It had shades of Angela Eagle’s disastrous campaign launch in 2016. The hastily assembled press conference and stomach-churningly embarrassing slogans and visuals that couldn’t decide whether they belonged in a tampon commercial or the relaunch of Alan Partridge’s television career. At least people fled Eagle’s press conference. People stayed to watch the launch of The Independent Group. A BBC microphone even picked up a panicked bystander saying of Chuka Umunna “he’s mad” and of the whole charade “they’re fucked.”
The seven MPs who had chosen to jump ship were scarcely a loss: Luciana Berger might be the only representative members would mourn. The others had long records as persistent complainants and deliberate agitators within the party. Chuka Umunna has remained disgruntled since being forced to withdraw from the 2015 Labour leadership race; Chris Leslie recently lost a vote of confidence amongst members of his local party, and is famous for little of note bar calling frontbench Labour MPs “the hard left”; while Angela Smith handed the new group their greatest gift – a racism scandal within three hours of launching. On the BBC’s Politics Live she appeared to say “It’s not just about being black or … a funny tinge…” before trailing off and being challenged by journalist Ash Sarkar.
To do anything other than collapse into a heap from the starting blocks, this new collective needed a coherent set of ideas and a common vision that might appeal to a broad base. Instead, it kicked off with a list of vagueries that will appeal to no-one in particular. “The first duty of government must be to defend its people,” “government has the responsibility to ensure sound stewardship of taxpayers’ money,” “individuals are capable of taking responsibility if opportunities are offered to them.” After such a vacuous list of banalities, you can’t help but feel that the attack on “left-wing intellectuals” was motivated by a degree of insecurity.
The lack of policies on offer shouldn’t be surprising. After all, The Independent Group is breaking from Labour on deeply unpopular grounds. Angela Smith is opposed to the renationalisation of Britain’s water services. 83% support it. As Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna opposed the renationalisation of Royal Mail. 65% support that. Chris Leslie has a record of opposing nationalisation in principle – arguing that the left should resist the temptation to “step in and take control.”
For several years, a persistent chattering has insisted there is a huge appetite for a centrist party, despite polling suggesting otherwise. That will now be put to the test. When it comes to voting, do people care more about who runs their schools and hospitals than they do about the squabbles that consume Westminster? Headline pledges that impact lives shape election campaigns. The Independent Group has failed to produce a single one of those.
Instead, they must rely on candidate name recognition. All the evidence suggests this is a bad strategy. Just six percent of people in the last election voted the way they did because of their local MP. Breakaway candidates may convince themselves that their increased majorities are the result of their own hard work, but the national trends show that Labour’s policies under Corbyn boosted the party’s numbers. If the Independent Group candidates make it to an election, they are likely to be in for a shock.
That this split has been so long coming and only yielded seven underwhelming characters should be a warning to other MPs considering the same. Angela Smith argued at the launch that people would support their split because they were tired of being “patronised”. But one of Corbynism’s strengths has been its ability to broaden the party and include people who felt excluded by Blairism. The millions who voted for Labour’s manifesto last time won’t take kindly to being patronised by a group of MPs who claim to have no ideology, and present no policies, but represent a political centre that is responsible for the majority of the misery imposed since 2008. Nor will they be impressed that The Independent Group show so little respect for their constituents that they won’t subject themselves to byelections.
Instead, it’s likely that most of the public will see this latest stunt as the result of career trajectories that have been upended. That entitlement will not be well received. Nor will sabotaging campaigns in marginal constituencies that serve no purpose but to keep alive a rotten Tory government. Such endeavours will only prove what their detractors have always argued: that these seven care more about their own profiles than the people Labour is supposed to represent.