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19 February 2019

Will more MPs leave Labour and the Conservatives to join the Independent Group?

It’s a question that’s going to be asked for a while.

By Stephen Bush

Will more Labour MPs end up joining the Independent Group? That question will be part of the background hum of British politics for as long as the Group (and whatever the party it ends up becoming is called) exists.

The magic number for the group is 36. Should they manage to get 36 MPs together, they would overtake the SNP as parliament’s third largest grouping, which would bring with it speaking rights every week at PMQs, select committee chair posts, and Short money – the public funds available to assist opposition parties with their work – as well as having longrun implications for the amount of attention they will receive from broadcasters. While this new group will receive a great deal of attention over the coming days and again whenever they officially unveil themselves as the Radical Party, Up with People or what have you, if this parliament runs its full length then they will need that sustained platform if they are to make a go of it.

But reaching 36 MPs depends on two variables: how attractive a prospect the Independent Group becomes, and how unattractive the other parties are.

On the former: how attractive does the Independent Group look? I wouldn’t pay attention to any polling about the Group at this point as nobody normal knows any of the following: what the party’s platform will be, who the seven splitters are, or even what it will call itself. It make take until a general election for the seven to establish themselves as national figures. One reason why the last election was so volatile is that the all three political parties went into the contest with leaders who most voters didn’t know very much about. Jeremy Corbyn turned that into an asset, while for Theresa May and Tim Farron, their entry into the public consciousness went less well.

So essentially so far all we’ve seen is a moderate stress-test for the new grouping: one which gives us some idea how they might perform on a bigger stage.  On the plus side, in relative secrecy, they unveiled the biggest split in British politics for close to four decades. But that one of their MPs, Penistone and Stockbridge’s Angela Smith, has already had to apologise for misspeaking on national TV is a reminder that the greater spotlight isn’t all upside for the Independent Group.

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But a lot more may depend on the thing the Group can’t control: how unattractive the other parties are. As I said yesterday, the deselection question is a difficult one for Labour – it’s a pipe-dream to conceive of a truly radical Corbynite government with this parliamentary party in place, but deselections will mean defections to the Independent Group, while a similar dynamic will play itself out on the Tory side.

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That Derek Hatton, formerly of Militant fame, has been allowed to rejoin the Labour Party, is the sort of development that might underline for Labour MPs who will have nodded along to everything the Gang of Seven said yesterday that their futures may lie elsewhere.