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The Independent Group: Is This Westminster's New Rebel Alliance?

By Hannah Sole | Politics | February 21, 2019 |

By Hannah Sole | Politics | February 21, 2019 |


The long-awaited / long-threatened action has finally happened in Westminster: The rebels have formed an alliance. Or, as they call it, an Independent Group. Think of it as a centre-ground wedding, complete with something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. The Independent Group consists of some of the usual suspects and some relative unknowns, and at the time of writing was up to 11 MPs: 8 from Labour, and 3 from the Conservatives.

It’s a huge deal, though you wouldn’t really know it from the ‘carry on, regardless’ response of the two main party leaders.

What do the rebels have in common?

Looking at their voting history, not a great deal. But Brexit has thrown everything out of balance, and so one of the great unifiers is the MPs’ Team Remain attitude. The other is more tricky to explain, because it deals with the MPs’ critiques of their respective parties, which means I’m going to have to ‘both sides’ the crap out of British politics and no-one is going to like it.

Both the former Labour and former Tory rebels have said that their respective parties have moved to the extremes and abandoned the centre ground. This isn’t something that is necessarily playing out on the surface; Corbyn’s manifesto, for example, was a moderate manifesto in many ways. But the extremes are said to be under the surface in the Labour Party, and visibly applying pressure to Theresa May on the right with the ERG. There are vocal and intimidating voices on the extreme on both sides. And following this week’s rise of the Independent Group (or IG), those voices have been using awfully similar rhetoric. (Yes, yes, I know. I did say you wouldn’t like it. One side is far worse than the other, OK? I’m just trying to illustrate how the IG members might have found some woes to share while nursing G&Ts in the bar.)

Are the rebels traitors?

According to their critics, yes, but that’s now how they see it. They see it as putting their integrity and their conscience before blind loyalty. They won’t pretend to follow the party line anymore, not when they fundamentally disagree with their party’s position. Rather than fighting their own party, and being threatened with de-selection for disobedience, they have left and have determined to offer something new instead.

Something new? Tell me more…

I would if I could; the Independent Group is only a few days old, and it isn’t a party with its own manifesto (yet). The MPs sit together in the House of Commons, but they are as independent as their name suggests. Once more MPs join (which is likely), then presumably the IG will start to develop a cohesive set of policies and ideas.

But nothing is truly new in politics. This isn’t the first time a centre-left group has split from Labour, though it didn’t work out so well the last time with the SDP. It’s not the first time centre-left and centre-right have tried to work together either —though, again, that didn’t work out so well the last time, for the Liberal Democrats anyway.

Were they right to go?

In my opinion? Yes. Something had to change. This has been on the cards for a while now. (And whisper it really quietly so that Knava doesn’t disown me entirely: I kind of like this move. Sshhhhhh though. Just between us.)

The Sun thinks it’s a terrible idea, if that helps you come on board with it.

What will happen now?

God only knows. There are all kinds of theories though.

Maybe they will call by-elections, lose their seats, and only be spoken of as cautionary tales for wayward politicians.

Maybe they will split the vote on the left, and their actions will lead to another decade of Tory government.

Maybe they will successfully hoover up all the centre-ground voters, who want something reassuringly un-extreme in their politicians.

Maybe it’s time for us to finally ditch the ‘first past the post’ two-party system that clearly doesn’t work any more. Maybe one of the lessons from Brexit is that the old political tribes aren’t so relevant now.

Maybe the IG will absorb the Lib Dems. According to one poll, they are already scoring higher than the Lib Dems, which is simultaneously bananas and entirely plausible. Of course, a group that’s less than a week old and has no policies yet could poll higher than the Lib Dems.

Maybe they could become coalition partners with another party; they are already bigger than the DUP, and in a hung parliament, every MP counts. As coalition partners, they would be able to influence policy rather than heckling in frustration from the back benches.

For now, Theresa May’s already precarious majority is down to 8. If the IG picks up a few more rebel Tories, Jeremy Corbyn may get his wish for a General Election after all. See! This could be good!

Isn’t it ironic that the Remainers decided to quit?

Ooh, burn. The Remain position on the EU was to stay and try to reform the system from the inside, rather than flouncing out, and the rebels have quit their parties rather than stay and try to affect the change they want from the inside, it’s true. That doesn’t make them hypocrites though. It means that they have tried and that they have conceded defeat. And they have done this partly in order to prevent a No Deal Brexit.

Aren’t they just a bunch of problematic, power-hungry randoms, though?

This one depends on a few things. The IG’s critics have spent a few days digging up and sharing as many incriminating screenshots of the MPs’ voting records as possible. Some of the MPs’ comments in the last few days haven’t exactly helped matters. Angela Smith caused a race row within an hour and a half. Anna Soubry defended austerity. There have been some pile-ons. So yeah, there are no perfect saints here.

But this isn’t the move of a bunch of people aiming for power; there’s very little immediate pay-off in sight. They are more likely to lose everything than to suddenly be handed the keys to number 10. They are used to abuse, but they would have known how much more was coming their way for making this move.

Brexit makes for some odd bedfellows, but seeing the Independent Group, sitting together in the House of Commons for the first time and smiling, really is a sign that we are in interesting times…

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Hannah Sole is a Staff Contributor. You can follow her on Twitter.

Header Image Source: BBC via Twitter