Euan McColm: Moral courage of TIG dissidents won’t cut it

Former Conservative and Labour members of the new grouping gather for photographs after a press conference last Wednesday. Photograph: Niklas Halle'n/Getty
Former Conservative and Labour members of the new grouping gather for photographs after a press conference last Wednesday. Photograph: Niklas Halle'n/Getty
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I admire those former Labour and Tory MPs who quit their parties last week. How could I not?

I applaud the moral courage of the ex-Labour members who decided that, actually, no, they could no longer stay in a party which, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has become infected with anti-Semitism and stands ready to assist the UK government in delivering a Brexit that will hit hardest those already struggling to get by.

And I recognise the same quality in those who departed the Conservative Party over Prime Minister Theresa May’s shameful willingness to dance to the tune of the wild-eyed Eurosceptic extremists of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s right-wing European Research Group.

We say that we want politicians who stand up for what they believe in. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the 11 members (eight elected in 2016 as Labour MPs and three as Tories) of The Independent Group and Ian Austin, who entered parliament under the Labour banner and has decided to sit alone on the House of Commons benches.

I accept that not everybody feels as I do.

Take Corbyn, for example, who responded to the Labour resignations by insisting that MPs should step down from parliament and offer themselves up as candidates in by-elections. It was wrong for them to remain in the Commons after they had stood on a Labour manifesto with which they disagreed.

This line might have carried more weight had the thwocking great hypocrite now destroying Labour not stood under the party banner throughout the Tony Blair years only, once elected, to serially rebel. His principles – which, I suppose, must be of a higher calibre than other people’s – allowed him to act against his party for many years while remaining a member.

It fell, as has so often been the case in recent years, to Corbyn’s deputy, Tom Watson, to respond with dignity. In an initial statement and subsequent interviews, Watson’s distress that MPs – including the Jewish member for Liverpool Wavertree, Luciana Berger – had felt bullied out of Labour by anti-Semites was evident. Sometimes, he said, he no longer recognised his party and the effort to force by-elections was “spiteful”.

But anyone who doesn’t like the presence of these newly independent MPs in parliament will have to lump it. Their only obligation is to serve their constituents and there is, I think, a compelling case that they are doing that very well by refusing to support either a stupid crank surrounded by anti-Semites or an ineffective PM taking orders from the most disgracefully dishonest Brexiteer extremists.

But simply resigning from their parties is not enough for the members of The Independent Group to become a serious force in politics.

Interviewed by the BBC’s Kirsty Wark on Newsnight, Anna Soubry spoke about the “shared values and the shared principles” of those who make up The Independent Group.

Not unreasonably, Wark made the point that “shared values” doesn’t amount to much of a policy platform.

“If I may say,” said Soubry, “you’re still stuck in the old way of doing things.”

Hmmm. That didn’t really cut it for me.

The “old way of doing things” in politics is, when all is said and done, the only way of doing things. If one wishes to effect change – whether as a member of one of the existing parties or as the member of a new enterprise – one must have policies. Voters are not going to be impressed by a message that runs no deeper than “we are all good people who get along marvellously”.

For those who yearn for a politics that moves away from the extremes, The Independent Group represents a beacon of hope but it could be extinguished in an instant.

We live in politically volatile times, where the prospect of yet another general election at any time simply cannot be ruled out. This being so, time is of the essence. If there were an election tomorrow, next week, or next month, they wouldn’t have much of a story to tell. Sure, they might win round some who live in the political bubble, but to the wider electorate they would be, I think, an irrelevance.

So far, we know that The Independent Group dislikes anti-Semitism and the insular politics that motivates Brexiteers. This is a good start but it’s nothing more than that.

Every generation of politicians tells us that theirs is the new politics, that the old ways are no longer fit for purpose, but there is only one politics and it is a battle of ideas. The Independent Group will have to, sooner rather than later, tell us what ideas it has in every area of policy.

If it cannot, it will be over as a political force before it properly begins.

We heard Soubry last week praise the work of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition that governed between 2010-15. She remained supportive of the policies delivered by former PM David Cameron and his chancellor, George Osborne.

Her Independent Group colleagues who were, until last week, members of the Labour Party may share her “values” but none of them share that particular opinion. And so there is a minefield for these new colleagues to traverse together. They come from entirely different traditions. They were, until relatively recently, fierce opponents.

Brexit may have united them but it will not sustain them as serious challengers in the long term.

There are, I have no doubt, many who would like to see The Independent Group succeed. If it is to do so, it must get its act together now.

The election of Corbyn as leader has dragged Labour to the traditionally unelectable left. He could not even defeat the worst Tory government in living memory in 2016. But he retains a solid enough support among traditional Labour voters.

Likewise, for all her many flaws as a leader, Theresa May could count on the support of the vast majority of traditional Tory voters if she called another election.

The Independent Group will only flourish if it can attract the support of people currently at home in these two tribes.

And that, regardless of its members’ “shared values”, is not going to be easy.