I watched with bemusement and a certain sense of déjà vu the decision of seven Labour MPs (now apparently eight) yesterday to resign from the Party and sit as independents. The echoes of the formation of the SDP back in 1981 are strong – and well explored elsewhere, most recently by Keith Flett in a thoughtful post on unintended consequences – not least with the SDP also having sought, and failed, to ‘break the mould of British politics’.
As someone who also resigned from the Party on a point of principle (the ludicrous scenario of the party of labour digging up long-lost legislation from the statute book to get around the 2000 firefighters’ dispute), though I’m not sure that anyone actually noticed back then, I understand that discontent sometimes comes to a point of no return. And, some members of the group are clearly highly uncomfortable with, and angry at, aspects of the Party’s direction and approach. Not currently being a member of the Party, however, it’s really not up to me to comment on what is someone else’s point of principle other than to say that such departures are always regrettable.
The SDP had its Limehouse Declaration, but the gang of eight appear to have very little as regards an attempt at policy direction. Braving the ‘Whoa! are you sure you want to go there?’ pop-up from my McAfee Web Adviser tool which, somewhat comically, rated the group’s website as ‘slightly risky’ when I dialled it up earlier this evening, I can see a set of fairly loose motherhood-and-apple-pie values – but, on the issue of the day, very little as regards what the group might be calling for on Brexit. 1981 still casts a long shadow on UK politics and it might be that the group is extremely hesitant to engage with policy formality in terms of anything resembling a Council for Social Democracy. The fate of (rightly) much-derided blue Labour/red Tory initiatives also has a comment to make on this. Perhaps, on the other hand, this is still coming – and it may be that the realignment of UK politics in the wake of the Change wrought by the 2016 referendum may still come about if UKUP entryism into the Tory Party represents more than just the usual relentless self-promotion; or if the current crop of cabinet ministers ever actually have to make good on their threat to resign in the face of a no-deal Brexit – and it may be with these things in mind that any attempt at a policy programme has yet to appear.
I’d suggest, however, that this group’ll be a long time waiting, splits by moderate Tories continuing to be a somewhat less likely outcome, even if Brexit does change everything, particularly given what seems to be the major driver behind the group’s decision: discontent with their own party never looks attractive to members of another, even if there are reasons for discontent over there, too.
Given that Brexit was one of the prompters of their decision to leave – all are supporters of putting the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU to the people (as, in principle, am I) – I might have expected a bit more. Or, actually, quite a bit less – since it’s not only the programme which is somewhat nebulous; the timing of their departure from the Party is also extremely puzzling.
Their departure may not make the mathematics on a people’s vote any different – but it does deprive the Parliamentary Labour Party of a strong voice on behalf of a people’s vote; and, furthermore, it may well undermine it among the Party’s loyalists who would not want to espouse policies supported by breakaway MPs. It also, for the same potential reasons, complicates the arithmetic around Yvette Cooper’s attempt to compel the Prime Minister to request more time from the EU to prevent the UK crashing out on 28 March, as it will by default unless something is done to prevent it. Furthermore, the Party’s conference programme is clear and encompasses a referendum, reiterated regularly (and most recently on Sunday) by John McDonnell, should no deal be possible or should the terms of the deal fail to protect jobs and the economy – regardless of the fall-out from Honda, among others – workers’ rights and environmental protection standards. That is, at least, still on the table and, the circumstances for resignation should that policy be ignored are clearly therefore not yet in place. The departure – on these grounds – is evidently premature.
And, furthermore, like all breakaways, it has redirected the pressure within Westminster away from the government’s farcical Brexit negotiations process and preparations; and away from the Prime Minster’s albeit incredibly half-hearted attempt at political engagement among MPs. It might, in extremis, lead to Theresa May seeking to exploit the split by calling a snap election – though it may be that she has learned from the last time. Nevertheless, with this in mind, discipline remains the key since a loss of focus will represent a loss of opportunity. Ultimately, such intense failures of policies and of personality from the Prime Minister need to be continually at the centre of attention and continually ratcheting up the pressure if there is to be a proper, decent deal on Brexit or, otherwise, a people’s vote. Any such breakaway provides a valve to relieve that pressure, with the Prime Minister thereby able to get one step closer to a crash-out which will keep the hard right in the ERG on board and a Tory Party together, if not exactly united; splits from the moderate side of the Tories being, when push comes to shove, a somewhat less likely outcome, in my view, whatever the rumours.
Whatever the gang of eight think are the chances of gaining the actual support of their Party for a people’s vote, their departure not only does not make it more likely, it actually makes it a bit less so. And, at this stage, that’s very frustrating.