Article @ Prospect, published 19 February 2019
A political organisation is not unlike a relationship.
At times everyone gets along and it’s a veritable love-fest. Others, you don’t see eye to eye but you know what you have is good, that no matter how much you and Sadie bicker about which Netflix show to watch, you are meant to cuddle up together on that sofa.
And then there are times when Pat never lends a helping hand with the dishes, or Sam turns every meal into an award-winning drama—and you know they have to go.
So too did the “Labour split” unfold, closing a door on a relationship long dead. That is, the relationship between the Labour Party and seven of its MPs: Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes, Ann Coffey, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith and Gavin Shuker.
You could argue these seven—now to be known as The Independent Group—have long been flirting with others. Angela Smith, the MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, supports fracking, which Labour Party policy has pledged to ban. Ilford South’s Mike Gapes is fond of free trips to Saudi Arabia, much like the Tory backbencher Boris Johnson. And their de facto leader, Streatham MP Chuka Umunna, was infamously part of a networking website for millionaires where he asked advice on a “trash-free” night out in London.
Unironically, Umunna told the press today that it was time “we dumped this country’s old fashioned politics and created an alternative that does justice to who we are today and gives this country a politics fit for the here and now, the 21st century, not the last one.”
But, while the official policies of The Independent Group (or TIG) are yet to be announced, the ones long-defended by its members are all firmly stuck in the late 1990s.
These are the children of Blairism, a handful of politicians whose politics of the ego could not bear to obey the party whip any longer. It’s a group of Generation X-ers who popped a pill they found in the pocket of a pair of jeans they haven’t worn since 1997. It’s the politics of meritocracy and entrepreneurism blinded to how rigged the system is. Gapes wants back the War on Terror; Leslie wants to let big corporations off the taxation hook as long as they are sponsoring apprenticeships in the City.
Today, Angela Smith went as far as deriding “leftwing intellectuals” for mythologising poverty. What people like her lifelong Labour-supporting parents want, she said, was a “fair crack of the whip and opportunities to succeed.”
Indeed, her speech was underpinned by a story of personal struggle, mythologising in turn the merits of the hard-workers, the early wake-uppers, the strivers; not unlike a certain Tory chairman, Grant Shapps, who told the Conservative Party conference in 2014 that the Tories where the new party of the workers, fighting for “a Britain where it doesn’t matter who your parents are, where you can go as far as your talents and hard work will take you.”
For all of the rhetoric of politics of representation, five of the seven TIGgers nominated Liz Kendall in the 2015 leadership election (Umunna, Smith, Gapes, Shuker and Coffey). Kendall lost, as we know, amassing only 4 per cent of the vote.
Don’t get me wrong. Splits are always sad events, even when the person you are breaking up with is a wasteman. Wouldn’t it have been better if they had been the perfect match all along? Wouldn’t it have been better if they had stayed and fought for relationship instead? But they did not. They left after years of complaining and not putting much effort into the things you got going. And what is worse: they now don’t want you to date again.
The Independent Group members left, certainly enjoying the many statements from all sides of the Parliamentary Labour Party regretting their decision.
But they’ve also stated that they will stay on as MPs in their constituencies, representing people who voted for Labour, not necessarily for brand Umunna, or brand Leslie, and certainly not for brand Smith, which got through with less than a three per cent majority.
For all their talk of principled positions, of an unyielding belief in the modernity of their politics, the seven TIGgers have so far lacked the courage to put their gamble to the test.
Something tells me that a by-election, where they would have to run against newly selected Labour MPs, would end with a resounding and humiliating defeat for the TIGgers. And I suspect they know it too. Umunna is the MP of a constituency where most of the Labour activists are also supporters of Momentum. Berger was not so long ago threatened with a no-confidence vote by her Constituency Labour Party. Leslie lost one last September already. These MPs will clearly not be missed.
Again, this is ironic, given that TIG believes Labour’s Brexit policy to be one of the main reasons for the split. Umunna and Co state they have left, but are refusing to go. The relationship is over but they’re still sleeping on your couch.
Were this a relationship I wouldn’t call it a split. It’s more like a pre-emptive leaving by the person about to be dumped. And maybe not today—everything’s still a little fresh—but soon, it will be time for the Labour Party to pat The Independent Group on the back and say: “No, honestly babes, it’s ok—but it is certainly over, and you gotta leave the building.”