The Independent Group: Political Vigilantes or the Political Placebo assassinating social change in the dullest way possible?
The emerging Independent Group MP’s are neither the heroes UK politics need nor the villains they want.
This week 8 UK Labour MP's and 3 Conservative MP's have left their respective political parties and will sit as associated but independent MP's while looking to formally set up a new 'centralist' party that can offer a 'meaningful alternative' to the politics of the day. The reaction to this news has been mixed: some don't care, some are worried on the effect this will have on election results should a snap general election be called, and some are pleased there is opposition to what they see as the radicalisation of both sides of the political spectrum.
I see the Independent Group as more of the same narrative that has held the UK political scene hostage for as long as I can remember: Greed, Empty promises, political tribalism and lack of authentic community representation. If this band of outcasts, or the parties they have previously been members of, really want to change UK politics for the better, these issues need to be addressed.
Do we even need the political left?
The 8 Labour splitters said they no longer recognise the 'broad church' party they joined. The problem with this statement is that Labour, similar to other parties, has never been 'broad' in it's approach. At the start of the 20th Century, The Labour Party grew out of the trade union movement and had a strong focus on workers rights. This ideology remained pretty consistent through the 20th Century, seeing the creation of the NHS and the social welfare state, aimed at ensuring a minimum level of health and wellbeing for all citizens. This approach waned under Tony Blair’s New Labour, most notably with the parties incorporation of the Conservatives free-market ideology. This ideology laid the foundations for the excessive privatisation of essential services. Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-privatisation, however, the radical capitalist state that we currently live in voids one of privatisations primary beliefs - that competition breeds success and a better service. With limited consumer choice over privatised essential services, companies have been able to go unchallenged in increasing prices while decreasing service quality.
Margaret Thatcher used to say that one of her biggest successes was Blair - the fact that she was able to bring the opposition party further to the right, meant the 'the centre ground' fundamentally shifted too. The shift to moderate right policies being seen as centre ground led to a society where wage disparity, class divisions and quality of public service have become increasingly problematic and destructive to large parts of the UK society. It is this focus away from the rights of workers that has led to many with less in our society to feel forced out of the political conversation while a narrative framing them as ‘lazy and a strain on society’ has seeped into the public mindset. This move in the party saw much of the grass-roots membership leaving the party as they no longer felt it represented them. At the end of 2007, membership hit it’s lowest point ever at 176, 891 compared to 405,000 in 1997 (height of Blair) and 540,000 in 2018 (under Corbyn). This growth in membership shows the impact that Jeremy Corbyn's 2015 election as leader had on the party. A longtime left-wing back-bencher of the party, Corbyn’s win not only signalled a return to the left of the party but also showed a viable alternative away from the centre-right narrative that had been central to successive UK governments for the last 20 years.
It is false to say that Labour has been entirely taken over by the radical left. What we are instead seeing is the centre ground being reclaimed and moved back to the left to counter the prior pull to the right. This can be seen in the Labour party promotion of:
- re-nationalising services that are failing to meet consumer expectations,
- appropriate levels of funding to make essential national services such as the NHS fit for purpose and
- a 75% taxation of the top richest of the country.
- rent controls on landlords.
- international convention on banning nuclear weapons.
We are not seeing the promotion of traditionally far left policies such as the absolution of monarchy and government or the replacing of capitalist processes and private ownership with common ownership by means of production.
However, what we are seeing is traditionally far-right policies being promoted not only by outsider fringe parties but by our actual government. These include the promotion of:
- Nationalist views and the vilification of those that think alternatively.
- Financial gain over individual human rights eg selling of arms to Saudi Arabia.
- Removal of universal human rights in order to target one group of individuals.
- Decisions made with minimal holding to account of the government eg Brexit votes.
This extreme right mindset has led to a society where the 5th largest economy has a 5th of its population living in poverty with 1.5 million individuals destitute and unable to afford basic income. English councils are expected to cut nearly five per cent of the total £14.5bn budget in 2018/19 while service demand is rising.
It is without a doubt that we need opposition to far-right and centre-right policies that have progressively beaten down the empathic, communal and resilient nature of the UK. But is Corbyn the be all and end all of that movement or can ‘The Independent Group’ play their own role?
The Outsider in charge and why Corbyn’s not the messiah the left make him out to be
Corbyn & co are used to being on the fringes of the Labour Party. However, being on the outside looking in and being the leader of her majesties national opposition are two entirely different beasts. A leader must possess the ability to bring together their party and to build bridges between differences.
Corbyn ally and Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell said that the resigning Labour members showed that the party leadership must undertake a "mammoth listening exercise".
The problem is, they won’t. How do we know this - because they haven’t.
Meaningful listening wasn’t undertaken when long term Labour MP Frank Field left the party in 2018 due to concerns over anti-semitism in the party. Nor was it done during the 2016 mass shadow cabinet resignations (where a number of the resigners explained that Corbyn would rarely respond to requests for meetings and would make policy statements without consulting them).
The aggressive and isolating ideology of many on the left can also be seen in the threats of deselection to MP’s that differ in views from Corbyn. We know from world politics of the past that aggressive insistence on the ideological politics of the extreme few can be dangerous in it’s narrowing of voices heard and in turn is as incapable of addressing the needs of a country and it’s people as the right-wing government that we currently have in power.
We desperately need a political opposition, and a political government, that is representative of the people of the UK and where the leader(s) of such know how to unite and promote diverse individuals to feel heard and be determined to achieve their best. This is how social change is made the most of. This is how all the great social accomplishments of the Labour Party of old have been achieved.
Can this movement be found within the current Labour party? Possibly, but it is so important for the left to realise that the journey forward is not just about one man and his beard. Corbyn has been crucial for diversifying the political conversation in the UK and within the Labour Party. But we must realise that there are others within the party that are better positioned to unite both party members and it’s members of parliament. Should the aim of this refocus be to bring the labour leavers back into the mix — not necessarily. Should they be allowed back into the mix in future, maybe, but a return to Blairite centre-right of the party is not what is needed. Socialist policies are being cried out for in the UK, but the leader to push these policies must be able to communicate effectively and bring the political middle ground and the politically disenfranchised onto their way of thinking. This refocus is essential for the party to take the fight to the conservative government, not only on ideological principles but in the voting polls too.
But let’s not be mistaken, this is not the message that the Independent Group of MP’s are putting forth. This group do not desire new era-socialist policies, they desire a return to Blairite/Torie-lite policies of old — austerity, tax breaks for the rich and privatisation of services. The fact that the Independent Group has yet to be set up as an official political party but have the option for donations to be made to them as a limited company. This is problematic as it means they do not need to adhere to the same standards expected of other political parties e.g declaring donors. It wasn’t even essential that the MP’s created ‘the Independent Group’. Similar to recently departed Labour MP Ian Austin, the MP’s can purely sit as independents, at least while the explore the potential of a new party.
For any MP’s who say they want to change politics, there are some critical issues that they must explore and make the conversation of which an everyday occurrence:
- Proportional representation
The tribalist nature of our political system originates from the reality that only two parties have a chance of getting into government. It also means that a representative can get into power without getting support from the majority of the population they represent. This hinders the ability for parliament to accurately represent the communities they work on behalf of. This isn’t that remarkable an approach and over 60% of democracies include some form of proportional representation (PR) in their electoral system for choosing legislators, including members of the London assembly.
- Meaningful Reflective Practice
My worry remains that the Labour party will remain fixated on its Corbyn narrative, that Corbyn himself will not be reflective in his practice and that more MP’s will leave the party. I am concerned that this movement will be seen by the left as a “spring clean of dead weight” rather than the signalling of deep problems within the party that will continue to prevent the harmonisation needed to make the party a credible alternative government at a time when that is needed more than ever before.
However, neither do I believe that the Labour splitters are the heroes that some make them out to be. They are currently refusing to relinquish the seats they won under the Corbyn Labour manifesto which would lead to a new by-election. While many reasons will be given for this, ultimately they know that due to our political system, the majority of them would lose a new election. This problem in itself highlights a predominant issue within UK politics- the tribalist nature of our first-past-the-post system. But, we can not lose sight that these independent MP’s are holding positions based on policies that they not only oppose but believe would be disastrous for our country.
- Community Representation:
You want to see what shaking the political landscape looks like? Check out the USA’s AOC (or this fantastic article by Aaron Huertas on “What Democrats Can Learn From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez”). The organisation that supported AOC to run was Justice Democrats , who are looking to modernise the US Democratic party with forward-thinking and representative candidates. Also, check out Run for Something that is undertaking fantastic work to get everyday community members to recognise their strengths and run for local and national office (or support someone who is). This is what we desperately need to grow and flourish in the UK, a system where everyone sees politics as somewhat relative to their lives and that they are supported to run for candidacy should they wish to do so, or support a candidate that they truly believe represents them.
Ultimately, the role the independent group will play in the UK political scene is still to be seen. It could be that they are revolutionaries, but they’ve all had plenty of time in their respective positions to promote true seismic political change (and they wouldn’t be the first to take that approach). Equally, any individual should have the right to make the decision they feel is appropriate (although I stand by my earlier by-election point). Framing the splitters as toxic betrayers is a dangerous approach as it risks ignoring the realities for much of the politically engaged population that does not feel that the current UK political picture is one that represents them.
Waistcoat Dave is the founder of The Positive Mind Project and a member of Impact Hub B’ham. He is a proud #AdoptiveBrummie, #CompassionateTroublemaker and #SocialAlchemist with a passion for #EmotionalWellbeing and #Creativity in #ChangemakerCommunities. He/Him.