2019 03 Editorial – Labour’s ‘Independent Group’

Paper TIGers

The eight Labour MPs* who resigned from the party last month, and formed themselves into The Independent Group, clearly believe that their action will wreck Labour’s chances of winning the next general election. Their primary aim, whatever their views on Brexit and antisemitism, is to stop Jeremy Corbyn entering Downing Street as Prime Minister. They want to prevent anything being done about the unfair accumulation of wealth and the squeezing of the needy.

It is also the aim of the three Tory backbenchers who resigned and joined the former Labour eight to form an alliance to fight Brexit. Although they were welcomed by the group of eight they have little in common with pre-Blair Labour. The Tory defectors are no friends of Labour. They are not even traditional pre-Thatcher Tories. They voted for austerity, the slashing of public services and the cruel cuts in benefits for the disabled. And they will continue to support the government on all matters unrelated to Brexit.

The Independent Group, (TIG), collectively and individually, plotted and schemed against Corbyn from the time he was first elected in 2015. They were among the 172 Labour backbenchers who supported a motion of No-confidence in Corbyn in June 2016, shortly after he had been elected party leader for the second time, with a larger share of the vote than he received in 2015. Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey, one of the eight who resigned the Labour whip, moved the motion of No-confidence. In the May 2017 general election the eight MPs stood on a Labour manifesto, which they now disown. And all of them greatly increased their majority under a leader they consistently attacked.

They claim that their decision to leave the party was because Labour had changed. Almost as one, they said that they no longer recognise the party they first joined and for which they later became members of parliament. It would appear from a reading of the statement, published shortly after their resignations, that their economic and social aims are closer to those of the now defunct Social Democrat Party (SDP), which were set out in the Limehouse Declaration. In some media quarters the resignations have been compared with those of the original ‘Gang of Four’ who left Labour in 1981. The split in Labour led to Thatcher’s resounding victory in 1983.

Whatever one thought about them at the time, and history has judged them since, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams were political giants with a wealth of government experience. In comparison, the Labour eight are political pygmies with no experience to speak of, other than a few, short-lived shadow minister posts.

In 1979 Labour had suffered a huge defeat to the Tories and the ‘Gang of Four’ believed that policy changes were needed if Labour were ever to regain power. Roll forward to the 2017 general election. A re-energised Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn won 40% of the votes cast, an increase of 9.6% over the 2015 election. This was the largest share of the vote since the Attlee victory in 1945, and it wiped out the Tory majority. So just when the Labour party, with a radical left programme, has a real prospect of electoral victory, the eight desert Labour knowing full well that their action could scuttle Labour’s chances.

The eight have been praised for their courage and for standing up for what they believe, as if they were unique among MPs. If they had an ounce of confidence in their beliefs and values they would stand down and put themselves to the test in by-elections. But they have refused do so knowing that they would almost certainly lose their seats. They want a People’s Vote, hoping to reverse the 2016 referendum result, but they refuse to offer their constituents a people’s vote by way of a by-election. So much for their courage and confidence in their beliefs and values. It’s clear they intend to stay and make life for Jeremy Corbyn as difficult as possible.

Their opposition to Brexit is the issue that unites them above others. But they voted for the referendum bill which triggered Article 50 and sent the Brexit ball in motion. In any language this is called hypocrisy. They are also as one in their belief that Labour is an institutionally antisemitic and racist party. And they have assiduously used the media to promote this and attack Corbyn.

Joan Ryan, former chair of Labour Friends of Israel who faced deselection before her resignation, accused Corbyn of presiding over antisemitism and racism in Labour. In Ryan’s eyes, Corbyn, like Philip 2nd in 16th century Spain, controls all around him, an autocrat at the centre of an undemocratic, unresponsive, party. This is the image of Corbyn that Ryan and her group have cultivated and promoted.

As far as we are aware Jeremy Corbyn has never expressed an antisemitic or racist comment or opinion in his political life. Yet he is condemned by the Independent eight, by his opponents in the parliamentary Labour party, and by the right-wing media, as an antisemite and racist. But this is not the basic issue at stake here. Even a mild form of social democracy is anathema to these Blairite liberals and they will do anything to kill off the chances of such a programme being put into effect. It is also Corbyn’s support for the rights of the Palestinians and his vocal condemnations of their treatment by Israel that concern his opponents. If he became Prime Minister it is likely that Britain’s policy towards Israel would change. Therefore everything possible must be done to prevent this happening. We wonder if the hand of the state of Israel is behind this?

It seems that free speech is no longer tolerated within Labour, or at least only allowed when it fits the pro-Israel narrative of Labour Friends of Israel. Labour’s Chris Williamson is the latest victim of this. He is suspended from the party because of comments he made at a meeting in Sheffield which were deemed to be antisemitic. Nowhere in his reported speech did he attack Jews or criticise Israel. His ‘crime’ was simply to question how Labour had so far dealt with allegations of antisemitism.

Williamson is a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. He has stood firm against Corbyn’s opponents, making coherent arguments to support his socialist beliefs. He is a force to be reckoned with, not buckling under pressure from a hostile media. Labour has lost touch with its working class base, embracing instead the destructive and self-indulgent identity politics which began with Blair. Williamson understands this and is working to regain the trust of the party’s traditional supporters. He should be supported, not demonised alongside Corbyn. His Constituency Labour Party could begin by passing a vote of confidence in their member of parliament.

Williamson can expect no support from The Independent Group which has turned its back on Labour, believing themselves to be the true voice of the ‘ordinary’ voter. It is rumoured that they may form themselves into a political party in the near future. They are clearly hoping more ‘centrist’ Labour MPs will join them once Brexit has been decided one way or the other. They currently bask in media overkill with an estimated 10% of public support. Enough to create a dent in Labour’s vote, but way short of becoming an influential force. Voters are crying out for radical change that delivers real benefits. They will not find it in the ultra-economic-liberalism of The Independent Group which brought the Labour party to its knees before Corbyn took over. In government, a left of centre Labour party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, will deliver that change

* Ian Austin was the ninth Labour MP to resign from the party. He has not joined the Independent Group of eight.