After weeks, months, even years of speculation the Labour Party has finally split. Yesterday morning seven Labour MPs formally announced that they were resigning from the party and would remain in Parliament as a new group of independent MPs under the not so imaginative name of The Independent Group.
The group stressed that although they all come from different backgrounds, they were united in their belief that under Corbyn’s leadership their party has become an unrecognisable quagmire characterised by bullying and anti-Semitism. They also noted that it has fallen woefully short in key policy areas that are integral to the national interest such as security, Brexit and foreign policy. To be clear, this is not some tactical, neo-liberal, Blairite, red-Tory, champagne socialist (whatever you want to call it) plot to undermine Corbyn. Turning your back on the party that you have dedicated the majority, if not entirety, of your adult life to is no small feat. It was therefore a surprise to no one how sombre, emotional and down-trodden the seven MPs (Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes and Ann Coffey) looked at the Group’s formal launch. Some of them were even holding back tears. The simple fact is that these MPs felt that they could not honestly, and in good conscience, stand in an election with the intention to make Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister. A man who they believe has facilitated Brexit, is a threat to our national security, and is not fit to hold the office of Prime Minister. Couple this with the systematic bullying, racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism which is routinely directed at Corbyn’s critics from Labour members and supporters, which is more or less enabled by the leadership, and quitting the party was the only option left to them.
Turning your back on the party that you have dedicated your life to is no small feat
But what does this mean for Corbyn’s Labour Party and British politics? For starters, don’t be deceived by how few MPs chose to split from the party. Whilst seven MPs had the courage to breakaway, there are dozens of MPs who detest Corbyn and what he has done to Labour and even more who oppose his stance on Brexit and foreign policy and could subsequently follow the seven out the door. Remember over 80% of Labour MPs voted against Corbyn in a no confidence vote in 2016.
Secondly, even if the number of MPs who leave doesn’t reach a significant number, the group could still seriously compromise any chances of Labour winning the next election. The crucial factor here is vote share not seats. Labour is no longer the party exclusively of the working class but is instead held together by a broad coalition of supporters which includes the industrial and post-industrial workers, public sector workers and metropolitan liberals, among others. Corbyn needs the support of all of these groups to win a majority. Yet a new centrist party risks losing the entirety of the metropolitan liberal vote and would likely eat into its other factions also, although by how much is hard to tell at this stage. Further compounding this problem is the fact that there is a significant political vacuum in the centre ground following the disintegration of the Liberal Democrats. Given the fact that at their peak the Lib Dems could secure roughly 20% of the popular vote, The Independent Group could be well positioned to attract a significant number of votes. By splitting the Labour vote the Independent Group could win some seats, but it could also usher in another Conservative victory. This should not however be a cue for celebration in the Conservative camp. On its current rightward trajectory the Party could very well see some of their Remain supporting MPs quit the party and take the centre-right vote with them.
We may be about to witness a significant realignment in British politics
Either way, if there is any takeaway from the split, it is that Jeremy Corbyn has scuppered any hope he once had of forming a Labour majority government. Corbyn only won 40% of the popular vote in 2017 because there were only two realistic options on the ballot paper: his Labour party, and Theresa May’s Brexit obsessed Conservatives. Since then he has managed to alienate scores of his supporters. By facilitating Brexit he has alienated remainers, students and liberals. By refusing to rule out a second referendum he has alienated leave voters. Through his abysmal responses on security and foreign policy he has alienated centrist and middle-class voters. And by allowing a nasty and toxic environment of bullying and anti-Semitism to develop he has alienated his own MPs. In his crusade to transform the Labour Party Corbyn may have destroyed it.
We may be about to witness a significant realignment in British politics. Or of course nothing could happen. After all, nothing is predictable anymore.