Why the ‘Independent Group’ should offer rare hope for the Left

Credit: Diliff, used under Creative Commons Licence

The defection of eight Labour MPs to form an independent caucus drew immediate derision from many on the Left, who were quick to point out that their thinly veiled first steps to form a new ‘centrist’ party would only split the Labour vote in a forthcoming general election, making a Tory victory more likely. Then, within hours of their formation, the new grouping was embroiled in controversy, with one of its members: Angela Smith referring to people of Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds as ‘funny tinged’ on Politics Today (something she later apologised for, using the classic term: ‘misspoke’). At around the same time, it was noticed that the entity they had established to receive donations for their cause was a company limited by guarantee that would be outside the scrutiny of the Electoral Commission.

And then — two days later — when MPs Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Woolaston quit the Conservative Party to join the ‘Independent Group’ — adding the caveats that they still thought austerity had been the right path to take and still wouldn’t vote against the government in a confidence vote — many on the Left saw this as a confirmation of the neoliberal, pro-establishment agenda of the group’s members. This impression wasn’t helped by one of its former Labour members Chris Leslie — in an interview in the New Statesman — casting doubts on the merits of renationalisation or a higher tax rate on the richest.

Well, maybe all those charges are true, but right now, we happen to be in the midst of a national crisis. As the Brexit clock counts down to 29th March, the possibility of a No Deal Brexit still looms large. Far from being the minor inconvenience Jacob Rees-Mogg would lead you to believe, such a scenario risks disruption to food and medicines, huge loss of jobs and a slashing of workers’ rights, environmental standards and consumer protections. A No Deal Brexit would be the socialist’s nightmare; the disaster capitalist’s dream.

So frankly, for me, as someone who identifies on the Left, questions about the merits of renationalisation can wait. Discussions about what threat the new caucus poses to Labour in a future General Election can wait. Debates about whether or not the ‘Independent Group’ is made up of neoliberal donation-hiding traitor opportunists can wait.

What matters right now, and what I believe should matter to all who consider themselves on the Left, is what the formation of the ‘Independent Group’ means in terms of averting a No Deal Brexit, what it means in terms of facilitating the best Brexit possible for workers and consumers, and what it means for the possibility of putting the genuine choices that emerge from this parliamentary shake-up to the people, through a second referendum.

For me, the defection of the eight Labour MPs ended up being something of a sideshow. Beyond making a symbolic gesture, it didn’t change very much in terms of the parliamentary arithmetic. But the resignations of the three Tory MPs were a much bigger deal (and in my view, a far braver act). Whilst the Labour defectors will have to shuffle to a different seat in the opposition benches, the Tory defectors have had to cross the floor to sit opposite those they have called colleagues and friends for many years. Whilst the Labour defectors were largely making a statement, the Tory defectors could end up bringing down a government. Theresa May’s already thin majority has just been cut to wafer-like proportions — now just eight — meaning it will now just take five Conservative MPs — undoubtedly led by Dominic Grieve — voting with the opposition to defeat the government.

For those that can’t stand this horrendous Conservative government, something with which I presume most on the Left would concur, it’s a no brainer. This further dent in Theresa May’s already tenuous authority can only be a good thing.

And yet, then came the revelation that one of the ex-Labour members of the new group had had a meeting with Theresa May’s deputy: David Liddington offering to prop up the Conservatives government for up to a year if they agreed to hold a referendum on May’s Brexit Deal. Cue more outrage from the Left, and yes, I found that concerning. But it was never going to happen, and for one very simple reason. No matter what the differences are between Jeremy Corbyn and Chris Leslie; Kier Starmer and Anna Soubry there is one overriding fact in which we should take solace. As distant as they are from Corbyn on Brexit, they are a million miles closer to his position than they are to May’s.

When the dust settles (if it ever does), the key question will be whether all opposition parties and MPs can agree a joint strategy. This is the biggest hurdle: Jeremy Corbyn putting aside his tribalism to work across party lines and other’s putting aside theirs to allow him to do so. It may be a difficult task, but it is not an impossible task. The Independent Group’s first act was to vote with Labour against the government, and it is not unusual for all opposition parties: Liberal Democrats and SNP included, to vote for Labour frontbench amendments. On most issues, cross-party working would be near on impossible. However, ironically, on Brexit, it could be relatively straight forward.

If you are of the view that Brexit has to happen, and then if you strip away party tribalism, Anna Soubry and Jeremy Corbyn have remarkably similar views on what it should look like: a customs union, combined with a closely-knit relationship with the Single Market — expressed through amendments to the Political Declaration, which the EU has said is open to renegotiation if there is a shift in ‘red lines’. Ironically, I think Jeremy Corbyn will have more trouble getting the hardline Brexiters in his own party (Hoey et al) to vote with him on all-things-Brexit than the Umunnas and Soubrys of the Independent Group.

As to how the question of a second referendum is addressed, again there isn’t that much in policy terms that divides the opposition. The SNP, Plaid and the Greens back it, and let’s not forget that a ‘public vote’ is part of official Labour policy agreed at the 2018 conference. There’d be an opportunity to offer a genuine choice between remaining in the European Union on the one hand and on the other, a softer form of Brexit which the opposition can agree on (albeit possibly only underpinned by the non-legally binding Political Declaration).

In my view, during the referendum, Labour’s official position would have to be neutral, allowing MPs and members the freedom to campaign for ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’ under these terms. By finally providing a genuine choice to the British public rather than a you-got-it-wrong-try-again ‘People’s Vote’-style referendum, the ‘betrayal’ narrative would be largely (though never entirely) neutralised. It would also give Labour the best chance of juggling its minority-Leave and majority-Remain supporter-base in the long term.

It could be argued that, as the three ex-Tory MPs would have probably voted with the opposition on many of these things anyway, the fact they’ve defected doesn’t change much. I disagree.

Firstly, could this be the trickle that becomes the — well not ‘flood’, but perhaps ‘little stream’ — of Conservative resignations? It’s remarkable to think that it literally only takes five more Tories to defect for Theresa May to lose her working majority, although bear in mind that because of this, every new Tory resignation will make the next an even harder act to follow. Secondly, just because they have crossed the floor, the three Tory defectors won’t have cut all ties to friends on the government benches, and conversations — hopefully persuasive conversations — will continue in the tearooms and bars of the Palace of Westminster. Thirdly, by resigning the whip, ex-Tory MPs now have more freedom to support Labour frontbench amendments (it is not uncommon for the entire opposition to rally behind these). If a Labour frontbench amendment even comes close to passing, it piles huge pressure on the government, because the moment one slips through is humiliating proof that the government is no longer governing.

If May either loses her majority or has it cut to an unworkable sliver, we can expect votes of no confidence in the government — or even a general election called by May herself — to follow. However the chances of such votes passing (by a majority of two-thirds if May called it) remain — in my view — slim.

Instead, the opposition, when they all turned up and voted together, could routinely defeat the government, forcing it (albeit kicking and screaming) to change its red lines on Brexit, seek to extend Article 50 to allow for more negotiating time or even force a second referendum. If this failed then I think there could be the possibility of a successful no-confidence vote, not to force a general election but rather form a Labour-led ‘emergency’ minority government in the 14 day ‘cooling off period’ that follows the vote.

On most issues the opposition may struggle to find common ground, however on steering the country through the Brexit maze in its final critical weeks, being completely united against the prospect of a livlihood-destroying ‘no deal’ crash out of the bloc, and possibly overseeing a second referendum that offered both moderate Leavers and Remainers the chance to make their case, there is no reason, theoretically, why they can’t work together. In the interests of the country, they must.

And frankly, after that, as far as I’m concerned people can knock themselves out with questions over Anna Soubry’s voting record on austerity or Chris Leslie’s doubts about the merits of re-nationalisation. I’m sure I’ll get involved. Whoever is in government won’t be able to hold it together anyway, meaning it won’t be long before Jeremy Corbyn gets that early General Election he craves.

Follow me on Twitter: @mrwillsadler

U.K.-based; I write about politics, the Labour Party, Brexit and Mental Health.

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