Earlier today, a group of seven Labour MPs left their party to form a new group in the House of Commons known as ‘The Independent Group’. Although groups have split from Labour before, it is very rare and has the potential to change the future of politics. If more Labour MPs follow suit, then those on the left in the UK could face a choice between Labour and this new group in upcoming elections.
The last time this happened was in the 1980s, when a group (known as the ‘Gang of Four’) split from Labour and formed a new party – the Social Democratic Party (the SDP). One of the reasons for the split was that Labour had become too left wing under their leader, Michael Foot. The Labour Party at the time supported unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the EEC (the predecessor to the EU).
There are a number of reasons why the seven Labour MPs have decided to form a new grouping today, including the failure of the party to deal with antisemitism, the party’s position on Brexit and bullying and intimidation within the party.
Although The Independent Group has some different reasons for leaving Labour than the SDP did in the 1980s, they appear to be dissatisfied with the ideological position of Labour currently – similar to that of the SDP when they were founded. For example, in their statement, they claim to support a mixed economy and Chris Leslie (a member of The Independent Group) said that they do not want to be driven by an ideology claiming that the current Labour Party is anti-business.
It also appears that the members of The Independent Group are less left-leaning than the current Labour Party leadership. Five of the seven members of The Independent Group (Chuka Umunna, Ann Coffey, Gavin Shuker, Mike Gapes and Angela Smith) supported Liz Kendall in the 2015 leadership election. She was seen as the Blairite candidate. It is also important to note that none of the MPs that have formed the new group backed Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015.
Additionally, Ann Coffey (now of The Independent Group) tabled the vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership alongside Dame Margaret Hodge back in 2016 and Luciana Berger resigned from his cabinet around the same time. It is clear that the members of this new group have been dissatisfied with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership for some time and, similar to the SDP in the 1980s, may have formed, in part, due to their lack of confidence in the Labour leader.
It is, however, unlikely that on their own The Independent Group will be able to challenge Labour as the main opposition party in the UK. This is something the SDP realised when they formed an alliance with the Liberals in the 1980s and then formally merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988.
Although the SDP didn’t overtake Labour as the largest opposition party, they did fracture the left and reduce Labour’s share of seats from 42.2% in 1979 to 32.2% in 1983 (the lowest result in post war history). The question now is, will The Independent Group do the same?
The Liberal Democrat leader, Vince Cable, has already said that he and his party are willing to “work with” The Independent Group. However, Chuka Umunna (of The Independent Group) has explicitly said that there will be “no merger” with the Liberal Democrats. It is therefore unclear what the future will be for the relationship between Liberal Democrats and this new grouping. Nor is it clear whether the new grouping will present a challenge to Labour at the next election.
It does not, however, seem likely that the Liberal Democrats will not be incorporating a third parliamentary group into their party any time soon.