What is The Independent Group, and what does it mean for British politics moving forward?
In what is technically a hung parliament, or what other countries might call a minority government, the prospect of an election always looms. This is never more true than now, with the British Parliament debating the Brexit end game. The proverbial [excrement] can hit the fan any day, and such scattered, flying feculence might only be made more possible by the formation of The Independent Group.
The Independent Group: What Is It?
British political observers heard rumblings for a while of a “Labour split.” Some were not happy with Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has without a doubt taken the party back to the left. The election of Corbyn to the leadership in 2015 marked a clear end to the more centrist “New Labour” party crafted by Tony Blair in the 1990s.
Not only that, but Corbyn’s Labour has been accused by many of these same people for letting anti-Semitism run unchecked throughout the party.
Then, in the third full week of February in 2019, the split finally began. Seven Labour MPs quit the party to sit as the Independent Group, citing differences with Jeremy Corbyn. An eighth Labour MP jumped ship soon thereafter, followed further by three Conservative MPs. Within three days, the Independent Group, not an official political party, held 11 seats in the House of Commons.1 This is the same number as the Liberal Democrats.
The Conservatives who left their political home were dismayed, no pun intended, with Theresa May, Brexit, and how they perceive UKIP-types as taking over the party.2
The Independent Group: Who Is In It?
The members of the group are, in alphabetical order:
- Heidi Allen, Cambridgeshire South (former Conservative)
- Luciana Berger, Liverpool Wavertree (former Labour)
- Ann Coffey, Stockport (former Labour)
- Mike Gapes, Ilford South (former Labour)
- Chris Leslie, Nottingham East (former Labour)
- Joan Ryan, Enfield North (former Labour)
- Anna Soubry, Broxtowe (former Conservative)
- Angela Smith, Penistone and Stocksbridge (former Labour)
- Sarah Wollaston, Totnes (former Conservative)
- Gavin Shuker, Luton South (former Labour)
- Chuka Umunna, Streatham (former Labour)
We all remember how Anna Soubry savaged Theresa May on live television on election night in 2017, so that one is of little surprise.
What Does The Polling Say?
Not that the opinion polls are the be-all, end-all, but they give us information we would not otherwise have. (Whether or not this information is correct, we’ll see.)
YouGov says the following:3
The Independent Group would grab about 14 percent of the vote. This would have the side-effect of giving the Conservatives a 12-point lead over Labour, who would be into comfortable majority territory.
Almost half think that party-changing MPs should have to resign and run in a by-election.
Sky Data says:4
Ten percent is the Independent Group number, with the Conservatives up six overall.
Over half believe the renegade Labour MPs were “right” to bolt from the party and form the Independent Group.
Will The Independent Group Change British Politics?
This is a total cop-out answer, but still the correct and most prudent one: it’s too soon to tell. This splinter group is just a few days old. Eleven parliamentary defections in three days is impressive, as is the fact that it is populated by both Labour and Conservative departees. That, however, is not going to be enough to change decades of post-war British political status quo.
Since these sorts of things are so rare and/or unsuccessful in modern times, we can only guess what it would take for this one to buck the trend. That guess is as follows:
- It needs to become an actual political party. This just goes without saying. Without a manifesto, leadership, and, you know, candidates, how will it go anywhere?
- More defections. Eleven is not going to cut it, despite making a wave. Make that 40 or 50 in a cross-party caucus and you suddenly have the third-largest group in the House of Commons. Will that even be enough? If they stand as a party in the next elections, it’ll definitely put a dent in at least one of the two most major parties, if not both.
- Sustained discontent with the Tories and Labour. Sure, people are annoyed with them now, but will they be when the next election hits? Will potential Independent Group voters lose their nerve at the ballot box? Who is to say most or all of them wouldn’t just lose in their constituencies to their old parties on election day?
It will be an uphill climb for the Independent Group to change British politics. For now, they are a story of interest shaking up the Parliament, and perhaps Brexit. Time will tell if they can become more, or if Labour and the Tories will succeed in steering other discontented MPs away from the crossbenches.
In the meantime, Theresa May is still going to struggle getting a Brexit deal through Parliament, just as she did before. She will now attempt it with a slightly smaller number of MPs on-side.
1: Independent Group: Three MPs quit Tory party to join (BBC News, 20 February 2019)
2: ‘Tories turning into Blukip’: MPs lay out reasons for leaving Conservatives (The Guardian, 20 February 2019)
3: 14% would vote for The Independent Group (YouGov, 20 February 2019)
4: Sky Data Poll (Sky Data, 19 February 2019)
5: On whether the seven Labour MPs were right to set up a new ‘Independent Group’: They were right: 56% They were not right: 20% via @Survation, 18 Feb 2019 (Britain Elects)