What a difference a year makes. This week marks the anniversary of the split in which seven Labour MPs resigned from the party to sit as The Independent Group.
Then, media commentators made breathless comparisons to the ‘Gang of Four’ who split from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party in 1981 – although the 2019 splitters had nothing like the same stature. Now, every single one of the ‘Gang of Seven’ have lost their seats – along with all the other Labour and Conservative MPs who subsequently joined the group (and in some cases, left it again).
The Independent Group cycled through its own series of splits and reincarnations so dizzyingly quickly that it became difficult to keep up. It registered as a political party under the name ChangeUK, renamed itself The Independent Group for Change after a legal dispute with Change.org, then splintered after a woeful showing in the European elections – with two of its MPs defecting to the Lib Dems and four sitting as ‘The Independents’, three of whom later joined the Lib Dems as well. It finally dissolved itself after the 2019 general election, in which its three remaining MPs all lost their seats – Anna Soubry getting the highest vote share at a dismal 8.5%, and Chris Leslie coming fourth in his own seat with just 3.6%.
So what does this sorry tale tell us about British politics? Put bluntly, those who were convinced the public was crying out for a centrist alternative have been proved decisively wrong. And those – like Andrew Adonis – who persist in suggesting that Labour would be winning if only it had continued to reheat Blairism are simply not engaging with the facts. A YouGov poll conducted in November 2019 found that a significant majority of people thought the economy needed to change, while just 2% said they thought it should stay as it was. And yet, despite their name, ChangeUK (which I’ll use as a shorthand for this group of splitters for the sake of ease) were perhaps the only true conservatives in British politics.
While the Conservatives drifted towards the racist-nationalist right and Labour sought to offer a radical alternative from the left, the Gang of Seven promised the kind of change where everything would go back to the way it was before. Their flagship policy was to stop Brexit; beyond that, things became fuzzier. They initially published a statement of ‘values’ making vague references to a “mixed social market economy” which seemed almost designed to mean all things to all people – not least within the party itself. Challenged on its members’ differing views on austerity, Heidi Allen admitted they probably could not agree on such issues, before bizarrely going on to claim that “it doesn't matter because this is a fresh start".
But if the policy platform was vague, the central pitch was clear: vote for us and put the sensible people back in charge. This appeal to the ‘moderate’ centre ground proved to be fatally out of step with the times. Contrary to the splitters’ self-image as the last bastion of sanity, the continuity-Remain tendency turned out to be rather a crowded field, with the Lib Dems picking up most of the support they might have hoped would come their way. But even those who ultimately defected to the Lib Dems lost badly, while the much-hyped Lib Dem surge also failed to materialise. ChangeUK did not crash and burn so badly just because they lacked a USP or fell victim to first-past-the-post: there is something deeper going on here.
Heidi Allen may have unintentionally put her finger on it when she said that the ChangeUK MPs had been “clinging to each other like on a shipwreck” during the “chaos” of Brexit, and had begun to realise they had “quite a lot in common”. This aptly describes the condition of the self-declared centrist in today’s unstable and fast-changing political times. Centrists are at sea on the shipwreck of the old political consensus, desperately trying to get back to a time when they understood politics and felt confident of their place in it. Whether Conservatives trying to stop Brexit or Labour MPs trying to stop Corbynism, they view the convulsions seizing our politics as aberrations, mistakes that can simply be reversed. They refuse to engage with these phenomena as responses to the implosion of the post-1980s economic settlement, or to offer serious solutions to that implosion. Instead, they doggedly insist that this settlement still represents the ‘moderate centre-ground’ even as the ground shifts beneath their feet.
Chris Leslie in particular was fond of describing ChangeUK as defending “mainstream values”. As a statement of political identity, this is at once completely meaningless and deeply revealing. Your values are supposed to be the part of your political identity that is timeless and unchanging; pragmatism is how you try and enact your values given the circumstances you find yourself in. The generation of MPs represented by Leslie and Chuka Umunna had so internalised New Labour’s ‘pragmatic’ embrace of neoliberalism that it came to define their politics. After the crash of 2008, when this political settlement began its long, slow unravelling, they did not have the intellectual flexibility to adapt. After all, if this was no longer the ‘mainstream’ position, where did that leave them and their careers? Indeed, to some degree, ChangeUK can be seen as a career vehicle – albeit a spectacularly self-defeating one – for men who had always seen politics as a career rather than a vocation, and for whom Jeremy Corbyn most definitely was not part of the career plan.
And yet it turned out that this politics was neither mainstream nor pragmatic. It’s been argued that the splitters’ tiny vote share belies their impact, since the pressure they applied to Labour was partly responsible for its shift to a more pro-Remain stance. Announcing their dissolution, Anna Soubry said: "I do not doubt Labour shifted its position to a confirmatory second referendum because of the courageous move made by Chris, Mike, Ann, Joan and others.” Leaving aside the question of whether this is really true, it is an odd thing for the self-avowed pragmatists of British politics to boast about. The concrete result of Labour taking this stance was that it haemorrhaged votes in Leave heartlands, making Johnson’s hard Brexit inevitable.
Moreover, I’d argue that this happened at least in part precisely because the second-referendum campaign was led from the start by continuity centrists: pre-crash political bigwigs like Alistair Campbell who never bothered to ask why people had voted Leave, but simply assumed they could press ‘undo’ by asking them to vote again. Anyone who knocked on doors for Labour during the campaign knows that, for many people, being pro-Remain seemed synonymous with being part of an arrogant and out-of-touch political elite. Whether we look at ChangeUK’s own vote share or its impact on the Labour Party, then, the picture is still the same: their politics bombed.
It’s appropriate, then, this vivid image that Allen conjures up of her colleagues “clinging” to each other on a battered life-raft of their own devising, hopelessly shouting into the wind, “But we’re the mainstream!” as they drift ever further out to sea. In fact, this sense of political disorientation turned out to be the main thing the splitters did have in common – which perhaps partly explains why they always struggled to put forward a coherent political platform beyond opposing Brexit. As Andy Beckett has noted, this vacuum where a positive political project should have been is indicative of a crisis afflicting the centre more broadly. Though they frequently insist on the opposite, it is centrists who are increasingly defined by what they are against rather than what they are for. This is just as true of the remnants of this tendency within the Labour Party as it is of those who left it. As Beckett concludes, “centrism now increasingly looks like a movement that has lost its bearings”.
In some ways, this is unsurprising. The concept of the ‘centre’ is relative: it only has meaning relative to the landscape of political consensus and contestation it exists within. The British political centre has, by any objective measure, well and truly broken down. The consensus that held for forty years is no longer working, and the contestation now is over what will replace it. Those who continue to self-define as centrists find this difficult to navigate because they do not see that consensus as political in the first place: they have fully internalised the idea that market-liberal policies are simply ‘common sense’. The Gang of Seven’s statement of independence promised to “pursue policies that are evidence-based, not led by ideology” – a statement straight out of the New Labour playbook. The 1997 Labour Manifesto proclaimed, “New Labour is a party of ideas and ideals but not of outdated ideology. What counts is what works.” Of course, in practice this turned out to mean accepting the existing Thatcherite consensus – namely that ‘what works’ is more market and more private sector.
Notwithstanding Boris Johnson’s election victory, politics is still in flux – not least because we still don’t really know what his government is going to do. The centre ground is shifting – but the new centre will be defined by those who can put forward a new settlement that responds to the crisis we are in, and build a base to support it. At the 2019 election, Labour failed to do this effectively enough. But the fate of ChangeUK showed that it won’t be done by those who want to go back to the old model, and that simply insisting you represent the centre doesn’t make it so. Indeed, they almost became a giant metaphor for this truth.
By refusing to engage with the powerful currents sweeping through their own parties, instead believing they could revive the status quo ante simply by setting up a new party outside of them, the splitters brought about their own destruction.