Will they succeed?
The gang of seven ex-Labour MPs who launched their “Independent Group” today certainly deserve to do so.
For all the shock of the new, their values are those of a traditional progressive party: freedom, a social market economy, Europe, education as the engine of social mobility and an opportunity society, tolerance, liberal values. If they remind people of the launch of the SDP in 1981, that is no bad thing.
British politics has long been overdue a fundamental realignment. Europe had threatened to do it before, but the old system survived, though fractured. The fissures are deeper now, and joined by new ones around antisemitism, the economy and defence.
The present Labour leadership has betrayed a significant section of the party’s supporters and members by effectively trying to bury a Final Say referendum on Brexit – “over my dead body” in the words of one senior official. Jeremy Corbyn and his senior colleagues have also failed to eradicate the discrimination which has evidently played a key role in today’s split: indeed, that failure arguably made a split inevitable in the end, even putting Brexit to one side.
In the strange circumstances of the 2017 election Labour gained support to the extent that it seemed Corbyn really was the man for the job. Yet those who rallied to the cause were largely pro-Remain, pro-Europe. Now Labour appears set on facilitating Brexit in order to have the freedom to build some chimera of a socialist society. It may seem attractive to some but it is a dangerous fantasy. The more people of all persuasions in the Labour Party realise that, the more will quit.
That said, a fuller realignment – which would also peel the Tories’ centre away from its Powellite wing – may still be some distance away. The magnificent seven are as yet only a collection of like-minded MPs. They have no leader, no policies as such and no grassroots organisation.
Still, we live in momentous times that seem ready for momentous change. The seven ask the public and people in other parties alike to tell the new group what they want, to get involved, to feel engaged in a political process that feels devalued. That feeling that the old parties and the existing system was not giving democratic voice to millions of people was in fact very much the spirit of the SDP and, as it happens, that of The Independent which was founded a few years later.
So far as can be judged, these seven MPs share that passion for a more open and tolerant society with a greater opportunity for social mobility – with a strong market economy underpinning strong public services. Their nascent movement supports the broad substantial economic social and political benefits of the European Union and backs, we can only assume, a Final Say on EU withdrawal.
Whatever the public’s response to this new would-be party, we are now embarked on uncharted territory. If Brexit does happen, on any terms, it could trigger a deep and protracted recession, greater than any since the 1930s. We cannot know the consequences of that, but politics as usual is unlikely to survive and, as can be readily witnessed across Europe even now, people are more and more willing to abandon political affiliations that were once thought immutable.
Of course, there can be a danger in that, as well as an opportunity. We have, after all, seen in recent years how easily popular nationalism can fill a vacuum. In the age of social media, the extremes are an easier sell than the centre ground. Even where new centrist movements have flourished, as in France under Emmanuel Macron, they have struggled to keep their base motivated.
The reformation of the progressive centre will therefore take time – just as it took several elections for Labour to supplant the Liberals between the wars. It is surely though an enterprise worth undertaking and, with a sufficiently powerful wave of public support, it could conceivably happen more quickly, if a little chaotically. The “political virgins” are there to be courted.
True, the new movement will need a positive vision – it cannot only rail against the status quo. That is possible: just look at how Labour under Tony Blair won over an electorate that had kept the party out of power for nearly two decades. More recently Nick Clegg achieved something similar (albeit on a smaller scale) with the Lib Dems. The achievement of those two committed centrists should not be ignored simply because their reputations now are divisive.
In the end, the best advertisement for a new progressive party is the present state of the Conservative and Labour parties. Divided, captured by extremists, and led by lacklustre leaders whose most conspicuous quality is stubbornness, their electoral appeal is almost entirely negative – “vote for us because the other lot are even worse”.
British politics could do with some idealism and energy and, above all, hope.
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