Labour does the splits

The Independent Group © Rex Features
The tribe leaving behind tribal politics

Seven Labour centrists and Remainers have jumped Corbyn’s far-left Brexit ship. Emily Hohler reports.

“After years of whispering and plotting, the Labour Party split has begun,” says the Financial Times. On Monday, seven Labour MPs announced they “had had enough of the party’s leftward drift under Jeremy Corbyn and concluded Labour, as they knew it, was lost”. The group – Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Ann Coffey, Gavin Shuker and Angela Smith – has yet to form a new party and will sit in parliament as The Independent Group.

Their motivations for quitting differ: the “abhorrent rise of anti-Semitism” which Corbyn has failed to tackle, an “increase in misogyny and bullying, and “an anti-Western foreign policy” which gives the likes of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro the “benefit of the doubt”. Though united in their opposition to Brexit, the group has chosen “not to put Remain at the heart of its agenda”.

A mix tape with dated tunes

Nevertheless, the only thing that explains their timing is Brexit, which they want to stop, says Tim Stanley in The Daily Telegraph. The Independent Group is “pitched at a very specific demographic that fancies itself as the salvation of an untapped silent majority”, the 48% who voted Remain who are “supposedly under-represented in parliament”, and the 59% of Britons who, in a recent Opinium poll, said they would consider voting for a “new centre-ground party”.

However, the goup’s statement of independence “reads like a New Labour mix tape” with its talk of a “mixed social market economy” and a “multilateral rules-based order”. One suspects that if there is a centre-ground, it isn’t “London’s formula of economic and social liberalism”, but the opposite: “tax-and-spend plus defence, law-and-order and patriotism – what is generally known, and dismissed with a sneer, as populism”.

There is a “huge gap” in the centre ground, insists Rachel Sylvester in The Times. Brexit has “scrambled” the “political Rubik’s Cube” and both the Tories and Labour have been “taken over by extremists”. MPs of all political colours have formed alliances to defeat the government; “cultural and generational differences” trump “old left-right divides”. Chuka Umunna’s promise to leave the “old tribal politics” behind will appeal to many who want something different.

It remains to be seen how many more MPs it will attract, but the original seven have already been joined by Labour MP Joan Ryan and three Tory Remainers, Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston. Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, has made an “emotional” plea for Corbyn to change direction to avoid further defections, say Jessica Elgot and Rowena Mason in The Guardian. Many MPs have said their response would depend on Corbyn’s reaction, including his response to deselection attempts and social-media attacks, and that a “hardline response” would prompt them to jump.

If The Independent Group’s numbers do swell, particularly with non-Labour MPs, finding a coherent strategic direction could be tricky, says Stephen Bush in The Daily Telegraph. The group believes Corbyn is a “danger to the country” and that the Tories are devoid of “compassion and competence”. But is it aiming at being a cleansed Labour party, or a British version of the French En Marche, an entirely new movement targeting voters of all political persuasions?

The splitters are “planning a dance of the seven veils”, putting values before policies, hoping to build “momentum and interest as they evolve”, says Robert Shrimsley in the FT. Building from scratch isn’t easy and this “may not be the solution to our broken politics”, but it is the “first step toward finding one”.

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