There had been rumours that something was in the offing. A video showed in my twitter feed from Chris Leslie announcing his resignation from the Labour Party, and I caught up with the remarkable news. Leslie’s words were wise, measured and statesman-like. He reminded me of Roy Jenkins’ Dimbleby Lecture, which signalled what then seemed to be the tectonic shift in British politics that gave birth to the SDP. The criticism of Jeremy Corbyn was stinging but fair. The criticism of Labour for failing to oppose what the Tories are doing on Brexit was spot on. He came across as a man of integrity, remaining true to the principles that took him into the Labour party in leaving a Labour Party that has moved far from that place.
The positive version is that the seven MPs who have left Labour to form the Independent Group come with seven different stories. Not being too tightly wound around a single policy platform and not yet constituted as a party gives space for others to join them in the birth phase of something new. In particular, it gives scope for people from the Tories to join, so that this could be a new force in British politics, rather than simply a Labour split.
But despite Chris Leslie’s video, Brexit doesn’t have the prominence it deserves in the Independent Group’s statement. It is the issue in British politics right now. All the other things that I’d normally see as important are pushed aside — a Brexit-induced recession removes the money needed to sort out the NHS, benefits and education, and a Brexit-induced narrowing of British attitudes threatens decades of social progress. Yet the statement says no more on Brexit than that Labour “has failed to take a lead in addressing the challenge of Brexit and to provide a strong and coherent alternative to the Conservatives’ approach”. That’s not what put 700,000 people on the streets in the People’s Vote march in September and seems set to bring out many more in the march planned for 23 March.
So what does this imply?
Ideally this is the start of the long-overdue re-alignment of British politics. But that is also what Roy Jenkins said in 1979, and despite all the energy, what the SDP actually showed was how hard it is for a new party to make headway in an electoral system using first-past-the-post. We need something bigger than this to make a difference that lasts, which is one of the reasons I’ve been thinking about the case for a government of national unity to take us through a People’s Vote and political re-alignment.
In the short term, this may apply some pressure over Brexit, particularly for Labour to shift its position (or rather, for Labour to come round to the position its conference came to in September, of supporting a People’s Vote as they’ve not been able to force a General Election). But Nick Clegg was right to suggest that a good way to get out of Brexit is for people to join Labour or the Conservatives and change the party from within. This does risk Labour lurching the other way in reaction.
But my bigger worry is that it tempts Theresa May to call an opportunistic General Election. There’s already been speculation that she’d rather risk losing a General Election than a referendum, and the temptation must be building: the margin is less than it was in 2017, but for Labour still to be polling behind the Tories, despite the present chaos, and now to be splitting, must be tempting her (though the temptation would ease if some Tories joined as well). But a General Election now would be grossly irresponsible. It might preserve the Tory party by handing the Brexit problem over to Labour, but the myopia of that shows its irresponsibility. The big issue is Brexit, and a General Election with both main parties promising Brexit leaves the large number of people who voted Remain represented by neither of them — and the present reality is that all the recent polling has been showing Remain commanding more support than Leave, so neither party would be offering something consistent with the perspective of the majority of the British people. That’s dangerous and divisive and presents the grizzly prospect of the following General Election seeing at least one party in addition to the Liberal Democrats with a manifesto commitment to re-join the EU, after the UK has learned the hard way that this is a good idea.
A moment of crisis
The UK is in a serious crisis around Brexit, which is much bigger than the problem of getting anything through parliament. Major crises in the past have rebalanced the constitution. At the moment, I am mentally drawing a parallel between this and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 (which removed James II). Something on that scale would be altering a lot. Perhaps this is the moment when the log jam starts to shift and change become possible. But it is also feeling like a chaotic process with no guarantee that things will work out. To his credit, Chris Leslie came across as a wise statesman in that video. If this is what allows wisdom among MPs to surface, then it will have achieved something.
A Liberal Democrat perspective
Personally, I read the Independent Group’s declaration with some some sympathy, but it feels very Labour. It doesn’t resonate for me in the way that the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution does, so I look at this as something in another party that I cautiously applaud from a distance, though also consious that it would be far more comfortable for Liberal Democrats to work with The Independent Group than with either of the big parties in their present form.
There’s been talk today of the centre ground getting crowded. I’m not sure this matters: the centre ground seems to be where a large swathe of the British population is. The Independent Group seems to be taking up a position closer to where Labour were under Tony Blair, which also saw a rapid growth in support for Liberal Democrats. The point here is that it makes a centre-left position credible, with a profound difference over the liberal values of the Liberal Democrats.
What worries me much more is that the Liberal Democrats seem to be holding a unique position, of coming to liberal values and a co-operative way of working through a European lens. That’s the one that engages the richness of our shared European heritage. If the Independent Group are too cautious about embracing that, they miss something fundamental about the open and hospitable end of Britishness — that didn’t (and doesn’t) presume a right to dominate the world. Yet that is the place from which the UK has to relate in an increasingly globalised world, where the West is inexorably losing influence.
So… for the moment I fear the Independent Group is too little, too soon — unless it does turn out to be the crack in British politics that can grow and enable a proper re-alignment (including voting and constitutional reform alongside a withdrawl from Brexit).