UK Politics

Labour must use the Independent Group defections as an impetus for change

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The Labour Party risks ceasing to be relevant if it does not use the recent defections of nine Members of Parliament (at time of writing) as a strong impetus to change the party culture. In the past week, a total of nine Labour MPs have elected to leave the party, eight of whom have instead formed the so-called Independent Group. Chuka Umunna, one of the leading figures in the collective, hopes to form a new political party by the end of the year.

In order for the Labour Party to have any prospect of future leadership – of the Commons and the country – Jeremy Corbyn and the entirety of the shadow cabinet must address the issues that triggered such a shift.

It seems, however, that Jeremy Corbyn is going in quite the opposite direction. In a speech last Monday, the Labour leader appeared to totally dismiss the issue when asked if he believed there was a need to change the workings or policy of the party. Corbyn quite simply ‘regrets’ the resignations. Even the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, publicly acknowledged that the establishment of the Independent Group needed to trigger some serious changes in the Labour Party, including a shadow cabinet reshuffle. John McDonnell, typically a Corbyn loyalist, stated the need for ‘a mammoth listening exercise’. But instead, Corbyn’s method of avoiding the issues at hand may well be the death of the party.

Certainly, the Conservative Party are facing their fair share of obstacles. With Theresa May stuck in limbo over Brexit and the recent defection of three Tory MPs – Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen – to the Independent Group, they too have their work cut out in tackling some fundamental internal difficulties. This should be seen as an ideal opportunity for the Labour Party, to swoop in and provide a clear political message: a serious alternative to Conservative government. Then again, Labour ought to have been doing this for the past 3 years, while the Conservatives have been imploding over Brexit. But if the loss of eight MPs from his backbenches was insufficient to prompt even a little soul-searching from Jeremy Corbyn, why would he have done so before now?

The Independent Group have given a variety of reasons for opting to leave the Labour Party. The original group of seven consisted of Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, Luciana Berger, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker, Ann Coffey and Mike Gapes. They were shortly followed by Joan Ryan. Most recently, Ian Austin has become the ninth MP to quit the party, though will not be joining the Independent Group. Five of the eight defectors have cited antisemitism in the party as, at least in part, prompting them to leave. Berger even dubbed Labour ‘institutionally Antisemitic’, claiming she would have been ‘embarrassed and ashamed’ to remain. Ultimately, though, the defections have stemmed from conflict with or loss of faith in Corbyn’s leadership. Fundamentally, they characterise the growing sense amongst many in the Labour Party – though not, crucially, within its membership – that the broad church that Labour once was, and should continue to be, is in decline.

The response to the newly formed Independent Group only serves to endorse fears that Labour is becomingly increasingly intolerant. Momentum, a movement within the Labour membership who seem to be wielding ever greater influence, have set out on a series of canvassing campaigns in the constituencies of Chuka Umunna, Anne Coffey and Angela Smith. Similarly, Momentum have declared unequivocally that ex-Labour MPs who now form part of the Independent Group ought to resign and call a by-election, a claim also endorsed by Jeremy Corbyn. Laura Parker, Momentum’s national co-ordinator, has described the new group as a ‘Blairite-Tory coalition’ who will seek an agenda of ‘privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy’. 

It is exactly this kind of rhetoric, serving only to isolate the more moderate left wing of the party, that will force Labour into irrelevancy. The Labour Party should, undoubtedly, be firmly based in leftist commitments to social justice and equality for all. But Labour must also represent a politically broad church as well as a demographic one. Branding the Independent Group a ‘Blairite-Tory coalition’, rather than addressing their reasons for leaving, speaks to the fundamental problem in the party.

As well as isolating the fringes of the party, Labour have heavily damaged their electoral chances by failing to address antisemitism sooner – and more effectively. Whether or not one agrees with Luciana Berger’s claims about ‘institutional’ racism within Labour, Corbyn’s track record on antisemitism can only be described as a PR disaster. It took several months before the NEC fully accepted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism. And earlier this month, it was revealed that there have been 673 accusations of antisemitism by party members. This is, frankly, diabolical for a party who purport to fight for social justice. Labour’s failure to adequately tackle antisemitism further speaks to its skewed priorities and weak leadership. 

The Independent Group is unlikely to be the end for the Labour Party. And certainly, Jeremy Corbyn has helped to revive and grow the party membership and, to an extent, the electorate. But it is vital that Labour do not rest on their laurels if they are to become the majority party this side of 2030; after all, the best of intentions can only go so far if they are not translated into policy. Rather than a death knell, the shakeup caused by the Independent Group should instead provide an opportunity for Labour to enact a much-needed shakeup of their own.

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