This article is part of a 2 bit series focused on UK politics. The first focuses on the Independent Group – the centrist rebellion – while the second takes an in-depth look at the latest and dramatic Brexit developments.
When you think of UK politics these days, it is seldom that positive thoughts come to mind. Brexit, chaos, division, failure of the two biggest parties and a perennial lack of any clarity on even day to day events yet along the long-term. As a European Londoner and student of history watching the disaster unfold before my eyes, it almost seems like the end of the cycle. The British empire, which had spread to over a ¼ of the globe, had finally started the last leg of its decline from the height of world politics. The worst part is that the final wound is completely self-inflicted and UK politicians aren’t even in the least bit interested in slowing the decline yet alone stopping the bleeding. This is the mindset that has been shaped watching the last 3 years both from afar and up close. Until now.
In a chaos that makes even the most enthusiastic politics student have daily headaches, a shimmer of hope has emerged. A rebellion of sorts. The emergence of a new centre. The UK, Europe and the world has been crying out for strong leadership from the centre. One not governed by the traditional right-left paradigm that has only pushed parties further one way or another. For the first time in a long time, a fresh, strong, positive and most importantly, forward looking idea has not only been allowed to live but has sprouted – an albeit small – plant. Please welcome the new Independent Group, the first real shake up in UK politics and biggest threat to establishment since Corbyn and Brexit. The newly formed independent group is not a new political party or movement. Yet. Instead, the group was born as a breakaway group of seven labour MPs, who cited growing and institutional anti-Semitism and Brexit as their reasons for breaking. Since then, they have attracted several more members from Labour but also from the Conservatives. I will give you in an in-depth look as to why this shake up has happened now and what it means both for present and future politics both within the UK and beyond.
Let’s start where the majority of this newly formed group has emerged from, the Labour party. Many of the group have claimed it was institutional anti-Semitism in the party that has driven them out. There are several things to point out here. First it is deplorable and unacceptable that any party is still dealing with rife institutional anti-Semitism. Yet dig deeper and you’ll find that is far from the only the reason that is seeing UK politicians jump ship. Corbyn has been leader of the opposition since 2015. From his first day in charge, it was clear the direction the Labour was changing. Gone were the days of New Labour and ushered in was the Labour party of the 1970s, hellbent on nationalising everything in sight, giving unions the kind of power that paralysed the UK for weeks at a time and hiring shadow ministers who are literal communists. Labour veered left, hard. For a party based on the working people, many MPs suddenly felt their party had been hijacked and abandoning its constitutions in the name of ideology. This feeling quickly became the new political reality within the party. Anyone not on board with this new policy quickly learnt that the new leadership would not have a place for them. Corbyn and his team, backed by the powerful union Unite, who dominate the Labour party today, set about deselecting candidates. For those unfamiliar with UK politics this means that the part of the party that runs the organisation in the background (i.e. not MPs) have changed their internal rules to make it easier to choose whether an MP will be allowed to stand for a certain seat running as a Labour candidate. MPs who are deemed not to be pulling the new far-left party line have seen their chances of being ‘reselected’ massively diminished. This has resulted in a ‘purge’ of sorts of those MPs seen to be too centrist or those who are not supporting of the new activist and Union run organisation, spearheaded by Corbyn. Corbyn’s failure to lay out a concrete plan for Brexit or failure to capitalise on the almost daily farces of the Conservative party, have pushed many of these moderate centre-left to finally quit the party.
As an ideologist, Corbyn has done his job fantastically but as a potential future leader he has failed to take power from arguably the most incompetent government in a generation (or more). Which brings us nicely to the flip side of the coin. The conservative party has been hijacked by a strong movement from the right, thanks in no small part to UKIP. The UK Independent Party, also largely known as the Brexit party, has had a huge effect on UK politics. Anna Soubry, one of the three Conservatives who left the party to join the IG, spoke of how it was not her who had become more moderate but rather the party that had abandoned her and had move to the right.
Much like how the freedom caucus in the Republican party in the US has pulled them to the right and held moderate Republicans hostage, the European Research Group has had a similar effect on the Conservative party. Fuelled by the referendum result, leaders giving continuous concessions and the forces that drove many people to vote for UKIP, the group has become emboldened in holding the government hostage over Brexit, forcing PM May to make decisions and build a deal that would satisfy them. The Group is spearheaded by Jacob Rees-Mogg who, alongside allies such as Boris Johnson have no problem driving the country towards a no-deal Brexit based on strong sentiments of nationalism and patriotism with few other foundations. The ERG is by no means the only division in the Conservative party. Many, if not most MPs in the party have spent the better part of two years wrestling between their constituents’ desire for Brexit and their knowledge of the harm that it will cause the very people they represent. Some have reluctantly picked up the Brexit baton out of a sense of national duty, others have stuck to their guns and are part of the remain camp. Many are moderates, who simply want what’s best for the country. All have their own red lines, their own Brexit ideas and what is acceptable and what isn’t. It is in this environment that May has tried to walk the tightrope, balancing the interests of the nation, the anger between Brexiteers and Remainers, both at a national and parliamentary level and of course the fact (often forgotten by all UK media) that she is negotiating with 27 different countries and a supranational body that unifies them all.
Let’s not forget that much of the pain the Tories are feeling right now is self-inflicted. It started with the 2017 botched election, where they were meant to gain a majority of over 50, yet not only did they lose seats but their majority. They were forced to enter into a deal with the Northern Irish DUP, a religious fundamentalist group, whose social views would feel at home only in the deepest red states of the US, to maintain the slimmest of majorities. The constant attacks from some of the Tory big guns, more interested in running for leadership (and showcasing all their incompetence in the process). I refer to the likes of Johnson, Gove, Hunt, Rudd to name but a few. Even the triggering of Article 50, albeit under enormous pressure, was a heavy handed and poorly thought-out move. How can you expect to negotiate the most complex divorce in history and start new trade relations, with no preparation beforehand and a chamber of elected representatives, that have at least 20 different views of how they want to proceed, each convinced their way is the only way? That is not to say that none of this would have happened if the Conservatives weren’t hellbent on destroying their party from the inside, much like their Labour counterparts. Rather that perhaps negotiations would not have been held hostage by groups of fundamentalists and extreme nationalists to the same extent. I digress.
The Liberal Democrats, following their perceived public betrayal during their coalition with the Tories from 2010-2015, lost all significance and have not recovered since. The only true pro-European party has been all but forgotten. In a time where they could have truly been reborn and offered a new alternative, they have somehow faded further into irrelevance. Their leader Vince Cable will be stepping down following local UK elections in May. Few will truly miss him but then few knew he was there in the first place. All of this points to one thing. A complete and utter lack of a centre. Until now.
The newly formed independent group is not a party yet, but it is widely expected that once the Brexit dust has settled (if it ever does), that these MPs will form a new party, one likely built not on the traditional lines of right and left but instead focusing more on an issue by issue basis. This reflects the changing nature of the voter, who no longer votes based solely on traditional party line but rather on issues that matter to them. UKIP’s rise and fall is the perfect example of this. As the UK uses a first-past the post system, the party that got the third most votes in the 2015 elections got only 1 seat. In fact, they got over 3.8 million votes and roughly the same amount that the Liberal Democrats and SNP put together, who in comparison got a total of 64 seats. This highlights two things. Firstly, to get power in the UK you really have to establish yourself and have a cluster of voters that favour you geographically and secondly, you don’t always need the seats to influence the politics. UKIP’s threat to the Conservatives was obvious and so they reacted. They moved to the right and gave the people a referendum on whether to leave the European Union. The day following the result, the infamous Nigel Farage, the defacto leader and symbol of UKIP, was seen on TV celebrating as if he’d won the Euromillions lottery (the irony is not lost). The next election also saw the total collapse of UKIP – losing 3.2 million votes in just 2 years. This serves both as a warning and catalyst for the new group, should they ever become a party. If they can get enough votes to swing politics back towards the centre, they will be both achieving their goal and signing their own death note. It will be fundamental for this group to truly establish themselves not only as a group with new ideas and new politics but ones whose policies are thought out and do not centre around solely one issue – as was the case with UKIP, whose non-Brexit policy consisted of little more than: no immigrants. Many people are seeking a real alternative and if they can create a party built upon strong leadership, they will have a real chance at upending the existing duopoly in UK politics.
Of course, this may also be a one big puff of smoke in the never-ending smokescreen of Brexit. There is also no guarantee that this new party will be the saviour of UK politics. Obvious problems spring to mind including money, members, party stance and of course the daunting first past the post system that rewards the biggest and most established parties. That’s without even mentioning the unexpected problems – the very nature of the game of politics. It could be years before this new group has any power and that day may never come. But for the first time in a long time the centre is remerging, and this is a cause for celebration. The first step on the long road ahead, is to identify a leader for this new fledgling party to rally around and to give voters a genuine alternative to the farce that the UK’s biggest parties have become. The centre has had to learn some very rough lessons following their huge fall from grace across the whole West. Maybe this time, they’ll learn to build stronger foundations and remember what it was that eroded those foundations. Voters are sick and tired of facing constant crises, lack of stability and a frustration at a lack of voice that reflects their wants. Perhaps the biggest threat comes from two established parties who will look to snuff out their influence, just as they did with the ill-fated breakaway group of the 1980s – the Social Democrat Alliance – and more recently the total annihilation of the Liberal Democrats at the hands of David Cameron and the Conservatives. Yet in the chaos of today, 11 politicians have said enough is enough. Some of the greatest political movements have been born from less. We should celebrate the emergence of the new centre and get to work to figure out how – to paraphrase from the other side of the pond – to make the sensible centrist politics truly great again.
I am in my first year of my masters at Bocconi studying Politics and Policy Analysis. I am passionate about politics, IR, history and Inter. I currently write on the weekly dispatch, covering Asia/Middle East.