Independent thinking

I have been a member of the Labour Party for 27 years, and would have much preferred to have stayed a member for the foreseeable future. I’d like to be, at this moment, a member of a Labour Party heading for victory locally and nationally. Leaving it, as I have done, feels like leaving a family. Yet for too long I haven’t felt welcome, have found the atmosphere hostile, and the decisions taken hard to live with. I will always have friends in the family, but it feels like the family has grown apart.

Clearly, I am not alone. MPs, fellow councillors, other Party members and, if the polls are right, a significant number of voters feel the same. What do we do? Should we remain politically voiceless and homeless? Should we join the Lib Dems, Greens or Renew? Will Labour ever return to sense and electability? How do we best prevent a slide to a Boris Johnson-led and increasingly right wing Conservative Government without supporting a Corbyn-led Labour Party with all it entails?

A dozen MPs in the Commons have taken the brave – or traitorous/foolhardy depending on your view – step of leaving their Party and joining The Independent Group. It isn’t yet a political party, has no headquarters and staff, no leader or “big beasts”, few policy positions and, as Jonathan Freedland says, a whole list of reasons why the odds are stacked against it’s survival.

In the less-than-a-week since it was set up, there have been a hundred hot takes published on why, like the SDP before it, this new enterprise will surely fail, broken by the mould of first past the post, tribal loyalties, the trades unions, Brexit supporting Midlands towns and much else besides.

The Independent Group is a blank sheet of paper, to be written on by those who join it. It will have contradictions and difficulties, not least of which is what unites it after Brexit either happens or is blocked in another referendum. It isnt the SDP reincarnate, not least because both the Conservatives and Labour have each fallen under the control of their extremes, the grip of traditional media has been loosened by the freedom of social media, and tribal loyalties are far weaker than thirty years ago.

Even then, the emergent alternative to Labour and the Tories commanded, for a period before the shock of war in the South Atlantic, a fifty per cent share of support in the polls. Then as now, there is an appetite, or at least a space, for a new party. There’s a vacuum in politics that needs to be filled, somehow.

Much has and will be written about the social and economic stance of whatever emerges, and whether it will be the right mix to fill that space. Comparisons will be drawn with parties past and present, in the UK and elsewhere. For a lot of voters though, that isnt going to matter too much. They will decide if it is something that isn’t threatening, is something they can live with or maybe invest a bit of hope in at a time of national crisis where leadership is unprecedentedly poor. It will be heart as much as head, negative as much as positive. Voters will coalesce around something that seems competent and secure. The shouting of the ERG Brexit fanatics and Corbyn cultists is appealing to some, a huge turn-off to many whose first concern is, “will this be good or bad for my family and community?

The lesson of Trump, Corbyn and Brexit is that hard and fast rules no longer apply, if they ever did. Only a fool would stake their savings on this new group succeeding – or failing. The coming two months will be crucial as events around Brexit unfold, ongoing tensions and splits in Labour play out, and Independent Group grows in numbers or support. May’s locals and any other elections, with or without new party candidates, will have an effect.

This new grouping could go on to hold power in a majority or minority government, or coalition. It could become a smaller presence in the Commons and local government. It could, as the SDP arguably did, have a gravitational pull on both parties back towards that sense and electability that people who see themselves as “centre ground” want from their politicians.

I don’t want to be part of any elections that pit me against former colleagues, and hopefully current friends, who are staying on in Labour. But nor do I want to rule out being able to serve in elected public office again.

For me, if I am no longer welcome in Labour, if Labour’s toxic culture, antisemitism and Brexit position mean I can’t deliver positive change from within it, then I and others will have to find another way. So for now, I’m backing the Independent Group. If I can help shape it, great. If it provides a political home for voters with nowhere else to go, even better. If it exerts a positive and reforming influence on Labour, fantastic. If Labour fails, it may be the best hope we have.

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