Will the Gang of Seven learn lessons from the history books?
The MPs who quit the Labour Party to stand as a group of independents could be venturing along the same rocky path as the Gang of Four, writes Gemma Fraser
Image credit: PA
“Politics is broken. Let’s change it.”
This is the message from the Independent Group, the new breakaway faction set up by seven MPs who announced they were quitting Labour over the way the party had “changed beyond recognition”.
The Gang of Seven – as they have been dubbed – each revealed their own personal reasons why they could no longer remain as Labour politicians, which included being “embarrassed and ashamed” by a party that they claim is “institutionally antisemitic”.
Collectively, the seven – Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Gavin Shuker and Ann Coffey – released a statement in which they said: “Each of us has dedicated decades to the progressive values that were once held true by Labour, values which have since been abandoned by today’s Labour Party.
“Labour now pursues policies that would weaken our national security; accepts the narratives of states hostile to our country; has failed to take a lead in addressing the challenge of Brexit and to provide a strong and coherent alternative to the Conservatives’ approach; is passive in circumstances of international humanitarian distress; is hostile to businesses large and small; and threatens to destabilise the British economy in pursuit of ideological objectives.
“For a party that once committed to pursue a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect, it has changed beyond recognition. Today, visceral hatreds of other people, views and opinions are commonplace in and around the Labour Party.
“It is not simply that our values are no longer welcome in the Labour Party; the values we hold mean that, in all conscience, we can have no confidence in the party’s collective leadership, competence or culture.”
Simply put, they believe ‘politics is broken, let’s change it’.
But while that is an uplifting and rallying catchphrase, perhaps it is another catchphrase which emerged from the same press conference where the seven delivered their motivational speeches that voters in Britain may feel more able to relate to: “Between this and Brexit we are actually fucked.”
The comment came from an unknown man and was accidentally broadcast by the BBC during the live press conference hosted by the seven MPs announcing their resignations from the Labour Party.
The male continued: “It’s going to be so divided … the Conservatives are going to win.”
While probably made off-the-cuff, his comments may well be the most poignant to come out of that conference.
After all, if you look back to 1981 – the last time the Labour Party faced such a breakaway – that’s exactly what happened.
Back then, it was the Gang of Four – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, William Rodgers and Shirley Williams – who were causing the headache for Labour.
The four left Labour citing major differences over European and defence policies as the party had taken a sharp turn to the left under leader Michael Foot.
Launching their new Social Democratic Party (SDP), the Gang of Four pledged to “reconcile the nation” and “heal divisions between classes”. But what its subsequent success actually achieved – in the 1983 general election the party took 25 per cent of the vote after it allied with the Liberal Party – was to split the anti-Tory vote and help ensure Thatcher’s landslide victory.
According to many political commentators, that Labour split was a significant contributing factor to 18 years of Tory dominance in the 1980s and 1990s.
So it’s no surprise that 38 years later, there’s a fear that history might repeat itself – especially in this chaotic time in UK politics.
While the Gang of Seven may not have the same political clout as the Gang of Four – most of the seven are complete unknowns to the majority of the UK – there are warnings that a lot more will follow suit.
In fact, just a few days after the seven MPs quit, an eighth Labour MP – Joan Ryan – joined them, as well as three Tory MPs: Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen.
At the time of going to print, members of the Independent Group said they expected even more MPs to join them.
Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson said he “feared this day would come” and described it as a “wake-up call for the Labour Party”, adding that it needed to stop others leaving.
He paid particular tribute to Berger, saying: “If someone like Luciana no longer believes there is a home for her in the Labour Party then many other colleagues will be asking themselves how they can stay.
“That’s why time is short for us. To confront the scale of the problem and meet the consequences. To keep others from leaving.”
In his resignation speech, Umunna urged others to join him and his colleagues and become part of the new independent movement.
“You don’t join a political party to spend years and years fighting the people within it,” he said. “You get involved in politics, you join a party to change the world.
“So we invite you to leave your parties and help us forge a new consensus on a way forward for Britain.”
He later said he hoped a new party would be created by the end of the year.
He told ITV: “I would like to see us move as quickly as possible and certainly by the end of the year, but that’s my personal view.
“There needs to be an alternative, so that’s perfectly possible. But I don’t get to determine this.”
Speaking to journalists outside his home the day after the resignation announcements, shadow chancellor John McDonnell dismissed claims that there could already be another 30 Labour MPs ready to defect.
He said: “The Labour leadership, and I’m part of that, we need to keep listening, bring people in, talk to them, if there’s issues that we have to address, we’ll address them, if it’s about the style of the leadership, we’ll address that, if it’s about policy, we’ll listen to that as well.”
Interestingly, Jeremy Corbyn himself didn’t have an awful lot to say about the split when it was first announced.
In a statement, he said: “I am disappointed that these MPs have felt unable to continue to work together for the Labour policies that inspired millions at the last election and saw us increase our vote by the largest share since 1945.”
He added: “Labour won people over on a programme for the many not the few – redistributing wealth and power, taking vital resources into public ownership, investing in every region and nation, and tackling climate change.
“The Conservative government is bungling Brexit, while Labour has set out a unifying and credible alternative plan. When millions are facing the misery of Universal Credit, rising crime, homelessness and poverty, now more than ever is the time to bring people together to build a better future for us all.”
But after it emerged three Tory MPs had teamed up with his former Labour colleagues, he released a video statement which called on the defecting MPs to resign and put themselves up for election.
He said: “It’s disappointing that some MPs have left our party to sit with disaffected Tory MPs but we can’t return to the failed business as usual politics of the past. And it’s only Labour that offers solutions to challenges people face today.”
He added: “These MPs now want to abandon the policies on which they were elected, so the decent and democratic thing for them to do is to resign and put themselves up for election.”
The SNP, unsurprisingly, was quick to give its views on the split.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said: “Labour are not fit for purpose – they are failing as an opposition, failing over Brexit and failing their own MPs.
“If even his own MPs can’t trust Jeremy Corbyn then why should the people of Scotland?
“Ultimately this split will strengthen Theresa May and make it even more likely that the Tories stay in power through Brexit and beyond.
“Westminster is now completely dysfunctional, with warring factions on both sides of the house more interested in their own bitter disputes than the future of the country.”
And other Labour MPs have also been publicly vocal about their feelings on the split.
Ian Murray, the Labour MP for Edinburgh South, described it as a “sad day” for both the party and for him personally.
He added: “The current Labour leadership is breaking the broad church that this party once built its electoral success upon – a broad church which delivered Labour governments that lifted millions and millions of people out of poverty.
“The challenge now is for Jeremy Corbyn to listen and learn, and decide if he wants to keep the Labour Party together or if he will continue to foster a culture of bullying and intolerance where his own MPs feel unwelcome and are being forced out.”
In a particularly poorly-timed epilogue to the Labour split saga, it emerged the day after the resignations that Derek Hatton – the former deputy leader of Liverpool City Council who was expelled from the party 34 years ago – had been readmitted, albeit for just 48 hours before he was suspended again.
Hatton, who was kicked out by then-leader Neil Kinnock for belonging to Militant Tendency, cited Corbyn’s leadership as the reason he applied to re-join.
With Hatton describing the Gang of Seven as “pathetic” for leaving the party, it’s perhaps not the kind of endorsement needed by Corbyn at the moment.
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