Why The Independent Group must work to earn the support of Remainers.
There is, as they say, nothing new under the sun; every event, however startling and novel, has its roots and causes in previous events, and similarly, every event, however unusual, will find its echo somewhere in subsequent events.
It’s not often, however, that events repeat themselves quite so closely as just now.
This week we’ve seen The Independent Group, or Chuka’s Magnificent Seven (which later became eight with Joan Ryan’s defection), or the SPLITTERS!!! as they have been varyingly referred to, publicly resign the Labour whip to form, if not necessarily a new party, then at least a new soirée.
The thoroughly uninspiring label this splinter movement has assigned itself (many have noted that it sounds more like an insurance company than a new force in moderate politics) has led some to ponder if the plan is to lure the Tory Brexit rebels to ditch their own party whip and get aboard. But for those of us old and weary enough to remember the early 1980s, this is starting to look a lot like one of those flashy Netflix remakes of a beloved but long since cancelled television show.
Back in 1981 it was four, rather than eight, high-profile members of a Labour Party sliding ever further into neo-Trotskyite Puritanism at the hands of hardline insurgents under the dithering leadership of a white-haired patrician ideologue, who staged a press conference to announce their own breakaway movement.
I was 11 at the time and only just acquiring any sort of degree of political awareness; I’m not sure whether this schism was greeted with the sort of accusations of treason and betrayal that have been zinging around the social mediasphere today. It’s worth bearing in mind, of course, that not only was there no social mediasphere in 1981, there was a much smaller and more restrictive mediasphere in general and, as such, the thoughts of the individual Labour members and supporters went largely unrecorded. But I’m willing to bet there was a fair degree of ill-feeling directed at the OG ‘Gang Of Four’ by those they left behind.
Mind you, it’s hard to read through today’s swathe of ‘traitors’ tweets and comments without wondering exactly what their authors expected to happen. The hardcore Corbynites (Hardcorbynites?) have, for months now, responded to any dissent within the parliamentary party with some variation upon ‘Why don’t you naff off and join another party then?’ So their fury now that this has actually happened seems unjustified. Just last week, Momentum issued a lavishly-edited video which basically told Chuka Umunna to eff off, and yet now he has indeed effed off they seem somewhat put out. Honestly, there’s no pleasing some bug-eyed zealots.
What, if anything, happens now, is, as is so frequently the case in these times of turmoil, anybody’s guess. The historical precedent breaks down as a predictive model: back then, the schismatic party (the SDP) joined an alliance with the pre-existing ‘third’ party, the Liberals, resulting in a brief burst of enthusiasm and optimism (one remembers David Steel’s ‘prepare for government’ conference speech) which soon fizzled after the wave of noxious patriotism produced by our victory in the Falklands War re-elected Margaret Thatcher’s Tories in a landslide in 1983.
Theresa May is, it becomes clearer with every passing day, no Margaret Thatcher, and Brexit is unlikely to give a boost to any party’s popularity. It’s also harder to say if Momentum’s grip on the Labour Party is any more tenacious than that of its previous incarnation, Militant, in the 1980s. Nor is it immediately obvious whether Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader would be affected by another general election defeat, even one as crushing as that which saw off Michael Foot in 1983, given that his worshippers are still heaping praise on him for losing the last one.
Only a fair braver pundit than I would dare predict whether this new schism will lead Labour to entrench itself ever further in its Corbyntologist dreamscape or bring it to its collective senses; after the 1981 split it took Labour another 16 years to regain power, by which time it had, arguably, refashioned itself into exactly the party the original ‘splitters’ had wanted to create.
But to those questioning just how big a deal eight MPs resigning from their party can really be; it’s worth remembering that the country currently stands on the brink of disaster purely because of the panic that seized the Conservative Party when two of their MPs defected to UKIP in 2014.
Meanwhile, does this mean that we Remainers are no longer politically homeless? Well, I reckon, rather than flock to the as-yet-featureless banner of The Independent Group (seriously, guys, get a better name) let them come to us. We’ve been the ones keeping the pro-EU flame burning in the face of the utter scorn of almost the whole political establishment. If they want our support, let ’em earn it. Resist.