UK politics has been the centre of attention over the last few years, largely due to the growing tensions between and within the political parties. Further to this, there is growing disillusion from voters. There have also been serious deficiencies in governmental policy and action. It seems that those tensions have finally boiled over; no fewer than eight Labour MPs and three Conservative MPs have left their respective parties to form “the Independent Group”. Additionally, Ian Austin has resigned from Labour, but has resisted joining the Independent Group. This has added to the already formidable pressure that both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are currently facing. One wonders whether this will be the start to turn the tide in favour of a system that is more: inclusive, fair and efficient. Some argue that this split could redefine British politics.
In the space of a few days during mid-February, there were a total of twelve resignations from the two leading parties, eleven of which have then joined the Independent Group. The MPs who have left their parties in favour of the new group are: Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Ann Coffey, Gavin Shuker, Joan Ryan, Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston. The reasons for the defections are varied. To summarise generally, those who have left the Labour party have cited concerns over Labour's handling of Brexit, the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and the issue of anti-Semitism (hostility, prejudice and/or discrimination towards the Jewish community) within the party. In contrast, the former Conservative MPs have accused the Conservative leadership of allowing right-wing hardliners to shape the party's approach to Brexit and other matters. Further commentary from the BBC can be found here. They argue that the Conservative modernising project has been all but destroyed and that the Conservatives are becoming “Blukip”, which is unrecognisable in comparison to the traditional Conservative position.
The defections have been seen as warning shots by both Labour and the Conservative parties. One could argue that in order to defeat the split, Labour must now support a “People’s Vote”. This would essentially mean that if Labour were not to do so, the Independent Group would be free to step in. Should they be allowed to be seen as the “anti-Brexit party", there is significant chance that this could decimate Labour’s vote count. This has a knock-on effect in that the remaining Labour MPs could use this narrative to oust Jeremy Corbyn. Leaderless and with massive defeats, this would be a nightmare for the Labour party. There have already been commentators such as Gina Miller, responsible for the Article 50 challenge in 2017 (which the government lost). Ms Miller welcomes the Independent Group, seeing it as “real opposition to Brexit.” Clearly, Labour has not given significant opposition to Brexit. To neglect this would alienate the party from remain voters, who make up a large part of the membership base. The wheels are already in motion and Labour must act immediately in order to limit the potential damage to their ratings. The impact of the Conservative project will see a significant reduction in the rights for workers and migrants. It will also see significant deregulation that could have terrible repercussions for the environment, business and food standards. Labour has recently backed a second vote on Brexit.
On the other hand, political commentators suggest that the three resignations from the Conservative party are indicative of some hard truths for the government, particularly Theresa May. There have been calls to ensure that the Conservative party remains a “broad church”, otherwise it cannot convincingly offer its services to the public. Support for Theresa May is constantly dwindling, to the point that she has been labelled an “electoral liability”. The main issue here is the ideological and cultural trajectory of the Conservative party: there appears to be an extreme faction within the party that possess significant influence over the Prime Minister. Traditionally, the Conservative party have been loyal to their leadership, whereas the Eurosceptic aspect of the party has been satisfied with compromise. These defections illustrate a shift within the Conservative party, seeing the respective positions reversed. This is partly due to the approach taken by the Prime Minister: she has been set on her Brexit deal and ignored any moderate voices, even from her own party. Mrs May has attempted to keep her party together, but one could argue that the alienation of Conservative MPs has been needless. It is difficult to argue against the idea that the Prime Minister has not been warm to any form of concession with her Brexit deal. There is a further practical issue: the majority of the government has shrunk, leaving Theresa May even more dependent on hardcore Eurosceptics and Ulster unionists to support her pursuit of a Brexit deal.
The Independent Group has seen a significant amount of support. Interestingly, no phone calls or messages of support were from Downing Street nor the whips of the party. The Conservative defectors have received significant support from their former colleagues. Despite this, there has been a mixed reaction; some MPs claim that Brexit is the sole motivation for this departure. According to a YouGov Poll, the Independent Group currently have 14% of the vote which currently places them in front of the Liberal Democrats, who were part of the coalition government during 2010 - 2015. Support for the Independent Group is likely to be at its highest at the inception of the party. Dan Sabbagh, of the Guardian, argues that now is the time for the Independent Group to make the most of this attention; the major parties will have to take some time to react. Whether the group of defectors have a long-term future in Parliament remains to be seen: it is unclear whether such MPs can work together. It is crucial to remember that these MPs stood on the most divergent main party manifestos that the UK has ever seen. At the time of writing, the issue of leadership needs to be addressed as well. The procedure and result of this will also have a significant impact on the longevity of the Independent Group. Further, there have been many calls for by-elections in those constituencies as those MPs were elected on the basis of the pledges made by their respective parties.
One question that arises from this significant development is this: can the Independent Party reshape UK politics for the better? It is important to note that defections are significant developments. This is not for reporting purposes, rather, they represent a moment whereby the public pays close attention to the political process. It is during such opportunities that the opinions and perceptions of the electorate can be reset. Arguments made by the political parties could easily hit home with a more engaged electorate. The Independent Party can capitalise on this; there is intense public frustration over the handling of the Brexit process and growing concern over the rise of political extremism. This sounds entirely positive for the Independents. However, one needs to add a dose of reality into the analysis. The left-right spectrum is not directly applicable to Brexit. Many people on the left are remainers, but a significant minority are not. Conversely, most on the right are leavers, but a significant amount are not. The Independent Group need to develop a set of policies that capture both sides, which will prove difficult. In reality, they could end up competing with the Liberal Democrats in the centre of the spectrum. The real indication of their success will be reflected in the results of a general election; the MPs which defected will have to face candidates from the main parties in their constituencies. It is imperative, therefore, for the Independent Group to make the best impression on the voting public and try to take votes from the dominant parties. This will be key to its survival.
Whilst there are still events unfolding in this area, it is unclear as to what direction UK politics will take. It does appear to be largely negative for the Conservative and Labour parties alike, at least in the short term. It remains to be seen whether the defections lead to further splits in the main parties, or results in the Independent Group becoming a force to be reckoned with in UK politics.