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20 February 2019

Will the Independent Group succeed?

If the Brexit crisis triggers an early election, it could wipe out the new group before it can establish any kind of organisation.

By Stephen Bush

At 7am on 18 February, seven Labour MPs arrived at County Hall, the former home of the Greater London Council, long since sold off to private investors and now regularly used as an events venue.

An hour later, an email arrived in journalists’ inboxes. It announced that at 10am a group of Labour MPs would “make a statement” about “the future of British politics”. The identity of one of the group was obvious: Chuka Umunna’s longtime aide, Stuart Macnaughton, sent the message.

Joining the Streatham MP to announce that they were leaving the Labour Party to sit as “the Independent Group” were the five others named in the New Statesman on 7 February: Luciana Berger, the MP for Liverpool Wavertree; Mike Gapes, the MP for Ilford South; Chris Leslie, the MP for Nottingham East; Gavin Shuker, the MP for Luton South; and Angela Smith, the MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge. A seventh MP joined them, to the surprise of many in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP): Ann Coffey, the MP for Stockport.

Shortly before 10am, the Gang of Seven stood together in a small antechamber with their phones out. Each had written a letter of resignation to the shadow chief whip Nick Brown and to Jeremy Corbyn. No one said much – the focus was mostly logistical, as they waited to make sure that the messages had been delivered.

For most of the group, the decision had been taken long ago. Relief, rather than sorrow, was the dominant emotion. A brief wait while Umunna struggled with his iPad lent a slight note of farce to a dramatic moment. They all clicked “send” as one and walked out to the waiting press.

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Umunna, along with Leslie, has long been linked with creating a new party, though the two have had very different political journeys. Umunna won Streatham in 2010, the constituency he grew up in, as the candidate of the soft-left group Compass. He won against the preferred candidate of the then-dominant Labour right. Umunna backed Ed Miliband in 2010 for the Labour leadership and was rewarded with a post as Milband’s parliamentary private secretary, and, a year later, shadow business secretary.

He surprised many by emerging as one of the few figures in Milband’s shadow cabinet whom big business regarded as a potential ally in a future Labour government. He acquired a reputation for political flexibility, which contributed to the difficulties he faced in winning support from MPs in his brief leadership bid in 2015. MPs on the left of the party saw Umunna as a turncoat, while MPs on the right saw him as an arriviste. The reality is that even before his appointment as shadow business secretary, his views on the economy were closer to that of the elder Miliband, David.

Leslie, in contrast, has a less ideologically varied CV. He was first elected, somewhat unexpectedly, as a 24-year-old, to the seat of Shipley in the 1997 landslide. At Westminster, he became a loyal foot soldier to Gordon Brown, serving as a junior minister in the Ministry of Justice until he lost his seat in 2005. He ran Brown’s leadership campaign in 2007, and was rewarded with the safe seat of Nottingham East, which he won in 2010. He later became part of Westminster’s unluckiest tribe: supporters of Ed Balls, who gave their second preference to David Miliband in the 2010 leadership contest. His choice of the wrong Miliband meant he had to wait until 2013 to enter the shadow cabinet as chief secretary to the Treasury. It was there that he and Umunna got to know each other: both had economic policy briefs, and both were among those arguing against matching David Cameron’s offer of an EU referendum. (All of the Gang of Seven are committed pro-Europeans.)

When Corbyn became party leader, both men resigned from the front bench and lost the lavish parliamentary offices to which opposition frontbenchers are entitled. Since then, they have shared an office. A pair of favoured sons, albeit from two different eras of the Labour Party, they fit well with a narrative that both Corbynsceptic MPs planning to stay in Labour and the Labour leadership’s outriders like to tell: that the party breakaway is an emotional spasm driven by frustrated careerists.

However, given the well-known fate of breakaway parties, it is hard to disagree with Umunna’s assessment that “it’s an anti-careerist move: no one has done what we’re trying to do”. And it is hard to claim with a straight face that Gapes, Smith or Coffey have enjoyed the favour of any Labour leader. Gapes and Coffey have been in parliament since 1992, but neither has risen beyond the role of parliamentary private secretary, the most junior of front-bench roles. Smith, a former lecturer first elected in 2005, has similarly never risen beyond the rank of ministerial bag-carrier.

In an alternate universe, Gapes might have enjoyed a similar career trajectory to the special advisers turned MPs who rose under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. After a stint as a student sabbatical officer at the Cambridge University Students Union, he became chair of the National Organisation of Labour Students. Then, as now, it was regarded as a stomping ground of the Labour right, and its members were bussed around the country in organisational battles against the left, particularly the Militant Tendency. Gapes became an official at party headquarters, working on foreign policy. In 1992, he fought and won the then-marginal seat of Ilford South.

A self-described Kinnockite, Gapes would likely have risen to the front bench fairly quickly had Labour won power. Instead, he spent five years as chair of the foreign affairs select committee from 2005 until Labour lost office in 2010.

The loss of power was followed by personal tragedy in 2012 when his daughter, Rebecca, died suddenly of sudden adult death syndrome, a condition he has campaigned for greater awareness on. To the extent that Gapes is known outside Westminster, however, it is for his combative anti-Corbyn tweets. Like Corbyn, foreign policy is Gapes’s passion, but the two are opposed on almost every conceivable topic. And Angela Smith is a vocal critic of Corbynite economics. Their resignations were of little surprise to most in the PLP.

Coffey’s departure was more of a shock, however: she is well-liked and in many ways the model of the average Labour MP. With Margaret Hodge she brought forward the no confidence motion in Corbyn’s leadership in June 2016; but is not considered “a frother”, as one Labour MP said of Gapes and Leslie. Her presence in the seven pulls at the heartstrings of many Labour MPs, who wonder if they should be making the same journey.

The real emotion springs from the case of Luciana Berger. She is a Labour dynast, the grand-niece of Manny Shinwell, secretary of state for war in Clement Attlee’s first team, and someone who has wanted to be a Labour MP since childhood. She is the parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement and served in Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet. Her experience of anti-Semitic abuse and discontent at the party’s failure to tackle it is uncomfortable for Labour’s stay-behinds. Her statement has already pulled in another recruit: Joan Ryan, the MP for Enfield North, who told the Times that she could not stay in all good conscience.

But none of the six might have completed the journey without the seventh: Gavin Shuker, the MP for his hometown of Luton, who resolved shortly after the 2017 election that he could not remain in the Labour Party. “It was clear that the party was going to double down on its Corbynite direction of travel,” Shuker told me, “and what power bases the leadership does not control, it soon will. If you can’t accept that, then the question is: do you have a responsibility to come up with a plan B?”

Shuker was an evangelical pastor in a non-denominational church before he became an MP and has a persuasive style. “What was persuasive [about him],” one MP tells me, “wasn’t so much what he said but the questions he asked. And when you go through those questions, you realise: ‘Well, there’s only one answer.’”

Will the Gang of Seven succeed?

Their planned next step is to form a full political party, but if the Brexit crisis triggers an early election, it could wipe out the new group before it can establish any kind of organisation. One crucial factor will be attracting more recruits. Though pulling in some Conservatives is a vital prerequisite to unblocking some on the Labour side, who see it as critical to ensuring that the new party can replace the old rather than merely facilitate a Tory government, it could also trigger an election too soon in the breakaway’s development.

As for the Liberal Democrats, they want an alliance of the kind they formed with the Social Democratic Party when it broke away from Labour in the early 1980s. But several of the Gang of Seven fear that the Liberal Democrat brand is permanently tainted and the only viable realignment will be if Lib Dems abandon their party just as they have.

On the Labour side, however, the breakaway has triggered grief and introspection, much to the surprise of the Seven, who expected to be treated as pariahs by their former colleagues. One of the Seven told me of their shock that they hadn’t been removed from any of the WhatsApp groups they were in, other than those used for official communication – a marked contrast to the broken friendships caused by the SDP breakaway.

The reason for the lack of frost? The minds of many Labour MPs are not yet closed to making the journey. Chuka Umunna might be the head of the new group, and Luciana Berger the heart, but its future depends on whether Gavin Shuker’s arguments sway more Labour MPs.

This article appears in the 14 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy