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7 March 2019

Why you probably haven’t noticed the Independent Group’s first policy

Westminster’s newest party has its first policy. But you won't hear about it anywhere. 

By Stephen Bush

The Independent Group have launched their first data collection exercise, and also, as it happens, their first policy: they are calling for the benefits freeze to be ended and have a petition to that effect.

It is fronted by their welfare lead, Heidi Allen, who as a Conservative backbencher was a vocal and well-informed campaigner on the issue. It has received, at time of writing, approximately zero coverage.

That’s partly of course because, with the ongoing Brexit deadlock, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s announcement that they will investigate the Labour party, and a series of gaffes by Conservative Cabinet ministers, there is a lot going on today and not much space for Westminster’s joint-fourth party to intrude on the headlines.

But it also reflects a broader challenge for any party outside of the big two and one that the 11 TIG MPs are going to have to learn to cope with fast.

There are already two lively political rows over the benefits freeze. The first is within the walls of the governing party and is therefore the sexiest because it might actually influence policy in the here-and-now: it is broadly been deficit hawks like Philip Hammond and Liz Truss and between backbenchers and deficit doves who want to ease the rate of spending retrenchment.

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The second row is the straight Conservative-Labour battle, which is more interesting because Labour, as the main opposition, have more opportunities to directly debate and challenge the government in the House of Commons.

So why would anyone write about the views of anyone outside the big two? One veteran of Nick Clegg’s inner team once told me that the trick to getting in the headlines was “your quote has to be so good that it forces you into the story”. There will always, essentially, be a quote from someone in the government saying their policy is correct and right, and someone in the main opposition party saying it is bad and terrible. The only way to break into that duopoly is to be funny, or shocking, or in some way offer something that the other two cannot.

Allen used to be, as one minister reflected to me recently, “a guaranteed spot on the news”, because she was a Conservative MP who was strongly opposed to further welfare cuts. Her political position as the conscience of the party irritated a lot of Tory MPs but it made her immediately newsworthy. Now she is just another opposition MP who thinks that government policy on welfare is too draconian, a category that includes essentially every single politician on the opposition benches.

The big challenge for TIG if they want to survive and thrive will be finding ways week-to-week to insert themselves into stories. And that’s going to be a much bigger ask than coming up with policies or working out how their new party organises itself.