By Adam Peggs
This week’s split did not exactly come as a big surprise. The group of MPs who have just exited the party were the least enthused by Labour’s democratic socialist outlook and perhaps the most suspicious of Corbyn’s foreign policy. Bereft of ideas – and likely well aware of that fact – they look set to trudge on as a small grouping of centrist parliamentarians.
For those looking for something fresh and exciting the Independent Group’s opening statement did not exactly offer much confidence. Values like a belief in a ‘strong economy’ and ‘economic progress’ are interspersed with phrases which allude to existing Labour policies like ‘pay should be fair’, ‘paid work should be secure’ and support for ‘all families’. Despite talking about transformation, their opening statement appears to suggest something closer to the opposite. If Owen Smith’s beef with the leadership was an alleged lack of ‘meat on the bones’, the Independents appear be content with the opposite.
Umunna, who in the past has had phases of criticising neoliberalism and sitting on the board of the soft-left Compass Group, now looks set to play leading light for a party which isn’t clear on what it thinks on most political issues. I suspect that once they have worked this out, their party will be somewhere to the right of the SDP-Liberal Alliance of the 1980s.
On the left many of us draw on the old motto ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power’, a tradition which has deeper roots in the party than the original phrase. That is now close to where the Labour Party stands and it is disheartening that parliamentarians elected on the Labour ticket felt unwilling to commit to that. That the political descendants of Bennism, Bevanism, Ellen Wilkinson and Keir Hardie, can be denounced as not recognisably Labour by the new Independents is more of a failure of those involved in the split than of the party itself. There are issues which must be taken with the utmost seriousness, but very few people will see another centrist party as the antidote.
What is clear is that the new Independents are not committed to radical redistribution and in that sense they join the number of parties that are not committed to that kind of social justice. Bandying about the word ‘transformative’ while trying to get the leader of the Scottish Tories to lead their movement won’t do much to change this. That this new group includes one of the few advocates for water privatisation (because people shouldn’t own natural resources right?), the self-described ‘cutsfinder general’ and an opponent of gay marriage says a great deal. If this is a revitalisation of British politics than we might all be in trouble.
The context in which the Independent Group has split from Labour is wildly different to the eighties, with the political demands of the centre at a historic low ebb. At this time more than ever they are particularly vulnerable to fading into the margins.
Our trenchant critique of a class-riven society, wracked by inequalities of wealth and power, is here to stay. We are a party that know what we believe, with a good idea of how to get there. We are the party that must lead the fight against bigotry wherever it is found, as well the fights against exploitation and militarism. The Independents, a new political force welcomed by Katie Hopkins, Dan Hannan and Nigel Farage, are not going to change that.