Today was significant for the newly-formed Independent Group of centrist MPs. First, three Conservative MPs split from the party to join its ranks and then, in a series of interventions, the policy platform which was absent from its launch began to take shape.
First, Anna Soubry, the much-praised “Tory rebel” who so often voted with the government at key junctures, made clear her support for the party’s record of austerity and cuts. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, she said, had “done a marvellous job.” Its marvels? Introducing the bedroom tax, benefit cap and Universal Credit, trebling tuition fees, cutting £11 billion from local government spending, halving the capital spend on education, the list goes on.
Not satisfied with these, Soubry then gave a more full-throated defence of austerity, describing the last decade of fiscal contraction as “absolutely necessary.” This came only months after a United Nations rapporteur on poverty had described Britain’s austerity policies as “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” – and on the same day the Resolution Foundation predicted they would lead to record levels of child poverty.
This was a bold position for the new Independent Group to take, given that even Theresa May’s government has turned against austerity recently and abandoned its pledges to deficit reduction. But the centrist MPs weren’t finished yet. In an interview with the New Statesman, Chris Leslie made clear the new grouping’s wholesale rejection of Labour’s platform in the 2017 general election.
Doubling down on his 2015 opposition to nationalisation, Leslie said it represented “the controlling instinct of the hard left.” And he made plain this did not just refer to water and energy but to rail and mail too, saying he would not want John McDonnell in the Treasury deciding “what trains should leave Euston at what particular time of day, or what should be the price of a stamp.”
Leslie followed this with broadsides against two other Labour policies – increasing the top rate of tax and the abolition of tuition fees – with the latter evoking the traditional conservative rebuke, “how do you pay for it?” But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Leslie’s interview was his claim that Labour was “massively underestimating public opinion” on support for centrist policies, something Soubry echoed in her resignation letter when she said the new Independent Group represented “the centre ground” of British politics.
So far, this positioning has largely avoided the scrutiny it deserves. For instance, there can scarcely be any doubt about the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s nationalisation agenda. Research by the Legatum Institute and Populus following the last general election found overwhelming support for the renationalisation of water (83%), electricity and gas (77%) and the railways (76%). This is backed up by similar levels of support for taking Royal Mail into public ownership (65%).
But it is not just nationalisation where Labour represents the popular view. Plans to increase the top rate of income tax to 50% also meet with strong approval — 77% backed the measure in the 2017 ComRes survey. Meanwhile, two-thirds of people believe tuition fees should be scrapped or greatly reduced. The news gets no better for the new Independent Group when it comes to its embrace of austerity, with 66% of people believing it had “gone too far”. Even a slight majority of Conservative voters hold this view.
The new centrist group can, of course, point to a YouGov poll that suggests they could command up to 14% nationally in an election. But polling conducted before a party has defined itself in policy terms is notoriously unreliable.
It may be that opposing Brexit is enough on its own terms to give the Independent Group a strong start – aided, of course, by favourable media coverage. But when it comes to policy, it’s clear that their agenda is a mile from the middle ground it claims. And when these two come into conflict they will be on much shakier terrain. After all, Anna Soubry has previously said she would prefer to leave the European Union than remain and see Labour’s manifesto implemented under Jeremy Corbyn. It will be interesting to see how that goes down on the doorstep.