By Charlotte King
In what some are calling an unsurprising turn of events, seven MPs resigned from the Labour party last week in protest of the party’s approach to Brexit and tackling of anti-Semitism and were followed by an eighth resignation shortly after. The last time the Labour Party experienced a fracture like this was in 1981 when four MPs quit to form the Social Democratic Party.
Tensions within the Labour Party have been getting ever more taught recently. The surge in anti-Semitic allegations made by party members, alongside Corbyn’s determination to ‘respect the result of the referendum’ and resist succumbing to the desires of those who believe Labour should campaign for a second Brexit referendum, have led to some Labour backbenchers expressing dissatisfaction in the party’s leadership. This string of events ultimately culminated in the resignation of seven Labour backbenchers on February 18th who now sit in Parliament not as a new political party, but as the Independent Group backing a second referendum; they were joined by fellow Labour MP Joan Ryan and three Conservative MPs the following day. Chuka Umunna has commented that he hopes a new political party can be created by the end of 2019; “There needs to be an alternative”.
Prior to the split, a ‘pledge’ had been seen circulating on social media pressuring Labour MPs to express support for the party regardless of who holds the reins. The pledge was dubbed the ‘Jeremy Corbyn Great Leader’ pledge, and stated “I pledge to work for the achievement of a Labour-led Government under whatever leadership members elect, and I accept a Labour-led Government in infinitely better than any other election outcome”. John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, said the pledge was a way to provide reassurance to the party that “we’re basically Labour through and through”, however Gavin Shuker felt he was being ordered to “completely obey and not question the Great Leader Jeremy Corbyn”, presumably unhappy with the silencing of dissenting voices and critics of Jeremy Corbyn.
In their Statement of Independence, the newly organised group of MPs pledged “to put the best interests of our constituents and our country first” as they do not that believe that any of the current political parties are “fit to provide the leadership and direction needed by our country”. The group believes that Labour’s current policies relating to Brexit are detrimental to the UK’s national security, and ultimately believe Parliament is in need of a “strong and coherent” alternative Brexit deal to the one put forward by Theresa May. One of the ‘defectors’, Mike Gapes, commented: “I am furious that the Labour leadership is complicit in facilitating Brexit, which will cause great economic, social and political damage to our country”. Hence, it appears that this new group of centrist MPs will be firmly backing a second referendum or some form of People’s Vote on the proposed Brexit deal.
However, Corbyn’s approach to Brexit is not the sole reason some of these MPs have quit the Labour Party; some have also left due to ideological differences with their leader. For example, Chris Leslie believes that Labour has been “hijacked by the machine politics of the hard left” and whilst his political values remain the same, he does not believe the current leadership has upheld those same values Labour stood for when Leslie first joined the party. This appears to be a common sentiment among the ‘defectors’. Ann Coffey also believes that “the current leadership has been successful in changing the party beyond recognition”, whilst Joan Ryan too states, “the values that led me to join the Labour Party are the same values that have led me to leave it today”.
Moreover, anti-Semitism has become an increasingly important issue within the Labour Party, but some feel that rather than tackling it head-on, it has been swept under the carpet and not dealt with properly. For example, Ryan stated that she did not believe anti-Semitism was an issue within the party before Corbyn’s rise to leadership. Shuker commented, “Today, the Labour Party is riddled with anti-Semitism”, with 673 allegations being made by members over the past 10 months, and risks the wellbeing of his constituents. Luciana Berger, another one of the breakaway MPs, has sadly been at the centre of anti-Semitic attacks and abuse for some time whilst being persistently critical of Corbyn also. One of her opponents in her local party called her a “disruptive Zionist” and earlier this month she nearly faced a no-confidence motion before it was withdrawn. Berger states that she is “embarrassed and ashamed” to remain a member of the Labour Party, and the values Labour used to have are “constantly devalued, undermined, violated and attacked”. For example, Jewish MPs Ruth Smeeth and Louise Ellman were told that they “didn’t have human blood”, however said that the party’s way of dealing with this anti-Semitic abuse showed “no understanding of the enormity of what is going on”. Ultimately, the Independent Group claim, “politics is broken, it doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s change it”.
Following the announcement of the Labour split, the following day brought with it a small wave of ‘defectors’ from the Conservative Party. Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen all departed to join the Independent Group, stating they took this decision due to the “disastrous handling” of Brexit; they see the new group as forming “the centre ground of British politics”. In their joint letter to the PM, all three MPs said they did not believe she was committed to a “moderate, open-hearted Conservative party” and whilst they continue to support the government on certain policy areas, such as the economy, they feel “honour bound” to their constituents and the country and have thus decided to leave the party. Allen further elaborated on rising poverty in the UK, stating she was dissatisfied with the government’s ‘ignorance’ of the suffering of society’s “most vulnerable”. This has undoubtedly weakened Theresa May’s government as a majority of now only a handful of MPs.
Some have expressed their sadness at the turn of events, whilst some have been openly celebrating the loss of these MPs. Sir Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has said that his party are open to working with “like-minded groups” who want to give the people the “final say on Brexit”, but the Independent Group have confirmed they will not be partnering with them because want to offer an alternative centrist movement. Many among the Labour Party itself however have met this development with a more sombre tone, for example, MP Jess Phillips tweeted: “I feel so very sad”. Others responded to the defections with celebration, however this was quickly shut down by the party’s Deputy Leader, Tom Watson. For example, Young Labour tweeted: “Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the red flag flying here”. Watson stated this is however a time for “regret and reflection” rather than “a mood of anger or a tone of triumph”, agreeing that the Labour Party has a long way to go when it comes to tackling incidences of anti-Semitism. Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, alongside Wales’ First Minister, Mark Drakeford, have expressed the view that these MPs should stand down and “fight by-elections back in their constituencies”, arguing that this is the honourable thing to do since these MPs won on Labour’s 2017 manifesto which they no longer support. However, current Parliamentary rules do not state the MPs legally have to put themselves forward for re-election.
Who knows where we will see British politics head next? Nigel Farage is adamant that whilst this “may not look very exciting” it is “the beginning of something bigger in British politics – realignment”. Aggression directed towards Labour defectors combined with pressure to sign Great Leader pledges appear indicative of a larger trend of insulting and silencing dissenting voices, which could potentially have detrimental effects on the UK’s democratic political culture. Ultimately, we can only await to see if a centrist party materialises as Umunna hints it will, and if it attracts even more members from across Parliament who are dissatisfied with the current handling of Brexit.