The historic events of this week, in which 7 Labour MPs resigned their party membership before being joined by another 4 MPs (3 from the Conservatives and 1 other Labour member – with the potential for further defections), represent a major shift in modern British politics. This dramatic move has been in response to clear movements to the extremes from both Labour and the Conservatives, leaving a vast proportion of the electorate politically homeless. This article will argue that the reclamation of the centre ground by politicians from both centre-right and centre-left is precisely what Britain needs currently, and that we are heading towards fundamental change and a realignment in British politics.
This split is an almost unprecedented move in British politics: much has been made of similarities to the 1981 SDP split, but the world is very different nowadays to how it was nearly 40 years ago. Brexit, the rise of technology and the internet were problems that the ‘gang of four’ did not face, and therefore to say that this new breakaway is doomed to failure like the SDP is highly reductive. Granted, it will be hard for the new group (which will probably become a formal party in the coming months – Chuka Umunna has suggested by Christmas) to initially survive – especially when factoring in the British electoral system, but if it is able to gain legitimacy in the political sphere then it has a real chance of being a major driving force in British politics. Furthermore, the SDP, despite its lack of electoral success, arguably helped to facilitate the rise of New Labour and helped destroy the credibility of Labour’s Bennite policies of the early 1980s. Even if the new party is not electorally successful then it may be influential in politics in other ways, meaning that this split has the potential to be a defining event in modern political history.
The most important thing about this split is that it provides a home, in the MPs of the ‘Independent Group’, for those left politically homeless by the moves of Labour and the Conservatives to the extremes. The First-Past-The-Post electoral system, which enables a duopoly of power between the largest two parties, has time and again proved it is flawed, with other parties being squeezed out. This means that if the parties shift to the extremes – as we have seen over the past few years – there is a huge gap in the centre of politics that the main parties fail to fill. Britain needs a party to fill in that gap, which the Liberal Democrats seem unfortunately unable to occupy (I would argue that this is due to a combination of weak leadership and an apparent ‘tainted’ quality that still persists 7 years after the infamous tuition fees debacle). This new group of MPs therefore represents an alternative that many people have been crying out for and so far is polling above the Lib Dems (although realistically after the past few years, who is going to believe any poll numbers?). This, to me, can only be a good thing for British representative democracy.
So, despite the apparent natural conservatism of the British electorate surrounding party choice, I foresee there being a fundamental realignment of British politics over the current years. Ideology seems to be increasingly less important, while identity is becoming more important for many people. Especially in the age of Brexit, whether we are seen as pro- or anti-internationalism (especially with regards to the EU) has become a major factor in choosing which party to vote for. For example, it is not hard to see the influence of the hard-right ERG or DUP on current conservative policy towards a no-deal Brexit. Therefore, current events can surely be seen as a necessary realignment of politics in Britain as we adjust to new realities: a left-wing party in the form of Corbynite, Momentum-dominated Labour, a new centre with the Independent Group or whatever party evolves from the movement (who would seemingly be ideally positioned to replace the Liberal Democrats for leadership of the centre), and a hard-right party in the form of the Conservatives. Whether this all happens is obviously a matter for debate: there is no crystal ball that allows us to see what is in the future, so all this is merely speculation. But, nevertheless, we are at a crossroads that has little precedent in British history.
We are living in one of the greatest periods of social change ever in the history of humanity, and yet our political system has been the same since the 1980s (arguably even the 1920s). So, to me it is only right that we are seeing changes as politics tries to catch up with society, to the new realities presented by modern life. What matters now to the Independent Group is that the opportunities presented by their secession are seized and momentum is not lost, to ensure that British politics can become more representative for us all.
Photo credit: Twitter Trends 2019 https://www.flickr.com/photos/146269332@N03/40170066673/in/photolist-24cG6jr-QCskLt-5KbvH8-uP9U84-2dEVpRh-2eKEwEM/