Politics hasn’t delivered the expected for some time. No matter that yesterday’s split was predicted for years, it still came with a twist.
Commentators speculated for most of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership about disgruntled Labour MPs breaking away to form a rival party – a new centrist movement to bridge the gap between an unashamedly socialist Labour and a Conservative Party in chaos over Brexit.
That isn’t what we got. The Independent Group is neither a party nor a movement. It isn’t really a broad centrist church, either, given it contains only Labour MPs from mostly safe seats.
But from the way they went about their announcement, it’s clear the “Gang of Seven” want others to follow their walkout. Like much in politics these days, whether they’ve planted the seed for something bigger depends on events in the six weeks until the UK leaves the EU.
Predictably, the MPs were asked whether they have taken any lessons from the example of the SDP. As a political party, the SDP failed, although it did out-poll both the Tories and Labour before the outbreak of the Falklands War.
However, the SDP created an urgency for new ideas and change within Labour that saw Michael Foot depart as leader after the Liberal-SDP alliance came within a couple of percentage points in the 1983 election. It set Labour on a path towards Blairism, and the precedent might have more to offer Corbyn’s critics left behind in Labour, rather than the splitters.
It is the other precedent the Independent Group will be looking towards. Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche movement came from nothing to win the French presidency and legislature in an unprecedented reshaping of the political landscape. The circumstances are very different; the key question is whether the Independent Group can create the same sense of momentum.
With no leader and no policy platform, it will be easy for critics to dismiss them, but it makes sense for the Independent Group to define itself as loosely as possible for the time being, to offer itself as a home to the broadest range of disaffected voters – and parliamentarians.
There could be many more of those in the weeks ahead. If Corbyn continues to reject a second EU referendum and if a no-deal Brexit becomes the only option available, several Labour and Conservative MPs will look at what the Independent Group have done and wonder whether it offers a way out. The MPs’ exit from Labour is obviously a protest against Corbyn’s leadership, but Harold Wilson was mentioned almost as often as the Labour leader at yesterday’s press conference.
The breakaway MPs tried to set out personal stories and a collective vision they hope will have a broad appeal, grounded in social justice, moderate and pragmatic.
Neither Labour nor the Conservatives will be comfortably configured on Brexit day to be internationalist, pro-trade and migration-friendly – issues that will continue to dominate after the UK leaves the EU. There could be space for an “I told you so” force. The post-Brexit landscape may rearrange itself, depending on who the public want to blame.