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18 February 2019

Q&A: Who are the Independent Group and what do they stand for?

The Labour splitters describe their not-quite-new party in their own words.

By Patrick Maguire

The Independent Group of former Labour MPs gave its first press conference today – but left many more questions than answers.

While it is clear what Chuka Umunna, Angela Smith, Chris Leslie, Ann Coffey, Mike Gapes, Gavin Shuker and Luciana Berger are against, their policy platform and organisational structures are less certain. 

Here is where they stand on the big political and ideological issues facing their new entity on day one. 

Are they a political party?

Not yet. Until such time as they do register as one, they will not be eligible for short money – the government funding paid to opposition parties to support parliamentary work – or other parliamentary privileges such as guaranteed question slots or opposition day debates. As such they have no grassroots members, councillors or peers, but are nonetheless soliciting donations. They will meet today for what Shuker described as an administrative “washing up” exercise, at which point the way they operate in parliament – and the timeline for their transition to a fully-fledged party – is likely to become clearer.

Who is its leader?

There isn’t one – at least not yet. The breakaway is associated most closely with Chuka Umunna, but Luciana Berger led today’s launch and the group is resisting attempts to categorise it as a new party. Umunna stressed that, while all seven members shared the same basic analysis of where Labour had gone wrong, they were independent of one another as well as of their former party. He acknowledged that could preclude whipping, and did not rule out supporting the government on issues where their principles aligned. 

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What is their ideology? 

Described by Angela Smith as “sensible” and “centrist”, the group is primarily defined by what it is against: Jeremy Corbyn’s economic and foreign policy stances, which Chris Leslie denounced as “narrow and outdated”; Labour’s handling of anti-Semitism; and Brexit. All support a second referendum, though acknowledge that their resignations will not shift the Commons arithmetic in favour of one.

The group “does not think every problem in the world has been created by the West,” Gavin Shuker said. ”We back well-regulated business but in return we expect them to provide decent, secure and well-paid jobs,” he added. “These are values that once would have been considered mainstream in our parties of government.” Leslie stressed that the group was pro-Nato, while Gapes said: ”Jeremy Corbyn and those around him are on the wrong side in so many international issues, from Russia, to Syria to Venezuela.”

Its “statement of independence”, meanwhile, highlights broad principles rather than substantive policy proposals: support for a “diverse, mixed social market economy…. where government has the responsibility to ensure the sound stewardship of taxpayer’s money”; investment in “collective provision” of public services; a society that “fosters individual freedom and supports all families”; reducing inequality by removing the “barriers of poverty, prejudice and discrimination”; well-paid and secure work; a free press; support for multilateralism and a rules-based global order: environmentalism; and localism. 

Umunna’s rallying cry was accordingly nebulous – “It is time we dumped this country’s old-fashioned politics and created an alternative that does justice to who we are today” – and as yet, there is no meat on those bones. Whether the group’s MPs – who are by no means ideologically identical – are willing or able to provide it will prove a test both of their cohesion as a political unit and of whether their grouping can secure a sustainable future outwith parliament. 

Will they trigger by-elections?

No. Though it was reported last week that “at least one” of the group was considering resigning their seat in order to gauge the public appetite for their new movement, Leslie told reporters that “by-elections are not what are needed right now”. In this respect, despite Angela Smith’s claim to the contrary, are aping the strategy of the SDP, just one of whose defectors, Bruce Douglas-Mann, resigned.

It is also unlikely that they will fight the Newport West by-election. Leslie also argued that the public voted for people, rather than parties. Labour is pushing the opposite line. “All these MPs stood under Corbyn’s leadership,” a source said. “Now they are standing for different policies, they should resign and put them to the test in a by-election. That is the right and democratic thing to do.”

Are they merging with the Liberal Democrats, and will Conservatives join?

It depends who you ask. Umunna cut a deliberately ecumenical figure and categorically rejected suggestions that all or any of the seven would join or be subsumed by the Lib Dems, though many believe some sort of alliance is inevitable. Tim Farron, the former Liberal Democrat leader, said he “looked forward to working” with the group. Whether they will do so within some form of formal structure – as the SDP did – remains to be seen. Angela Smith rejected the comparison, which she insisted did not stand up to scrutiny.

As for Tory defectors, Umunna is certainly hopeful. He urged other MPs to leave their “parties” and join the group. The pool of potential converts on the government benches, however, appears limited to those Conservative MPs we know support a second referendum.