Politicians across the divide are grateful for TIG – here’s what one of May’s cabinet ministers said to me

‘Some fresh, principled, rebalancing will, I predict, have more impact than people immediately realise’

Chuka Umunna
Monday 04 March 2019 14:44
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Chuka Umunna: 'Politics is broken. It doesn't have to be this way. Let's change it'

Another week passes, and the dysfunction in UK politics continues. To coin a phrase, nothing has changed. In fact, it has actually got worse.

Both main parties are deeply divided, the supposed broad-church coalitions falling apart under our antiquated, outdated first-past-the-post electoral system – a system which should be abolished and replaced with a fairer, more democratic system of proportional representation. They contain parties within parties which are so busy fighting each other that they cannot focus on the national interest. These internal civil wars literally take up hours of people’s time – time which should be devoted to your constituency and matters of state, particularly when we are faced with the biggest issue since the Second World War: Brexit. This is not sustainable and a vote for any of the established parties will preserve the status quo but won’t change our rotten politics, which is why the Independent Group is building an alternative.

The deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, to his credit is seeking to organise moderate Labour MPs to fight back against the terrible culture which has been instituted since the hard left took over. It is reported that a group of moderate, social democratic MPs is to be set up. Tristram Hunt (who has since left the House of Commons) and I set up such a group at the end of summer 2015. The “Labour for the Common Good” PLP group held several meetings over a 12-month period.

The meetings were generally well attended (my notes from the time indicate that anything from 20 to 40 Labour MPs would turn up) and we had good speakers including Unite’s then regional secretary in the West Midlands, Gerard Coyne, who was put through disciplinary proceedings by Unite for speaking at one of our meetings in January 2016. Lord Prescott accused us of seeking to set up a party within a party whilst at the same time ignoring the fact that those around Jeremy Corbyn had done just that with Momentum.

The problem is that whatever new group is now established, it does not change the fact that the hard left has taken the leadership, the position of general secretary, the NEC and, increasingly, parts of the party machine. Not forgetting that 60 per cent of the Labour Party’s membership joined after May 2015. This is of an altogether different order from the challenge posed by the Militant tendency to the centre left in the 1980s. You cannot credibly put forward a party – composed of parties within a party like this – as a cohesive prospective government. How on earth will the public know which party within your party they are voting for? The truth is that the Labour Party as we knew it before Jeremy Corbyn became leader in September 2015, no longer exists which is why – if you have progressive, centre-left Labour values – the only option is to leave and build an alternative.

The Conservative Party is equally split. Last week Conservative MP Alberto Costa, a very decent guy and champion for EU citizens’ rights, put down an arguably uncontroversial amendment to the prime minister’s motion on Brexit which called for the government to implement the terms of the withdrawal agreement on EU citizens’ rights regardless of whether a deal is reached. Alberto, the son of Italian parents, asked me to sign the amendment which I was very happy to do as it seeks to give comfort to more than 3 million EU citizens who live in the UK (including the 30,000 in the borough I represent), and more than 1.5 million British citizens who live and work in EU countries. Despite the fact the government backed the amendment, Alberto was sacked from his position as the parliamentary private secretary to the Scottish secretary for tabling it – which to anyone outside of the Westminster bubble looks ridiculous.

Members of the cabinet openly brief against government policy on Brexit and yet Alberto was basically sacked for supporting what turns out to be government policy. This is because the Tory party has become nasty and nationalistic, run by a party within a party called the European Research Group, chaired by Jacob Rees-Mogg. If you are sympathetic to the ERG cause the PM allows you to get away with all manner of things because she is terrified of them. What other reason can there be for Chris Grayling – very much of the ERG – being kept in post as transport secretary when he is clearly an utterly hopeless minister? This is no way to govern.

I received a very nice note from one of the PM’s senior ministers soon after we founded the Independent Group of MPs. In the note the minister said: “The party system is in a parlous state: sclerotic and stale, they have both become undeserving of enthusiastic support. Their capture by Momentum and Moggmentum are pushing each to the fringe. So some fresh, principled, rebalancing will, I predict, have more impact than people immediately realise.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Women in the background

Over the weekend we watched The Wife starring Glenn Close as the long suffering partner of an acclaimed author played by Jonathan Pryce. The film revolves around the family’s trip to Stockholm where he is to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is adulterous, vain, needy and comes across as rather full of himself. It turns out, through the course of the film, that the literature for which he is famed is more the work of his wife than his own. She was not allowed to flourish as a writer due to the rampant discrimination women faced in the 1950s and 1960s in the literature world, so channelled her talents through him without taking the credit.

It is an incredibly poignant film and Glenn Close gives a performance which is definitely deserving of an Oscar and for which she won a Golden Globe. It did make me think: in the past as a consequence of sexism and discrimination, how many husbands out there were the ones to take the credit for the work of their wives?

Chuka Umunna is an Independent Group MP for Streatham

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