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Yesterday’s People

No policies, no ideas, no substance: Chuka Umunna's Independent Group is a tantrum thrown by careerists who found their avenues of progression closed off.

Finally, after months of teasers and veiled threats Chuka Umunna has announced his break with the Labour Party: The Independent Group. Was it worth the wait? Will it start a movement that can stop Corbyn? Or is he leading his rebels on the road to nowhere? 

The idea it amounts to a “Labour split” is an offence against language. A “split” means breaking into halves, or equal parts, or a break down the middle. Berger, Umunna, Coffey, Leslie, Smith, Shuker, Gapes – that barely counts as a splinter. For those trying to big this up as a “split,” I say, let’s go for a meal and split the bill. I’ll pay the Independent Group share.

So far, so small. But can this bijou band of rebels become a new force in the political centre? They could certainly disrupt Labour, but if the party plays it right, there is every reason to believe they will be a shadow of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of the 1980s.

Old New Labour

Umunna is trying to revive New Labour long after its sell-by date. The New Labour project broke with Thatcherism by offering extra social spending. From 1997 Labour pumped more  money into schools, hospitals and benefits. But it followed Thatcherism in spending the money by market methods that made corporations strong and rich people comfortable. The public sector got rebuilt, but only by the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) which handed control of schools and hospitals to Carillion and co. Welfare payments were made, but workfare companies like Atos were paid to bully claimants in the process. 

During the boom years New Labour squared the circle and won elections, though Labour’s core vote withered along the way. Come the 2008 financial crisis, social spending was slashed. Only the handover to corporate power remained. The New Labour formula was broken. Labour were only able to rebuild enthusiasm for the party and appeal to voters by a turn to the left.

Sadly, this left Umunna and his crew cast off as careerists in a party which no longer offered a career. Being friendly with big money donors, corporations and centrist think tanks isn’t a route to a shadow ministerial role when Labour now wants to tax billionaires and rein in the corporations.

But Umunna was created in that New Labour laboratory. Elected in 2010, I first noticed his presence in 2011 when he hosted a Fabian Society reception for new MPs called “Thinkers and Doers. In its communications, Umunna offered to meet supporters in a “very informal drinks reception” which was “made possible by the support of A4e.” The big party was paid for by workfare corporation A4e, which was entirely dependent on huge government contracts, and disappeared four years later amid allegations of fraud, corruption and cheating claimants.  

Umunna then became one of the Labour Shadow Ministers who relied on accounting multinational – and friend of tax-dodgers – PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to supply them with research assistance. PwC were one of the main architects of PFI, and have been an important advocate in NHS privatisation. Umunna’s “assistance” from the company amounted to almost £100,000.

The Shifting Centre

Being careerists rather than campaigners, Umunna and his allies have dithered and delayed before making a break. Their biggest hope was for Labour to do badly in 2017’s general election, leading to Corbyn’s removal. But that hasn’t happened. So, they will make their break over Brexit. What are their prospects? 

On the plus side, they will have no problem finding financial or media support. But on the other, they will really struggle to find a rank and file. Umunna’s prospectus is based on the idea that voters are desperate for the sensible politics of the centre. But the existing centrist party, the Liberal Democrats, are struggling for votes, despite backing many of the same policies – opposition to Brexit, pro-market economics, intervention in conflicts like Syria – that those departing Labour have demanded. 

It begs the question: how committed is Umunna to Europeanism in the first place? After all, he was quite prepared to ditch EU fundamentals like free movement after the Brexit vote. Before the 2015 general election, Umunna was writing favourably about Blue Labour, a socially conservative, pro-Brexit faction of the party. Umunna also employed Jonathan Rutherford, one of the faction’s gurus, as a speechwriter. 

As recently as 2016, Umunna was retweeting and praising articles by Rutherford arguing that a “pro-EU” direction would be a “disaster” for Labour and attacking “liberal progressive politics”. Yet, by October of last year, Umunna was arguing that “progressive politics was back.” It remains to be seem which of these postures he feels is most profitable in the longer term.

Either way, Umunna will have no trouble with money for his new project. He himself gets £65k a year (or £450 per hour) to run a think tank called “The Progressive Centre UK”. The centre’s funders are anonymous, but it is run by men associated with New Labour sugar daddy Lord Sainsbury. In 2017 various Labour-supporting millionaires donated around £150,000 to Umunna’s office – widely seen as support for a leadership bid which was aborted after Corbyn failed to crash in the general election.

It won’t be difficult to find media support, either. Tory papers will exaggerate Umunna’s initiative to try and destabilise Labour. Liberal journalists will also be keen: the Observer’s latest front page tried to big up the “significant support” for a centrist party. 

New Labour had strong appeal for many top journalists because it allowed them to feel socially conscious and modern without making them uncomfortable about second homes and public school fees. Umunna has a strong personal appeal for pundits who last felt truly alive in 1997, with Tony in number 10 and Shed Seven on the CD player.

Money – or a Movement?

Unable to see a career in Labour, but equally incapable of the hard work of building a party, they seem to be set to waft around as a free-floating parliamentary faction, unconnected to the outside world beyond Westminster and the media. The plan seems to be first to damage Labour with a noisy departure and then to wait for somebody else to sort out the structures that will give them a long-term job.

This isn’t, after all, the first new centrist initiative. It follows LoveFilm multimillionaire Simon Franks “United for Change”, and another project led by former Blair aides Jonathan Powell and Philip Collins. One suspects that the Independent Group dithered so long on their own break because, like these, even their own polling indicated they would struggle to find voters and members.

In the 1980s the SDP had much bigger leadership figures, including former Cabinet Ministers like Shirley Williams and David Owen. They were a break to the right of the Labour Party, but made efforts to appear positive. They said “we do not believe in the politics of an inert centre. They spoke of “breaking the mould” of British politics. 

It was window dressing, but at least they dressed the window. The Independent Group’s shabby launch barely managed that. Instead, its speeches focused on anti-Labour invective. Most of the last ten years of austerity has been implemented under the political centre – it’s very difficult to see what new policy proposals it might now provide.

This doesn’t mean the Independent Group isn’t a problem: Labour and the Tories are evenly balanced, hovering around historic highs of 40% of the vote. The financial crisis and austerity has led to polarisation on the left and the right. There is no room for a new centre party to get the 25% of the vote the SDP won in 1983. However, even 5% for a new force could keep the Tories in power. Given the Independent Group’s anti-Corbyn focus, it seems likely that is their ambition.

Labour members should keep cool. Seeing careerist MPs head off on another ego trip will be enraging. But one of the centrists’ strategies will be to feed on this anger. Far better to treat this latest break as the tantrum it is rather than a great betrayal. It’s the failed strategy of a man with a faltering career, who has only managed to gather around him MPs who are legends in their own lunchtime.

Labour should stick to the principles that made the Corbyn project grow. It has rediscovered its roots as a party of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people trying to change the system. Labour wants to take money, resources and power from the multi-millionaires and the multinationals, and use it to house, feed and improve the lives of the majority. The Independent Group is a desperate effort to stop that from happening. In the end, its politics will appeal to no-one but its own leadership.