The reasons offered by the Independent Group for their departure from Labour at their launch press conference simply do not stand up to scrutiny.
First, Brexit. Labour has opposed the Tories at every stage, fighting Theresa May’s broken exit plan, voting against no deal and putting Labour’s policy, including the possibility of a further referendum, to a vote by MPs.
In fact, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been doing exactly what was promised in the manifesto on which all seven departing MPs stood in 2017. The proposals set out in Corbyn’s statesmanlike letter to the prime minister are just the sort of things Chuka Umunna and others have been advocating until very recently.
And there is no point in pretending that a “people’s vote” is in Corbyn’s gift anyway. Pretending otherwise is simply anger displacement about Brexit, and not a serious political strategy.
Second, antisemitism. As Labour’s general secretary Jennie Formby reported this month, the party is now tackling this evil with a new energy, including expelling members espousing antisemitic ideas. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism has been adopted by the party. It is not clear what more Labour is expected to do.
Third, international politics. Labour’s willingness to question some of the shibboleths of British foreign policy – the mindset that led to the disastrous Iraq and Libyan wars – increasingly chimes with the public. Avoiding such mistakes in future is surely the first duty of a Labour government.
Finally, the supposed state of the party itself. Surely its hundreds of thousands of new members should be a cause for celebration, as should the fact that it has left behind the control-freakery of the Blair years and embraced a far more democratic culture.
It is abundantly clear that the real aim of the new “independent group” of MPs bears little relation to these complaints. It is in fact about stopping Labour winning the next election, as Chris Leslie more or less admitted.
Of course, the best way to ensure that Labour remains in opposition would be to embrace the backward-looking policies he and the other breakaway MPs advocate. That would, at a stroke, lose Labour the millions of extra votes it won in 2017. If they doubt that, let them seek the views of their electors in immediate byelections.
It was striking how little the seven MPs spoke about austerity and about the devastation wreaked by the Tories on our country. All their vitriol was reserved for their own party and for the policies that secured them all personal-best votes in their constituencies 18 months ago.
They seem to live in their own world instead – supporting water privatisation, as Angela Smith does, and enjoying paid-for visits to Saudi Arabia, as Mike Gapes has.
This is no platform for the future. After 10 years of crisis, people want change – not the same old same old.
Change is what Labour is now offering. Renewal for left-behind communities, saving the NHS from death by a thousand cuts, building new homes, investing in manufacturing and the regions, lifting the burden of debt from young people, and tilting the balance of power at work away from the bad bosses.
These are all core, traditional Labour objectives, ones that nearly 13 million people voted for under Corbyn’s leadership, and ones the splinter group will, in practice, obstruct. Unite and the rest of the party will now fight for them with fresh energy. History and the electorate will judge those with no stomach for this fight.
- This comment first appeared in the Guardian on February 18.