Stockholm (Ekonamik) – Seven Labour MPs resigned from the UK Labour Party over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership Monday, declaring their intention to sit as an independent group in parliament. The defection is the largest split in the Labour party since 1981 and could change electoral math going forward.
The MPs – Luciana Berger, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Gavin Shuker, Chris Leslie, Ann Coffey and former shadow cabinet minister for business Chuka Umunna – claimed the party was betraying its members over Brexit and took issue with what they called the “institutional racism” of the party.
“We have taken the step in leaving the old politics behind and invite others to do the same,” Umunna said, signalling the group’s intention to explore a new parliamentary grouping. The move follows months of speculation that groundwork was being laid for a new centrist party in the UK reflecting the politics of Remainers in both major parties.
The split had long been rumoured and comes just ahead of key parliamentary votes on Brexit in which the defectors want Mr Corbyn to back a second Brexit referendum. Three quarters of Labour party members support a second referendum, putting the leadership’s current position at odds with the majority of the party, although support for Mr Corbyn personally remains strong.
The trigger for several of the members, however, appears to be widespread anti-Semitism within the party, compounded by Mr Corbyn’s failure to tackle the issue adequately last summer following an ongoing internal party row. Mr Corbyn’s sympathies famously lie with far-left figures and sometimes even extremists around the world, which has seemingly stoked the anti-Semitism within the party.
Mr Gapes said he was “sickened that the [Labour] party is now a racist, anti-Semitic party and [am] furious the Labour leadership is facilitating Brexit,” a reference to Mr Corbyn’s own Euroscepticism and reluctance to call for another Brexit referendum. He said he believed Mr Corbyn would be “threat to national security” as prime minister and was “on the wrong side on so many international issues.”
Mr Corbyn’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell called on the MPs to quit and fight byelections as independents instead, warning of the risk of “a decade of Tory rule” if the Labour vote is split in key constituencies, making it easier for Conservatives to win seats.
The question now is whether other MPs could follow suit, following reports that many others in the party share the sentiment. An independent centrist party would struggle electorally given the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, in which candidates with the highest amount of votes – but not necessarily a majority – are selected. Nevertheless, some see what they call a potential “Macron moment” in UK politics.
However, the main damage could be to the Labour party itself. Mr Corbyn could be faced with another wave of defections and will feel increased pressure to change his position on Brexit, especially as the possibility of a Hard Brexit seems increasingly likely.
Moreover, the development is not necessarily a boon to Theresa May’s Conservatives, who could face their own defections. Sarah Wollaston, Anna Soubry, and Heidi Allen have met with the Labour defectors for talks on a Centrist party and are reportedly considering their futures in the Conservative party.
Much will depend on decisions in coming days and weeks by MPs from both parties who face de-selection by their local parties over Brexit or party loyalty before the next election. Under the circumstances, it would appear to be in neither party leadership’s interest to rock the boat, though the looming Hard Brexit will likely do that for them.
UPDATE (February 20) – The three aforementioned Conservative MPs quit their party this afternoon to join the new Independent Group in parliament formed by the Labour MPs who quit their party earlier this week. Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Hedi Allen in a letter criticised the Tory party for swinging to the hard right and adopting UK Independence Party policies, and Prime Minister Theresa May for her handling of the Brexit negotiations. This reduces May’s working majority in parliament to eight, including the Democratic Unionist Party.
They joined yet another Labour MP, Joan Ryan, who defected from Labour late Tuesday for the same reasons given by the first seven MPs Monday. This brings the Independent Group to 11 members. A SkyData opinion poll put the Independent Group a point ahead of the Liberal Democrats.
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