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25 February 2019

Why has the Independent Group chosen Gavin Shuker as its convenor?

Gavin Shuker's election to the role, and the decision to avoid electing a leader, reveals a great deal about Westminster's newest party.

By Stephen Bush

The Independent Group has elected Gavin Shuker as its “convenor” – but, the Luton South MP has already confirmed that he won’t be a candidate for the group’s leadership, as and when they elect a leader. What’s going on?
In many ways, the odd title merely confirms the reality of Shuker’s role in bringing the group together. As I explained in this week’s magazine, Shuker quite literally was the group’s convenor, arguing forcefully and repeatedly that Labour MPs who wanted neither a Corbyn government nor a Conservative one had a moral imperative to try and create what he dubbed a “Plan B”.

So the group declaring him convenor reflects what he has actually done for it thus far, which is operate as a Chief Whip. It also has the happy bonus of increasing the number of go-to media spokespeople for the group: Chuka Umunna is well-known to television producers, Luciana Berger is personally tied to the ongoing story of Labour and antisemitism, Anna Soubry is the most media friendly of their MPs.

But why aren’t they electing a leader yet and why the strange-sounding title of “convenor”? Well because fundamentally they know perfectly well that their only hope of success is sustained press attention. The lack of it is part of what keeps the Liberal Democrats down. That’s why they will continue to pootle along for a little bit as “a group” rather than as a formal political party: because they receive the benefit of one free hit of press attention forming into a group, and another when they formally announce themselves a genuine political party, whether they continue on with the TIG branding or re-introduce themselves as the Anna Soubry Experience or what have you.

They will get another free hit when they elect their leader which they will almost certainly do as in a way that is different or novel, perhaps by having a one pound postal primary or somesuch device, similar to the system that elected two of the three Conservative MPs who have joined the Group.

It speaks to three underappreciated things about TIG. The first, is that its major players have thought very deeply about how to succeed where the 1981 Labour breakaway failed and disrupt the hegemony of the two big political parties. That isn’t to say that they will succeed – there are number of very plausible reasons to believe they will do worse than the SDP did in 1983 – but it is to say that any talk of them as “quirky” or “new” obscures a seriousness of purpose that is as old as anything you’ll see from Downing Street or Jeremy Corbyn’s office. The second is that they are aiming to brand themselves as an anti-system party, in tone if not in function: talking up the failure of the “old” political parties and dismissing criticism of them as the dying howl of the old order. Part of that is having new sounding titles for old-fashioned roles.

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The third is that so far, the group appears to have achieved remarkable buy-in from its members for that approach. After a deeply unhelpful set of remarks from Soubry at her post-defection Q&A, she struck an altogether more anti-austerity note on Newsnight. They have, without any carping from their members, all accepted that they will pool their media requests through a central staffer – Stuart Macnaughton, Umunna’s longtime aide –and they have remarkable message discipline for a party in its nascent grouping.

That speaks to one of the intriguing paradoxes of TIG. To succeed, they need to establish themselves as a credible agent of a new type of politics and a new approach. But their success at doing so requires them to master the old – and to hope that none of their opponents can successfully point out and exploit the gap between those two realities.