Britain’s opposition Labour Party has its first official split since 1981, when the Gang of Four broke away to form the short-lived Social Democratic Party. That ended in failure and helped the Conservative Party to stay in government. So might the current attempt, but it’s a gamble that should be welcomed anyhow.
The seven Labour lawmakers who resigned from their party on Monday captured a quiet day in the news cycle, but otherwise didn’t get off to a roaring start. Schism is a word freighted with gravitas; but, of course, seven isn’t a very big number; there are 248 Labour MPs. It’s hard to ignore the fact that what has been tentatively called The Independent Group isn’t yet a party, doesn’t have a platform and is missing a leader. Even its website looked unsure of itself.
This is a long way from posing an existential threat to the Labour Party itself, a formidable, union-supported machine with deep local roots. Nor does it endanger Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has an iron grip on the party’s power structures. But the split highlights Labour’s transition to a hard-left, take-it-or-leave-it socialist party from the inclusive, centrist ground it occupied under former leader Tony Blair. That is a place where many moderate voters won’t go and other Labour lawmakers may find increasingly intolerable. It also speaks to the deep need for a realignment in British politics, where both parties are struggling to contain ideological divisions.
Most impressive of the rebels is Luciana Berger, a heavily pregnant Jewish lawmaker who has fought threats by her local constituency party to deselect her for criticizing Labour’s record on antisemitism; nobody could accuse her of putting career and ego before principles. Her indictment of Labour’s “culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation” should make Corbyn’s shadow cabinet hang their heads.
The other rebels have all been on a collision course with Corbyn for a while and their defection rumored for weeks. Several already faced deselection by their local parties before the next election.
Their movement may yet peter out. To have staying power, it first needs to gain critical mass, though it’s difficult to say what that is these days. The SDP managed to attract as many as 30 MPs at its height and even then got crushed in Britain’s winner-takes-all electoral system despite coming very close to equaling Labour’s share of the popular vote in 1983. A bigger problem is building a consensus on policy: The SDP ended up divided between its lefties and its centrists before it was disbanded.
Crucially the SDP had that key ingredient missing across today’s British political spectrum: heavyweight leadership. SDP leader Roy Jenkins was a political giant and Britain’s only European Commission President. David Owen, one of the other original four and eventual SDP leader, had a number of ministerial portfolios under his belt. Whatever their other qualities, there is no one approaching that stature in the Independent Group’s ranks.
A steady drip of defections along with a flow of funds from donors might keep the cameras rolling and provide a sense of momentum. But it’s a hard slog for a breakaway party in British politics. If today’s rebels aren’t to suffer the same fate as their predecessors, they will need some Conservative MPs to join them too. That was something Jenkins later admitted was the SDP’s big weakness.
And yet it is a big ask. The Conservatives are still the party of government and tend to like it that way. The breakaway of some centrist Tory lawmakers over May’s Brexit policy isn’t impossible – but for it to happen, they would all need to agree not just on Brexit, but on a host of other issues too, and it’s not clear that even the magnificent seven can. What unites them is protest – against Corbyn’s hard-left politics and authoritarian style, against the party’s inability to root out antisemitism and against its Brexit policy. But it’s a long way from walking out to building a political party.
It’s still possible to imagine a new party coagulating in the event of a no-deal Brexit, but it’s much harder to see how it would survive a deal that gets Labour support – for example, one involving a permanent customs union, as Corbyn has proposed and EU negotiator Michel Barnier has indicated is acceptable.
It would be exciting if the seven did manage to replicate some of the momentum that Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche movement produced – but don’t bet on it. Unlike France’s presidential system with its two-round voting, Britain’s first-past-the-post system entrenches the incumbent Labour-Conservative duality and makes a Macron-style gambit almost impossible to imagine. And, of course, Macron had extraordinary luck.
Still, the Independent Group’s presence could make an impact, pushing Corbyn to rethink the deselection of other Labour MPs who have criticized his leadership, or encouraging both parties to take more centrist positions to prevent defections. If it punctures the certainty that tribal loyalties are an immutable rule of British political life, then that may be no bad thing.