we have seen before. In June 1983, in their first election, the SDP took 25 per cent of the vote. Although this Independent group is currently comprised of fewer MPs than the SDP, it will still chip away at Labour’s overall vote. This would likely result in neither party having a majority and pretty much ensure a Tory victory. As a sixteen-year-old I can barely remember a Labour government. So in an age of austerity, when the country needs a Labour Party that will invest in the welfare state and public services, I find this incredibly hard to forgive.
Then again, I do empathise with the frustration over Labour’s ambiguous Brexit policy and the inability of the different wings of the party to unite. However, I don’t believe that splitting up is the way to resolve these disagreements. One of the arguments that has been emerging for a united Labour movement is the idea that the party is a ‘broad church’. Increased internal debate and scrutiny will result in more considered policies. There is work to be done in terms of building a Labour consensus that the leadership need to take responsibility for. But I’m a strong believer that Labour would be better coming together over their support for welfare and equality to defeat cruel Conservative policies. Internal divisions have led to Labour being very inward-looking and forgetting who the real enemy is.
In fact, all the split seems to have done is create a more toxic atmosphere towards the centre-leaning members of the Labour Party. On the one hand there are those that praise the move as a bold break. But many on the left are frustrated. Labour’s major backer, General Secretary of the Unite union, Len McCluskey, spoke out on Monday. He makes a fair point that these MPs should stand down and fight by-elections. However, comments that the ‘heartbreak’ around the Brexit situation ‘sounds a little bit hollow’ and that they ‘have no stomach for a fight for Labour’s core values’, seem to me like more of a general message to the right of the Labour party than just those seven MPs.
When interviewed, John McDonnell also emphasised the importance of the Independent MPs running for re-election. He suggested it was the ‘honourable thing’ to do. Far from finding any sort of consensus this breakaway seems to be pushing the different wings of the party further apart.
At a time when the country needs to focus on its future relationship with the EU, this departure is proving a massive distraction. This is a crucial moment in British history where, rather than looking inwards Labour needs to be looking outwards, and providing a strong opposition to the increasingly popular right-wing.