IT is said that a week is a long time in politics, so it’s still early days for the group of former Labour MPs who resigned their party on Monday and broke away to create an Independent Group in the House of Commons.
We’ve had the odd ‘independent’ before of course, although former TV newsman Martin Bell in his self-righteous white suit, and discredited George ‘King of the Jungle’ Galloway hardly made the right kind of impact.
This is different. It is open rebellion against the leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in a party where Parliamentary loyalty is prized as a strength or, under current circumstances, despised as a weakness by moderate Labour voters who see little connection between their own principles and beliefs and those of the far-left high command.
People are saying it is the most significant thing to happen in British politics since the ‘Gang of Four’, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams, set up the Social Democratic Party in 1980.
It’s a fair point given that reasonably-minded Conservative MPs – Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Dr Sarah Wollaston – have now joined the disenchanted crew after being sickened by the ravings of arch-Brexiteers led by Jacob Rees-Mogg and his cronies.
But, as yet, the rebels have no leader, no treasurer and The Independent Group has not registered itself with the Electoral Commission and handed over the necessary £150 to establish itself as a proper political party.
For now, this ‘Gang of Seven’ – Penistone and Stocksbridge MP Angela Smith, Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Mike Gapes and Ann Coffey – form nothing more than a protest group, despite Joan Ryan, another Labour MP, confirming yesterday that she was joining them.
Two issues underpin their anger; Corbyn’s pro-leave attitude towards membership of the European Union, which sits at odds with many Labour MPs, and an impossible-to-define number of their constituents, who may well have changed their stance since the referendum; and charges of vicious anti-Semitism, which Luciana Berger, the MP for Liverpool Wavertree, speaks about so painfully.
These are serious matters. However, what will really make an impact is not what has happened this week, but how the story unfolds over coming weeks.
As yet, the Independents, as we must call them, have given us precious little indication of any kind of underlying philosophy or potential policies. This is where comparisons with the 1980s ‘Gang of Four’, and indeed the leaders of New Labour in the 1990s, falter.
What do they actually stand for? And do they agree with each other? We don’t know. If they are to carry their convictions through, they must start to quickly assemble at least a working list.
I suggest they start with this passage from Angela Smith’s resignation speech: “I believe in aspiration and know that people do not want to be patronised by left-wing intellectuals who think that being poor and working class constitutes a state of grace.”
If much of the national media would refrain from concentrating on Ms Smith’s regrettable on-air gaffes and stop sending their news reporters to ‘default Northern location’ – a working men’s club in the afternoon sprinkled with bitter types – they might find that there are literally millions of voters who would actually agree with this statement.
The handling of Brexit is vital for our national place in the world and anti-Semitism is intolerable in any form, but the Independents have to start wrestling with some pretty big thoughts if they are to make any kind of impact going forward.
Ms Smith’s sentence encapsulates why Jeremy Corbyn has managed hitherto to convince many instinctive Labour voters that he is the man for Number 10. The ideological wing of the Labour Party has seized upon those whose lives have been blighted by years of austerity, shabby employment opportunities, substandard homes and the general feeling that no-one listens to their problems. I hear it all the time where I live, in Barnsley.
What is frustrating however, is that many of these voters, some of the poorest and most vulnerable in society amongst them, believe without question that Corbyn will lead them out of the morass and into the light. Ms Smith is right to question this. And she is brave to do so.
Somewhere along the line too many ordinary people have become not complacent exactly, but frustrated, confused and disillusioned. This is one reason why the simple single-issue of Brexit inflamed such passion and resulted in such a huge turn-out.
Ask someone who really is poor and working class if they feel that they live in ‘a state of grace’. Given the chance to think about it and consider some alternatives, they might start to become a little rebellious themselves.