Breaking Away: The Independent Group

Breaking Away: The Independent Group

February 2019 | Politics

Amidst accusations of antisemitism, the long-awaited Labour Party split has finally happened. It will be years before its true impact becomes clear.

It finally happened. After years of rumours and non-denials, the UK Labour Party has finally split. On Monday morning, seven MPs resigned from the Labour Party to sit in Parliament as The Independent Group. They are not as yet a new political party. That decision has been kicked into the future once the current Brexit crisis gripping Westminster has been resolved. Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie - the two best known figures in the breakaway are leading lights of the People's Vote campaign for a second referendum, and for now that campaign takes priority.

The reaction from the Labour leadership has been mixed. John McDonnell called for a massive listening exercise, Jeremy Corbyn assured MPs that his door was always open. Few believe them. Deputy leader Tom Watson struck a very different tone in an emotional Facebook video where he threatened to resign himself unless changes were made to the leadership's attitude to their MPs. There has been a lot of sympathy for the 7 amongst their erstwhile colleagues, and it is widely believed that more Labour MPs will join the independent group over the next few weeks.

The focus has inevitably been on Luciana Berger, who was driven to quit Labour following anti-semitic abuse from her constituency party. The leadership have failed to back her in the face of this abuse with John McDonnell getting short shrift for claiming that the campaign against Berger would go away if she committed her future to the party and dismissed rumours that she was planning to break away. It has since been claimed that Corbyn hadn't even spoken to Berger since mid-2017 despite the ongoing abuse.

It is now possible that the Jewish Labour Movement will disassociate with its parent party in the next few months. That will cause other Jewish MPs to quit the party. It is remarkable that a sizeable well-integrated minority community could be driven to cut all ties with a mainstream political party on the grounds that it poses a direct threat to their way of life. Regardless of whether the threat is real or imagined, no minority community should be driven to such lengths. Action to reassure them should have taken place long before now.

The root of the problem is a disagreement about what constitutes anti-semitic behaviour. The long-standing support of the left for the Palestinian cause is well known and has occasionally got Jeremy Corbyn into trouble with the media. Equally well known are the lobbying activities of America's best known Jewish organisation - AIPAC - which frequently acts on behalf of the Israeli government in Congress and elsewhere. There UK equivalent to AIPAC is far less powerful, with the British Jewish community often being much more critical of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians than their American co-religionists.

Few on the left believe the outright racist tropes used by the Nazis in the 30s and 40s, so are frequently baffled when accused of antisemitism. The antisemitism of the left instead is based on the willful conflation of Israel and the Jews, often backed by fanciful conspiracy theories. Not all Jews support Zionism or Israel, and any suggestion that they do is rightly considered to be anti-semitic. This is the kind of abuse that Luciana Berger has been predominantly receiving from Momentum supporters in the Labour Party.

The end result is a weakened Labour Party. As it stands at the moment, The Independent Group pose no threat to Labour's position as a party of government. The split is too small and too associated with the Remain campaign. For it to succeed in the long term, the independent group would need to evolve into a political party capable of displacing Labour. The last split in the 1980s was too ideologically narrowly to achieve this. Its members were drawn exclusively from the right wing of the Labour Party. In this respect, the new group have an advantage. Berger is no Blairite, and many of the other Labour MPs linked with the split are Brownites. More notably, there have been strong rumours linking arch-remainer Tory MPs such as Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry to the new group. This will draw the support of Conservative voters who have been disaffected by their former party's support for Brexit. If the new group can attract sufficient support to outpoll Labour in terms of seats and votes at the next election, then they become the new left-wing force in British politics. If not, then they will fade away to be subsumed by the Liberal Democrats as the largest minor party. They only have one shot at this, and its too soon to tell what will happen.

Immediately after posting this, we get a new member of the Independent Group. Joan Ryan's participation in this break away was widely predicted. Expect a steady stream of defections from both major parties over the next few weeks. This is the strategy the same people used in their vote of no confidence against Jeremy Corbyn in 2016. It didn't work then, there's no reason to expect a different outcome this time.

Written by Alan Chatfield