ANALYSIS: How seven MPs finally quit the Labour party in protest at Jeremy Corbyn
After weeks of speculation, seven Labour MPs dramatically quit the party today in protest at the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Their journey to the exit door was a slow crawl peppered by numerous flash-points.
At 10.00 on Monday morning, seven disaffected Labour MPs simultaneously emailed party bosses and said they were resigning. Five minutes later they walked into a room packed with the Westminster press corps and announced their departure to the world. Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Ann Coffey and Gavin Shuker said they were fed up with the direction of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and had formed a new ‘Independent Group’ in parliament. They blamed Brexit, anti-Semitism and the march of the hard left. And they said their new group was not yet an official party but a first step in “building a new politics”.
What was supposed to be a holiday for MPs (before Brexit got in the way) was selected as a good launch moment for the group. There are fewer political distractions during parliamentary recess - even if it does end up being cancelled.
“There are so many things going on in British politics,” one of the group said. “There was a sense that if we were going to start to try and talk not just about Brexit but about wider issues then this week was one to do that.” But they managed to keep their plans relatively quiet. Even big figures from the centre ground such as Tony Blair and David Miliband had no idea what they were plotting. And they are yet to secure any big donors - instead setting up a crowdfunder option on their website, which promptly crashed after launch.
The journey towards ditching their political family was a slow crawl with a number of flash points. The seeds were sown after the failed coup against Jeremy Corbyn in the wake of the 2016 EU referendum that culminated in the leadership challenge by Owen Smith. Corbyn won big and cemented his position at the top of the party. Later attempts to change policy on Brexit and encourage a proactive stance against anti-semitism were thought to have little effect. “We tried everything to save the party,” one MP explains. But they slowly watched as each local grouping, each party committee and even Labour HQ were slowly taken over by the left.
Brexit was key to the formation of the group. It has already carved something of a realignment in British politics, with the whipping system and collective responsibility all-but broken down. All seven rebels support a second referendum on the final Brexit deal and, ultimately, continued EU membership. The Brexit issue also has the chance of pulling MPs from the Government benches into the fold. For the ex-Labour MPs, the Corbynite approach to Brexit was increasingly disheartening. Labour conference last year agreed to keep the option of a second Brexit vote on the table if a general election could not be clinched. But when a confidence vote in the Government failed last month, there was no indication that the leadership was ready to budge. The MPs hoped there might be more movement towards a fresh referendum in the days leading up to a set of crunch Commons votes last week. But in the end they were left disappointed and feeling the party had in fact moved “backwards”.
The rows over anti-semitism in Labour were another major factor with a number of pinch points along the way. Those included the response by Corbyn to having defended an anti-semitic mural; the revelation he attended a wreath-laying for the alleged perpetrators of the Munich massacre; and the unearthed video which showed him saying Zionists had “no sense of English irony”. MPs battled for more transparency about the disciplinary process over anti-semitic incidents and were told by general secretary Jennie Formby it would be impossible to eradicate the virus from the party. Berger, the Jewish MP for Liverpool Wavertree, said she eventually reached the “sickening conclusion” the party had become “institutionally anti-semitic”.
Foreign policy was another big concern, with the group increasingly unable to defend or explain away the leadership stance on global events. One MP notes that the Sergei Skripal case was a moment of clarity. Corbyn refused to blame Russia outright after the former spy and his daughter Yulia were attacked with Novichok in Salisbury last year, and he called for Moscow to be given samples of the deadly poison. “The Skripal case really crystalised a lot of the critique of the leadership and how their foreign policy positions tended often to be quite historic,” the MP said. They added that those concerns, coupled with the prospect of Corbyn reaching Downing Street in the wake of his better-than-expected performance in the 2017 snap election, had sparked a “moral dilemma” for MPs. The veteran anti-West campaigner and his closest allies could well be on the cusp of controlling UK national security - an outcome some would prefer to avoid. “If there were a general election any time soon, Labour would be a prospect for Government and we are not prepared to sponsor it,” the MP added.
So after years of turmoil and mounting speculation, seven MPs ended up in a conference room in Westminster sending their resignation emails to party bosses. “I have been getting out of bed every morning for the past two years thinking ‘shall I resign from the Labour party today or tomorrow?’” one said. “And it has always been tomorrow. But today it was today.” Another explained that after realising they no longer belonged in the Labour party, the choice was either to quit as an MP and find another job - as colleagues Michael Dugher, Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt did - wait for an opportunity to quietly “drift off” without causing any fuss, or present an alternative. The seven splitters chose the latter.
In the coming days, the Independents Group will hold their inaugural meeting at which they will begin to work out how the new party will be structured and organised, as well as address the all important question of leadership. “It’s a sort of D-day, in a sense, [before] building forward,” one MP said. “We know we will have to employ staff and possibly hire and venue and all these other things.”
The questions of money, winning new recruits, forming policy and actually fighting elections are all for another day, the group argue. But they are questions the splitters will have to answer soon if they have any hope of survival.