August 10, 2022

A lonely life in the middle for Britain’s new political movement

For a parliamentary grouping that has been around for barely a month and has just 11 members, The Independent Group (TIG) is showing disproportionate appeal in British politics. A recent poll found 18% support for TIG, compared to 23% for Labor and 36% for the Tories. The asterisk: This only came after reminders that TIG existed; otherwise, the figure was only 6%.

There’s a tough road ahead for TIG, made up of members of parliament breaking with both Labor and Tories and united by their opposition to Brexit and their frustration with polarized politics. As the group tries to occupy a central position left behind by the two dominant British forces, it faces an unfavorable electoral and media system. This makes long-term traction difficult. But the members of TIG think it’s worth a try.

“Politics is broken. The two main parties are consumed, one [Conservatives] by the ideology of the hard right and a [Labour] with the far left,” says TIG MP Joan Ryan. “Neither is addressed to the people. People tend to be a lot more around the center field.

Why we wrote this

You have heard a lot about the extremes buried in the British Parliament. But there is a dissident bloc trying to make a play for the middle. Can he become a more influential actor?

London

Sitting down to a cup of Earl Gray tea, Joan Ryan glances at the television screen in her parliamentary office. It’s the middle of the afternoon of another long day of Brexit debate, and the green leather benches in the bedroom are mostly empty, including the backbench from which Ms Ryan has just returned after backing an amendment calling for a second referendum.

The amendment was the latest move in the three-dimensional chess game of Brexit – Britain’s choppy road out of the European Union – which is rushing again this week. Prime Minister Theresa May is seeking support for a twice-rejected Brexit withdrawal deal ahead of an EU summit at which the UK will ask to extend its departure date beyond March 29.

Ms Ryan spent 17 years as a Labor MP in Parliament. But she no longer sits on her opposition benches. The amendment she has just proposed was proposed by a group of independent MPs who defected from the two main parties last month, united by their opposition to Brexit and their frustration with the feverish and polarized politics of Parliament.

Why we wrote this

You have heard a lot about the extremes buried in the British Parliament. But there is a dissident bloc trying to make a play for the middle. Can he become a more influential actor?

“Politics is broken. The two main parties are consumed, one [Conservatives] by the ideology of the hard right and a [Labour] with the extreme left. Neither is addressed to the people. People tend to be a lot more around center court,” she says.

By splitting, these pro-EU independent MPs are betting on greater upheaval to come. Early polls showed some support for the Independent Group, or TIG, which with 11 MPs is tied as the fourth-largest group in the 650-seat House of Commons.

But the group faces many obstacles to becoming a real player in British politics, ranging from the quasi-duopoly control of the system by Labor and the Conservatives to the precarious electoral position of TIG and its limited media influence.

find a happy medium

While a recent poll found 18% support for TIG, compared to 23% for Labor and 36% for the Conservatives, it was only after respondents were reminded of its existence. Without such a prompt, support drops to 6%.

Moreover, the center of British politics is already contested by a strongly anti-Brexit and socially liberal national party. “The space they occupy is not empty. This is the same space that the Liberal Democrats occupy,” says John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland.

For any new party, the challenge is to grow and participate in elections. Some TIG members are in swing seats and will struggle to replace the party apparatus and brand recognition that helped them rise to power, analysts say. Ms. Ryan’s seat changed hands in 2010; she won it in 2015 and increased her majority to over 10,000 in the last election in 2017.

However, the Liberal Democrats have also demonstrated that Britain’s centrists can succeed. In 2010, the party won almost a quarter of the votes cast in an election that resulted in a coalition government in which the Liberal Democrats shared power with the Conservatives led by David Cameron.

Today’s Brexit amendment is a first test for TIG. And it’s not looking good: Labor has told its MPs to abstain, even though its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has said he backs a second referendum. “They should vote for this today,” sighs Ms Ryan. “It absolutely demonstrates how dishonest Jeremy Corbyn’s position is. He wants Brexit. (Labour officials would defend their position as a tactical stance that did not rule out future votes.)

Ms Ryan is one of eight Labor MPs who left the party in February to set up TIG. The other three are former Tories opposed to Brexit. As MPs, they are not obliged to resign and stand for their seats again, although they have been called upon to do so by local party activists.

For Ms Ryan, who represents a north London borough that narrowly voted to remain in the 2016 referendum, leaving her party was a tough choice – she likens the feeling to ‘a bereavement’ – it wasn’t just about of Brexit. “It’s the core of your identity. It’s your politics, your values, your beliefs, your social life,” she says. (Her husband is a national union official.)

What forced her hand, she says, was Labour’s handling of anti-Semitism within her ranks, an issue that arose under Mr Corbyn’s leadership. Ms Ryan is not Jewish, but she has received death and rape threats as chair of the party’s Friends of Israel group. Other Jewish members of TIG have accused Labor of being “institutionally anti-Semitic”.

“If it was just Brexit, maybe I could have stayed longer and made the case politically… [but] anti-Semitism is non-negotiable,” she says.

“It’s far from done”

The closest parallel for British politics is the formation in 1981 by four leading Labor moderates of the Social Democratic Party. Then, as now, the Labor Party had a strongly left-wing platform. But the centrist SDP struggled to break tribal loyalties to Labor and was eventually absorbed into the Liberal Democrats in 1988.

Compared to the Labor heavyweights that defected in 1981, TIG lacks high-calibre national politicians, says Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London and director of its UK in a Changing Europe initiative. TIG’s de facto leader Chuka Umunna has been a staunch advocate of a second referendum and a telegenic critic of Mr Corbyn, but as a ‘backbench maverick’ he will find himself less in demand by TV bookers.

“People are not interested in Chuka’s opinion on Brexit. People were interested because of the split in the Labor ranks,” warns Mr Menon.

These divisions continue: Deputy Labor leader Tom Watson has set up a centre-left political group of MPs that is widely seen as a counterweight to Corbyn’s leftist orthodoxy.

Ms Ryan says her group’s walkout last month gave Mr Watson a chance to act. “We changed the weather. It remains to be seen if we can change the political landscape. I think we can. It’s far from done,” she said.

She added that she did not see how Mr Watson could regain control of “our party”. When told she said “our party”, she grimaced. “Yeah. Party.”

When TIG’s amendment is called at the end of Thursday’s debate, its defeat seems predestined. The Tories line up to oppose it while Labor MPs remain on their benches; it fails by 334 votes against 85. But all the Labor deputies do not remain seated: 24 rebel against the management, the majority in favor of a second referendum. And the main motion, on whether or not to seek a Brexit extension, is dividing the Tories and sparking further speculation of a government walkout.

Given these divisions, TIG could see more defections, strengthening its case for an overhaul of a party system based on adversarial majoritarianism. “If they share our values, regardless of where they belong to Parliament, come join us,” says Ms. Ryan.