At long last, the new centrist party is here. Meet the seven Blairite relics promising to #ChangePolitics.
At long last, the ‘new centrist party’ is here: after several long years of threats and histrionic escalations of rhetoric, seven Labour MPs have left the party to form what they term ‘The Independent Group’.
For now, the new organisation’s prospects seem poor. In their press conference, the defectors failed to make a single concrete intervention on any political issue – even on their totemic issue of Brexit, they did not affirm a precise collective policy. Between the seven of them, they have presented no consistent narrative to explain their departures from Labour except in the vaguest terms. Two of the seven MPs have previously lost no confidence votes. None of them intend on resigning from their positions as MPs and risking competing in a by-election. They claim that their constituents voted for them personally, but a poll after the 2017 General Election found that only six per cent of Labour voters voted on the basis of a personal commitment to the local candidate.
The whole affair calls to mind Stuart Hall’s comment on the defection of the Gang of Four from Labour to form the CSD (later the SDP) in 1981:
‘Rarely in recent memory has a political grouping looked forward with such confidence to becoming the decisive element in a hung parliament on the basis of so sketchy and gestural a programme. The argument is that there is a vacuum in the centre which has to be filled. The CSD has so far responded to this challenge by being as vacuous as they could possibly be.’
Even so, if they play their cards right, the seven MPs will be able to cause disproportionate damage to Labour in an election. They have suggested that other Labour MPs are ready to follow them. If that is more than just bluster, it underlines that the left-wing advance within the Labour Party is still a work in progress. Moreover, under the first-past-the-post electoral system, even a largely unsuccessful electoral challenge to Labour could be devastating to the party in a string of marginal constituencies, wrecking its national election strategy.
In brief, then, who are the seven?
MP for Streatham since 2010
The least surprising of the seven splitters is Chuka Umunna, who has dramatically foreshadowed his own resignation so many times over the last three years as to make this morning’s announcement an almost comical anti-climax. This echoes his comportment in the 2015 Labour leadership election: having been breathlessly hailed as leader-in-waiting by much of the lobby press, Umunna announced his candidacy only to then bizarrely withdraw it some three days later. Umunna is the standard-bearer of die-hard, business-class Blairism, and has been perhaps the most audible voice pressuring the leadership to endorse a second referendum on the EU. To this end, he has repeatedly oscillated between superficially cosmopolitan, pro-migrant rhetoric, and assertions that any future close business relationship with Europe would include immigration controls.
Umunna acknowledged the scale of Corbyn’s success in June 2017, even going as far as to express support for Corbyn’s leadership. Since then, he has made intermittent and half-hearted attempts to rebrand and endear himself to the party’s rank-and-file, including a curious long-read in the New Statesman which at one point decried ‘neoliberal’ mentalities (without concretely specifying what aspects of that policy paradigm Umunna would want to repeal). Today’s announcement puts a definitive end to that rebranding project.
MP for Luton South since 2010
As a member of the Shadow Cabinet for five years under Ed Miliband, Gavin Shuker’s main achievement was to prevent Labour from whipping its MPs in favour of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, going as far as to threaten to resign if the party did so. With the bill clearly headed for a massive majority regardless, Shuker ultimately abstained from voting on it.
Despite this record of crass reactionary positions, Shuker was elected to the Women and Equalities Committee of the 2015-17 parliament and was selected to chair an All-Party Parliamentary Group working on the acutely sensitive area of sex work regulation. After notoriously refusing to hold discussions or interviews with a single sex worker or sex workers’ rights group, Shuker duly recommended the so-called ‘Nordic Model’ – though the feminist credentials he has attempted to derive from this have been somewhat dented by his habit of personally deriding and demeaning individual sex workers on social media.
A constant and venomous critic of Corbyn’s leadership ever since its inception, Shuker nonetheless rode Corbyn’s successful 2017 campaign to a 13,000-vote majority in his Luton South seat in 2017, more than double his margin in 2015. In September 2018, Shuker lost a no-confidence motion among local Labour members, but refused to resign.
MP for Liverpool Wavertree since 2010
Unlike some of her fellow splitters, Luciana Berger has not always been on the rightward fringe of Labour politics, but rather carved out a niche on the soft left of the party during Ed Miliband’s leadership. Some on the left have found it difficult to strike the right tone in critiquing Berger due to the fact that, as a visibly Jewish MP, she has been targeted by online trolls with barrages of genuinely disturbing antisemitic abuse, some of it seemingly from supporters of Jeremy Corbyn (although, notably, all of the several individuals convicted of crimes in relation to this have been on the far right).
However, the racism directed at Berger by certain online sub-cultures cannot be taken as a reason to refrain from principled critique of her political behaviour in the last three years. Unfortunately, and like all six of her fellow splitters, Berger has been at the forefront of attempts to utilise outrage over antisemitism to damage Corbyn’s leadership and push him to abandon his pro-Palestine positions. She has consistently demanded crackdowns on the anti-racist opposition to Israeli apartheid within the Labour Party, notably when she helped spearhead the demand that Labour accept the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which prohibits any characterisation of Israel as being, by its nature, an apartheid or settler-colonial state.
MP for Stockport since 1992
Former Parliamentary Private Secretary to Tony Blair himself, Coffey played an obedient part in virtually every outrage of the New Labour years, including by voting for the Iraq War in 2003. The catastrophic disembowelment of Iraq which followed does not appear to have tempered Coffey’s enthusiasm for Western military intervention: like all of her co-splitters except for Gavin Shuker, she supported military intervention in Syria in 2015; as the bombs began falling shortly after the vote, Coffey was on hand to furnish quotes to the media emphasising that she and fellow Labour MPs were the real victims of the affair, as an anonymous email account had branded her a ‘red Tory’ and ‘warmonger’.
Coffey’s resignation statement emphasised that that ‘I remain totally committed to continuing to serve my constituents’. This spirit of public service does not appear to be the only story of her parliamentary career: in 2009, it was revealed that Coffey had claimed over £150,000 in expenses on top of her £60,000 salary in the year 2007-2008, including £2000 for furniture and £200 per month for a cleaner at her address in London.
MP for Ilford South since 1992
The MP for Ilford South strikes a fairly conventional figure of right-wing Labourite mediocrity. Having been employed in Labour Party politics more or less continually since his time leading the National Organisation of Labour Students in 1976, one of Gapes’ consistent hobby-horses has been his support for Western imperialism abroad, both in its military and diplomatic variants. He has made no secret of his outrage at Corbyn’s refusal to fully endorse the attempted coup d’état against the Maduro government in Venezuela, fuming at ‘the weasel words of a letter to the Guardian from assorted Stalinists, Trotskyists, antisemites, and apparently dead people, but also from Labour’s frontbench.’
Similarly, he vocally lambasted Corbyn’s resistance to bombing Daesh-held territory in Syria from 2015, and strongly supported Theresa May’s unilateral decision to join in Donald Trump’s 2018 airstrikes on Assad regime targets (describing the airstrikes as consistent with Labour’s ‘long standing and noble tradition… [of] supporting humanitarian intervention’). So keen are Gapes’s humanitarian instincts that he refused last year to vote for the leadership’s motion calling for a suspension of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the state’s ongoing genocidal war in Yemen, which currently threatens some 14 million Yemenis with famine. Gapes defended his stance by arguing that ‘We should also condemn the Houthi-Iranian rebellion.’
MP for Nottingham East since 2010
Another deeply unsurprising name on the list is Chris Leslie, who has always pushed the rightward limits of parliamentary Labour politics. Leslie has consistently and virulently opposed Corbyn’s leadership since 2015; after the 2017 election, he was memorably branded ‘a sad, lonely, bitter man’ by fellow MP Clive Lewis after being one of the only Labour MPs to try to publicly argue that Labour’s miraculous electoral breakthrough was in no way a vindication of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Last September, he lost a no confidence vote on the basis that he was ‘a severe impediment to Labour party electability’.
Leslie’s positions are a checklist of discredited New Labour neoliberalism and authoritarianism. During a brief spell as Shadow Chancellor after the 2015 election, he argued, laughably, that Labour had lost the vote due to the general public’s heartfelt opposition to policies such as taxing high-value houses, allowing the state to run railway franchises, and capping energy prices – despite polling showing all of these policies were extremely popular. Ironically, Leslie’s brief stint in charge of Labour’s economic policy helped significantly to catapult Corbyn into the party’s leadership, as Leslie was instrumental in imposing Labour’s abstentionist stance on the vicious July 2015 welfare bill – an event which radically boosted members’ interest in Corbyn’s pro-welfare candidacy.
Since his gratifying consignment to the backbenches, Leslie has stayed active in pushing for violent, repressive policies: for instance, he has recently been calling to strengthen laws around knife possession to give police an even freer hand in their racially discriminatory harassment of young people of colour.
MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge since 2010
Smith tells us in her resignation statement that she is ‘deeply unhappy with the changes that have taken place in the Labour Party’. One aspect of her unhappiness is, apparently, a surprisingly visceral opposition to Labour’s plans to nationalise control of water – a reaction that becomes more comprehensible in the context that Smith is the chair of the All Party Water Group, a lobby group funded by the private water industry, and has repeatedly been treated to junkets by private water firms.
It’s not the first time that Smith’s parliamentary position has seemed to overlap with her personal financial interest – Smith was outed in 2009 as having claimed parliamentary expenses for four beds for a one-bedroom flat in London, and currently employs her husband as a Senior Parliamentary Assistant paid some £40,000 per year (a manoeuvre that was made illegal in 2017, though the new law does not apply to family members already employed at the time of the change).
Things haven’t started well for Smith – on the very first day of the new Independent Group’s existence, she has given the new pseudo-party its first racism scandal: while attempting to deliver a principled condemnation of Labour’s supposed antisemitism epidemic, Smith described people of colour as having ‘a funny tinge‘. Perhaps Labour can do without her – and without her incisive commentary on race and racism.