The experimental plane may well finish up a few fields from the end of the runway. But the reverse could occur and the experimental plane could soar in the sky.
– Roy Jenkins, 1980
Is it déjà vu all over again? The launch today of the Independent Group, comprised of seven MPs elected on a Labour ticket in 2017, brings inevitable comparisons with the creation of the SDP by the Gang of Four back in 1981.
Much of today is straight from the blueprint. It’s there in the methodology – announcing a split before forming a party – and in the statement of values: pro-Europe, pro-NATO, pro-business, anti-discrimination. Plus the appeal for donations and policies.
And like the Gang of Four, there is the claim that it is not the splitters who have changed, that it is Labour that has abandoned its traditions. The SDP declared that it was effectively the continuity Labour Party, and the groundwork is being laid for the same assertion today. There are also familiar complaints that left-wing activists have been abusive, hostile and bullying, though this time there is the shocking addition of anti-Semitism. And behind it all, there’s a fear of deselection.
But there are differences as well. The SDP were regularly dismissed as being ‘a posh lot’. By contrast, the statements today emphasized the working-class backgrounds of the departing MPs. There was even the attempt to reverse the class argument: Angela Smith made explicit that this was a criticism of the Labour leadership, saying that most people ‘do not want to be patronized by left-wing intellectuals who think that being poor and working-class is a state of grace’.
The most striking difference is the calibre of the politicians involved. The Gang of Four were all former cabinet members, with a former chancellor and a former foreign secretary at their head. By comparison, Chuka Umunna – the most prominent figure in the Independent Group, and the obvious choice of leader – served under Ed Miliband as the shadow business secretary.
But then, this is not necessarily a time when a conventional political c.v. is at a premium. From Donald Trump to Emmanuel Macron to Justin Trudeau, the western world has in the last couple of years rewarded charisma rather than experience. Similarly, the success of Leave in the 2016 referendum suggested that the country was not enamoured with the big beasts. Jeremy Corbyn himself has benefitted from the same feeling (which means that the Labour leadership has no more of a track record than have the Independents).
Maybe Umunna really can cut the mustard here: young, articulate, BAME, enthusiastically pro-EU – he is very different from the leaders of the other parties. There was a slight nervousness to his performance at the press conference, but he’s still a plausible young man. If there’s not much strength in depth, then that too has hardly been a problem in today’s politics: UKIP was a one-man band and still changed the country.
And it is possible that others may yet join. The Independents would take on a new dimension if, say, Stella Creasey could be persuaded to sign up. Or if Hilary Benn deigned to lend the venerated Liberal-Labour name. Or Yvette Cooper, or Keir Starmer, or David Miliband… But not being there at the start makes it more difficult to pitch in later on; the SDP never recruited anyone with the stature of the original Gang. Though the new group might hope to attract some Tory MPs, and win approval from the likes of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, it can’t be assumed that there’s anyone but Umunna to pilot the plane.
If this thing is going to fly at all, it needs to do two things: to establish that it’s not just a project hatched at a London dinner-party, and to attract pro-European Tories. These aims may prove to be incompatible.
It’s worth, though, considering what success would mean. Those Tories considering a June election will be heartened by today’s development. Even a small Independent presence in Parliament might mean Corbyn one day soon having to deal with Chuka & co. – as well as the SNP – in an attempt to form a government. Which would have a bittersweet irony. It was always extremely unlikely that Corbyn’s Labour could achieve a majority; now it seems a very remote possibility indeed.
It’s not as remote as the possibility of the new group doing so, of course. Under first-past-the-post, the chance of a new force achieving electoral victory in Britain – as compared to France or America – is vanishingly small. So it was with the SDP. In 1983, the Alliance with the Liberal Party garnered over a quarter of the popular vote, and won just 4 per cent of seats in the Commons.
Yet the programme of the SDP – a blend of soft-Thatcherite free-market economics and leftist social policy – became the new consensus. As long as you didn’t consider yourself tribally SDP (if there were such a thing), you could take pleasure in winning the arguments. The election triumphs of New Labour were, as Roy Jenkins was quick to point out, made possible only by the gravitational pull towards the centre of the SDP. And David Cameron’s repositioning of the Conservatives followed in due course. Though the Independent Group, and whatever political party into which it might evolve, isn’t going to put Umunna in Downing Street, could it have the same medium-term impact as did the SDP?
If so, it will have to overcome one crucial difference between today’s Labour Party and that of 1981. Then, the split was occasioned by the adoption of a new formula for electing the leader, taking power away from the MPs and giving it to the trade unions. Now, thanks to Ed Miliband, that messy, compromise formula between the different wings of the movement doesn’t exist, and the right to choose the leader belongs to the membership. It may well be that the members prove less inclined to compromise than were the union barons who put Neil Kinnock in office after the 1983 election debacle, thus beginning the process of reinventing the party.