What good will splitting the Labour party do?

A group of 11 people (4 male, all but one white) standing at the bottom of a flight of steps inside a building.
The (so far) 11 members of the Independent Group.

So, last week it finally happened, the split that had been rumoured for several months: seven Labour MPs, initially, resigned the whip. Rather than forming a new party or just joining the Liberal Democrats, they decided to form an “independent group” which has been incorporated as a company rather than a political party, which it has been pointed out absolves them from disclosing the sources of their funding. The MPs who initially took part were:

  • Luciana Berger (Liverpool Wavertree)
  • Ann Coffee (Stockport)
  • Mike Gapes (Ilford South)
  • Chris Leslie (Nottingham East; before 2007, Shipley)
  • Angela Smith (Penistone & Stocksbridge)
  • Gavin Shuker (Luton South)
  • Chuka Umunna (Streatham, south London)

The two principal reasons given were Brexit and anti-Semitism but the MPs are clearly on the right of the party and cited reasons such as Jeremy Corbyn being a threat to national security and his hostility to the private sector. Since then, another Labour MP (Joan Ryan, for Enfield North) and three Conservative MPs (Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston), all noted opponents of Brexit, have joined them. Ian Austin has also resigned the Labour whip but not joined the new group; it has also been noted that Nicholas Soames’s Twitter profile has lost any reference to the Conservative party, although his website is still a sea of blue and there are two links to Tory party websites on it.

Even before they offered to replace the DUP in a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Tories and promised to support them in any no-confidence vote, the impeccable right-wing credentials of all the Labour MPs who defected have been detailed in a number of Twitter threads. Quite simply they seem to represent the illiberal instincts of New Labour without the moderating influence of the Left. One of them, Angela Smith, made a remark on Politics Live on Tuesday morning that being a member of an ethnic minority is not just a matter of being Black or “having a funny tinge” — the point being that you could be white and Jewish — which immediately provoked widespread scorn. Smith is also on record as having accepted gifts from a construction firm linked to the privatised water industry and also opposes renationalisation of said industry; she unsuccessfully tried in 2007 to keep the details of her expenses private. In her initial speech at the group’s launch, she claimed that real working-class people did not like being “patronised by left-wing intellectuals and told that being working-class and poor is a state of grace”, a classic right-wing trope and a straw man as far as the mainstream Left is concerned nowadays.

All of them who were in parliament in the mid-2000s voted for the Iraq war. Those who came after voted against investigations into it. None of them voted against the 2015 welfare bill. Like most of the Labour defectors, Joan Ryan has talked of the anti-Semitism issue being a major reason for her defection, but she is in fact strongly partisan towards the state of Israel; such people, Jewish or otherwise, are not the people most qualified to dictate what constitutes anti-Semitism. Chuka Umunna has not been consistently anti-Brexit in his stance, despite this alliance being prompted largely by Corbyn’s ambiguous stance regarding Brexit; in September 2016, he told the Huffington Post that he would support Theresa May in sacrificing access to the Single Market so as to enable restrictions on freedom of movement (he later ‘clarified’, claiming that he had “always been totally consistent in saying that Britain must be a member of the Single Market, on which thousands of jobs and rules protecting workers’ rights rely”). Umunna also played the “more British than thou” game against the Muslim community in 2013 when he purported to be ‘horrified’ that the head of Universities UK had voiced approval of religious societies allowing the separation of men and women at their events on campus, claiming it “offends basic norms in our society”. Whose society is that, Chuka?

As for the Tory defectors, all of them voted for the Coalition austerity programme and at least two of them have defended their position and said it was worth it. Soubry has voted in favour of repealing the Human Rights Act, against making caste discrimination illegal, against strengthening the military covenant (in other words, providing decent accommodation and conditions for military personnel), in favour of cuts to funding of local government, against measures to combat climate change, in favour of reducing the scope of legal aid and in favour of secret evidence in court. Heidi Allen has also opposed investigations into the Iraq war and voted against retaining the Human Rights Act. These are not progressive MPs by any stretch, despite Heidi Allen’s display of tears at food banks (accompanied by the least Labour of Labour MPs, Frank Field).

In my opinion, the defections prove that adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism last summer was a mistake: despite the lack of any serious new incident, the ‘issue’ is still a huge bone of discontent for the right-wing of the party who will never be satisfied unless anyone who has voiced anything but the most polite criticism of Israel and its rampant disregard for Palestinian human rights is forced into humiliating apologies and/or expelled. Much of the “anti-Semitism” otherwise alleged bears no resemblance to anything that would be considered racism if said about any other group (and if some said it did, they would be told “tough luck”) but centres on statements that trigger “anti-Semitic tropes”, such as their controlling the media or international finance, which are interpreted so loosely that any suggestion that they (or groups of them) have undue influence can lead to an accusation and once accused, defence constitutes offence. For this reason I’m always inclined to doubt any claim that the problem is ‘widespread’; the figure, if there is one, will be inflated by over-detecting ‘tropes’. Much as with the issue of FGM in the UK, it’s nowadays automatically assumed that the problem is major and anyone who doubts it is “in denial”.

The policy also means that no active Muslim can have a role in the party as anything they say on the matter will be held up to hostile scrutiny, which I strongly suspect is part of the motive for some of the agitators even though they do not say it openly. Muslims are expected to be grateful clients rather than play an active role in the party that they have long seen as best representing their interests. The irony is that we are accused of being racist for refusing to accept a racist demand that Palestinians should suffer so that Jews do not have to — and today, this refers not to suffering oppression, but suffering any impingement on their lifestyle (hence such things as water theft). While Muslims are not the only victims of racist Tory policies, of course, many of us find it galling that current or former Labour MPs and their friends in the media froth about anti-Semitism while declaring that they will vote to keep the Tories in power when their record on racism is far worse.

This is a major reason why I have not rejoined the Labour party at any time since I left in 1995; it is not a free speech zone on this or any other issue. It demands Leninist levels of loyalty even when delivering only slightly watered-down free-market capitalism. If you’re caught even talking about tactical voting or suggesting that people vote for someone else besides their “red prince” or Blairite war hawk, you’re out. You can get expelled by local party apparatchiks for any statement they deem disloyal, and this policy gives them another avenue to silence dissenting voices. The defectors are, of course, not people silenced by the party’s compliance regime but people who want it enforced more and more rigidly. There is a reason they did not simply defect to the Liberal Democrats, and it’s not just because their stock tumbled at the 2015 election and has not recovered greatly: the Lib Dems are a democratic party with none of the control-freakery and stage-management of the Labour and Tory parties.

Sadly, despite the huge media interest (Owen Jones commented that the target demographic appeared to be senior journalists), I suspect that this will only entrench the Corbynites in control of the Labour party. If Corbyn is defeated at a subsequent general election, it is likely that they will support him if he insists on remaining in position and if he does not, they will support his anointed successor and can now more easily resort to the stab-in-the-back narrative much as Labour supporters often do about the 1983 defeat, blaming the SDP rather than the Falklands war victory or their own manifesto. It also allows their former local parties to find a replacement before the next general election and thus there may be no way back for them. If Labour had contested another election and lost before this split, his supporters would have realised — if that were indeed the case — that the electorate would not vote for Corbyn and would have had to assess why, much as was the case after the 1983 election. However, some of his policies are popular with Labour members and not as unpopular with the electorate as the right-wing separatists think; they conveniently forget that the membership decisively rejected the functionaries who stood for leadership in 2015 and this was before Corbyn’s victory triggered the influx of new members or “£3 supporters”. I know many Labour voters who are dissatisfied with Corbyn to some extent but are desperate to get rid of the Tories is vital and would be devastated if their concerns were hijacked to secure another Tory victory.

So, we need to know what the Labour defectors hoped to achieve. Do they really want to stop Brexit, or force changes in the Labour party, or simply stop Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister by any means necessary? How far down that road will they go, and still say it is worth it?

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