The resignation of seven Labour MPs marked the most significant split in British politics since the 1980s breakaway that led to the emergence of the Social Democratic Party. In fact, for many, yesterday’s events will revive memories of that very divide.
Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker, Mike Gapes and Ann Coffey, all MPs from the current Labour party’s centrist wing, quit to sit as an independent group in Parliament, criticising Jeremy Corbyn for his leadership, stance on Brexit and his handling of allegations of anti-Semitism. It undoubtedly draws parallels with 1981, when the SDP was founded by centrist Labour MPs dismayed by the party’s shift to the left under then leader Michael Foot.
The SDP was blamed by many on the left for splitting the “progressive” vote and helping Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives to dominate UK politics throughout the 1980s. Yesterday, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, was among members of Labour to share similar fears. “When the Labour party splits, it only leads to one outcome – a Tory Government,” he wrote on social media. Yet, whilst there are concerns that history could repeat itself, there is at least one significant difference between the situation 40 years ago and the breakaway today; the “Gang of Four” who founded the SDP had all been Government cabinet ministers, arguably giving them much greater political clout than the seven who defected yesterday. Still, their resignations should not be dismissed. They represent disquiet at a time of political turmoil, with divisions evident both between and within parties as the EU withdrawal stalemate rumbles on.
With the defected members urging others to leave their parties and join them during such a fractious period, the long-term impact of the divide remains to be seen.