The Independent Group: A force to be reckoned with?

Less than a month ago a group of seven labour MP’s quit their party in order to form a new Independent Group of MP’s to sit in parliament citing the poor handling of the Brexit process and allegations of anti-Semitism in their old party. They were later joined by another ex-labour colleague along with three conservatives bringing their current size to eleven members. Their shear act of breaking away from the established parties has caused ripples throughout parliament but what have they actually achieved other than a group meal at Nando’s and are they really a force to be reckoned with going forward? In short, will they be a splash of lemon & herb or a mountain of extra hot peri-peri sauce to the delicate chicken that is British politics?

Image Courtesy of Jorge Royan via © Wikimedia, 2010, some rights reserved

The large number of simultaneous resignations from the labour party came as a sizeable shock to the party leadership and severely increased the internal pressure on Jeremy Corbyn. Not only that but the Independent Group of MP’s now presented a clear alternative to many dissatisfied labour MP’s who were unhappy at Jeremy Corbyn’s ambiguity over Brexit and over his handling of claims of anti-Semitism within the party. Therefore, the risk of Corbyn’s losing his already fragile control over his own party was extremely high and consequently he was forced into accommodating many concerns of his dissatisfied MP’s, who might otherwise have abandoned the party as well. The most notable and probably most important of these compromises was the shift in the policy of the labour party to campaigning for a second referendum, something that Jeremy Corbyn himself has long opposed both on personal grounds and as it would weaken the chances of him securing his much-desired general election. Furthermore, the Independent Group continues to put pressure on Corbyn by pushing for further clarity as to what options would be included in a second referendum and in doing so have exposed further divisions within Labour that Corbyn had sought to supress, encouraging further debate surrounding his leadership.

Yet the Independent Group haven’t just shifted labour policy, but also that of the government with Theresa May facing the same risk of defections, which could potentially result in losing her working majority in parliament even with continued DUP support. Due to the Independent Group’s strong opposition to a No-deal Brexit, a sentiment shared by many remain conservative MP’s, Theresa May has conceded that in the event of her meaningful vote not passing on the 12th March she will allow parliament the option to extend the Article 50 process provided they first reject leaving the EU without a deal. Like with Corbyn’s shift to campaigning for a second referendum this represents a significant departure from her previous position that the Brexit process would not be extended. It demonstrates the influence on the two main parties that the Independent Group has been able to exert. One might therefore conclude that given their ability to manipulate the positions of both the Labour and Conservative parties, the Independent Group is a significant force to be reckoned with.

Nonetheless, despite their pull on the main parties the Independent Group has done very little to change the parliamentary arithmetic given that the members of the new group have been deifying their party whips for a considerable length of time. Furthermore, even if they were to grow to the point whereby Theresa May were to lose her working majority they would be unlikely to bring down the government and trigger a general election due to their unpreparedness for such an eventuality, coupled with the ex-conservative members overwhelming desires to keep labour out of government which would mean that they’d most likely vote in line with the government anyway. Thus, even though their existence is forcing concessions from the leadership of their old parties, they are unlikely to cause any real shift in the numerical gridlock that exists within the parliament.

Furthermore, their long-term potential to transform British politics, which qualifies they actually became an official party, is restricted by the fact that they occupy largely similar ideological grounds to the Liberal Democrats who have also already long been campaigning against a no-deal Brexit in favour of a people’s vote. This threat of being effectively forced into insignificance through direct competition with the Independent Group has prompted the Liberal democrat leader Vince Cable to suggest that the Liberal democrats would not put up opponents to Independent Group MP’s at the next general election. However, this would only split the centrist vote between the two parties leaving neither large enough to challenge the conservatives and labour. The logical option would thus be to merge to form a centrist party capable of breaking the dominance of the two main parties, yet this option seems highly unlikely given that the Independent Group has repeatedly ruled out joining the Liberal Democrats citing their “reputational hangover” from their time in government.

Additionally, the Independent Group would be unlikely to succeed as a political party as whilst they are currently harmonious over major policy (e.g. avoiding a no-deal Brexit) there exists considerable internal divisions. For instance, in direct opposition to the position taken by ex-labour MP’s within the Independent Group, Anna Soubry defended the austerity measures introduced by the coalition government between 2010 and 2015, saying that ‘I think the things we did to the economy were absolutely necessary at the time’. Hence, moving forward early divisions suggest that even the current small number of MP’s might not be able to form a coherent and united set of policies required to gain widespread electoral popularity.

Thus, whilst the Independent Group have captured the imagination of much of the public as an antidote to the endless ineffectiveness of the major parties their influence is likely to remain restricted to a peripheral pull on the policy directions of their former parties. Also, unless its size continues to grow, they are likely to stagnate and become less of a viable threat to the main parties over time further reducing their significance. This in addition to internal divisions and their opposition to form a mutually beneficial centrist party with the Liberal Democrats will likely mean that the Independent Group will slowly lose their significance. Consequently, in the Nando’s of British Politics the Independent Group is more likely to leave a brief tickle on the tongue than a scathing burn to the throat.


Banner picture: Image Courtesy of UK Parliament via © Wikimedia, 2012, some rights reserved