Bill Carmichael: Why the odds are still stacked against the Independents

The newly-formed Independent Group of MPs consisting of Tory and Labour rebels.
The newly-formed Independent Group of MPs consisting of Tory and Labour rebels.
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SO with a terrible grinding noise the tectonic plates began shifting against each other this week with the defection of eight Labour and three Conservative MPs to a new independent group in the House of Commons – with more said to be on the way.

But is this a real, nine points on the Richter scale earthquake that will change the political landscape in a fundamental and lasting way, or a slight tremor that will soon be forgotten like the late and unlamented SDP of the early 1980s?

The Yorkshire Post says: The rise of the Independents – give this ‘new politics’ a chance

According to sympathisers of the new group, an enormous hole as appeared in the centre ground of British politics thanks to Labour’s swing to the far left under Jeremy Corbyn, and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Reform Group pulling the Conservatives to the right.

With the general public increasingly disenchanted with the political system, they argue the time is ripe for something different. As leading Labour defector Chuka Umunna said earlier this week: “Politics is broken. It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s change it.”

And certainly, if you judge by the opinion polls, he has a point – with the new centrist bloc immediately racing to third place on 14 per cent, behind the Conservatives on 38 per cent and Labour on 26 per cent.

Admittedly this is before the group has announced a leader, or indeed any policies. But I think the problems facing the new movement go much deeper. Incidentally the name, The Independent Group, is a distinctly uninspiring title that sounds like a failing rail operator. Couldn’t they think of anything better?

The biggest barrier of all is our first-past-the-post, winner-take-all electoral system that does a brutal job of crushing emerging and smaller parties, as the SDP, the Lib Dems, Ukip and the Green Party can all testify to their cost.

In a general election if a party comes second or third in hundreds of constituencies it will stack up lots of support in terms of effectively wasted votes without gaining seats where it matters – in the House of Commons.

Once a general election comes along – although it might not be until 2022 – The Independent Group is going to have its work cut out to buck this trend.

In addition the fact the new group has garnered recruits from across the political divide might in some ways be a strength, but it is also a weakness – and the fault lines have already been on show this week.

Take, for example, the sharp contrast in demeanor of the two groups when they announced their defection this week. The ex-Labour rebels were mournful, sad, genuinely anguished to be leaving a party they loved and have spent their entire lives serving.

Compare that to the ex-Conservative defectors, who laughingly dubbed themselves the Three Amigos and who were giggling like they were on a girls’ night out and had overdone the Prosecco.

Rebel-in-chief Anna Soubry then went on a diatribe saying that hardline extremists has seized control of the Tory Party “from top to toe”. Who does she mean? Theresa May? Amber Rudd? Philip Hammond? These people are centrists. No one outside the unhinged left would consider them hardline extremists.

Soubry, like many Remainers, has been driven to distraction by Brexit – and therein lies another problem for the new group. The Tory defectors are all motivated by a hatred of Brexit, but once that boil has been lanced – and it could be sorted in less than five weeks – how will they distinguish themselves from mainstream Conservatives? What do they offer that is different?

The fissures that have opened up in Labour go much deeper. In addition to unhappiness at Corbyn’s vacillation over Brexit, there are worries about his far left foreign and security policy and genuine fury at his failure to stop anti-Semitism that has spread like gangrene throughout the party under his leadership.

Nothing summed this up better than Derek Hatton, the Trotskyist who brought Liverpool to its knees, being welcomed back into the party on the same day as Luciana Berger, the pregnant Jewish MP who has been subjected to utterly vile abuse by Corbynistas, felt forced to leave.

In a farcical twist Hatton was then suspended by Labour again over racist tweets. So, I think the odds are stacked against the new movement, but that doesn’t mean it cannot inflict serious damage to both to the Conservatives, and more especially, to Labour.