The Disintegration Has Begun

Theresa May and Viktor Orban. Brussels, September 2018.

A new party is taking shape in British politics. Labour lost nine MPs in a week, and the Conservatives lost three over the same period. The Independent Group now has the same number of MPs as the Liberal Democrats — without a single vote being cast.

Most of the splitters gave two reasons for the breakaway: Brexit and anti-Semitism. If you listen closely though, you will find the real reason for the decision to leave the Labour Party and it is no surprise to anyone with a serious grasp of reality.

It’s not rocket science. The main aim of the split is to keep Jeremy Corbyn out of Number 10. This journalist has repeatedly encountered this perspective first-hand on the Labour right. As one parliamentary assistant told me: “How could you not plot against Corbyn?”

“The Labour Party has to reclaim the centre ground,” she stressed. “Right now, Theresa May is holding the centre for most voters.”

This was just before the 2017 general election, where Corbyn went on to increase the Labour vote by almost 10% and claim super-safe Tory seats like Kensington and Canterbury. That parliamentary assistant now works in PR.

Almost two years after the election, the British media has tried to reset the narrative on Corbyn in the run-up to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The Independent Group is likely to become the new focus of a media campaign to sweep away Labour’s gains.

The fantasy is that the group will be able to play the role of kingmaker at the next election and, in the meantime, act as a disciplinary force on both parties. The only problem is that the Independent Group has no clear agenda.

The Independent Group has yet to form an official party and define its aims. The danger is that there is not enough to hold together this small band of misfits if it wants to do more than stop Corbyn from taking the highest office in the land. It may even be that the group has no unifying set of aims.

“I reckon these MPs can see that there’s no future for them in the party and they’ve decided to take one last stand before it’s all over,” one Labour source said. “This is the last hurrah for the centrists.”

Beyond that, the split may soon run into serious problems. The group may want to become a safe haven for anti-Corbyn MPs in Labour and anti-Brexit MPs in the Conservative Party. However, the absence of a positive vision will inevitably hold the group back.

When Sky News asked Chuka Umunna why he decided to leave, Umunna referred to an “awful culture” within Labour defined by a “visceral hatred for people of other opinions”. But that’s not all he said.

“Can I in all conscience say that I want to make Jeremy Corbyn prime minister?” Umunna said. “Nobody thought that could be a prospect [in the 2017 election], in a future election it could be a prospect and I can’t in all conscience do that.”

Umunna went on to claim that the Labour Party was out of date. Yet the Independent Group resembles the politics of 1994 more than 2019. The space for the centre ground may have been closed by Brexit precisely because the country has become so polarised.

The SDP split was possible because there was such a space in 1981. The Thatcherites were on the rise against the backdrop of post-war social democracy falling into disarray. The left captured the Labour leadership at the time, but there was a shift away from statist solutions underway.

Today it’s quite different. The status quo is the free-market right and its doctrines, not the Keynesian post-war economy with its nanny state. Forty years is a long time for any political consensus and it may be that the neoliberal era is finally coming to an end.

What the UK will look like in 10 years depends on the state of play right now. The nationalist right has its vision, and so does the socialist left. Even if neoliberalism is coming to an awkward close, it’s no guarantee of a sunny tomorrow.

The European question has divided the two parties into four subdivisions, each split between Remainers and Leavers. This is partly what has driven the Independent Group to break-off, but only ‘partly’.

The Blairites have been toying with the idea of a breakaway since 2015. Indeed, it’s been reported that the domain name for the Independent Group website was bought that year. Though the Labour right could never quite agree on strategy or what it wanted to achieve.

As Dudley MP Ian Austin told Channel 4 News: “Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, I think the Labour Party has gone in completely different direction. It’s gone from being a mainstream party to a sort of hard-left sect.”

Austin has left the party, though not to join the Independent Group. The group can’t draw in former Labour Eurosceptics like Austin precisely because they are seen as an anti-Brexit bloc. And yet the breakaway may have killed any hope of a people’s vote on the Brexit deal.

The second referendum campaign will now have to choose between pushing Labour to adopt its position or backing a new political project. Victory is not certain either way, and it’s not clear that the Labour split will immediately suit the party’s opponents.

Pro-EU Labour members are dismayed by the split precisely because it risks the people’s vote campaign. “The splitters have wrecked our cause,” the Labour source said. “The people’s vote will be set back by this. It’s totally short-sighted.”

The truth is that the UK political system is now so fragmented that the British political class can barely act in its own long-term interests. The disintegration has begun, and there is no end in sight. This is what national suicide looks like. And it’s only the beginning.

This article is a co-publication with The Battleground. Photograph courtesy of Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916. Published under a Creative Commons license.