They have declared war on the current party system, and must win or die
Extinction is the usual fate of most political splits. Whether by political defeat or by a subsequent merger into a pre-existing party, any MP resigning from his or her party and not defecting directly to another one usually finds their subsequent career to be one of struggle, isolation and defeat.
Is there any reason to think that this week’s extraordinary events could lead to any different outcome? In truth, the likelihood is the Independent Group will suffer a similar fate to those who have gone before – but there is an unusual opportunity for them, if they can play it right.
To grasp that opportunity though, first they must understand the game they’re playing. The evidence so far suggests that they don’t but that their opponents do. Talk of ‘a different kind of politics’ is all very well but there’s a reason that parties exist as they do, and that’s because they’re effective. Our political system is built round them, from media exposure at elections to Short money to parliamentary processes to the nature of campaigns. A group of independents has no future without a party structure to support them, not least because they can have no hope of re-election.
It’s all very well to choose not to organise as a party immediately – and perhaps with Brexit less than five weeks away (perhaps), they have a legitimate argument that they have higher and more urgent tasks to attend to. Apart from a strong opposition to Brexit, their policy agenda being a blank sheet could be an advantage in finding new recruits, though personally I’m not sure about that: if an MP is thinking of jumping ship, they might just as easily be put off by the prospect of disagreeing with as-yet-unknown policies as they might be attracted by the absence of anything to currently dissent from.
But to stake a claim to any permanence, they need a party structure: organisation, membership, local branches, policies and leader – and a party name (the Centre Party would be good, in my opinion). Again, while the defections are in flux, there’s a good argument for delaying the selection of a leader – what if someone better comes along later? – but the question can only be put off for so long. Wait beyond that point and the group loses cohesion and media attention.
And unusually, there is that chance that the splits could work because so many different factors play to their advantage.
Firstly, the government, Jeremy Corbyn and the Lib Dems are all unpopular, and are all finding Brexit extremely difficult, if for different reasons. Corbyn is out of step with his MPs and activists and, to a large extent, his voters; the government is the one tasked with a probably-impossible balancing act but which has succeeded only in antagonising all sides rather than just most of them; and the Lib Dems have made absolutely no traction whatsoever in the media or with the public. There is a space for a new force with a Remain message.
Secondly, both main parties are split on Brexit. The parties have gradually been realigning on EU policy to the point where Labour is broadly Remain and the Tories are broadly Leave – but with the substantial caveats that Labour’s policy is enabling Brexit, while the government’s policy might deliver a substantial dose of Brexit In Name Only, at least for some years (or might deliver a complete car-crash of No Deal, followed by goodness knows what). A full-scale political realignment on Brexit is possible, with the Centre Party advocating Remain for now, and Rejoin for the future, should some form of Brexit occur.
Thirdly, not only is the centre ground wide open, the current occupants are weak and have a possibly terminally-tarnished brand. If enough MPs defect to the Centre – say, three dozen or more – there would be a strong argument for them to merge into the Centre, bring their activists, organisation and data with them. The fact that Leslie, Umunna, Soubry and Wollaston chose not to defect to the Lib Dems says a great deal about the Lib Dems’ continued toxicity outside those areas where the Party has a strong local base.
And fourthly, opinion polls suggest that the public has a strong appetite for a new party. Granted, these things often sound better in the abstract than the reality, but when Opinium find – as they did yesterday – that 35% of Tory voters “would be likely to vote for a new centre-ground party”, that 36% of Labour ones would, that some 72% of Lib Dems would, and that no less than 40% of UKIP voters would, then you have a big pond in which to fish. Even if only half of those people actually did switch, a Centre Party could be looking at around 17% (allied to a further 6% for the Lib Dems) but there’s clearly the potential to score well beyond that.
With more people identifying with their Brexit preference than with a political party and with all three established parties split and/or weak, the scope for a major realignment is real. TIG could be the vehicle for that.
As such, TIG is an existential threat to Labour, which is – beyond the sense of betrayal – no doubt why the defectors have been subject to such vituperative attacks and why a key line of attack from the left has been to paint the project as a mission of and for the rich and powerful (an attack which would be echoed by the likes of UKIP, were it able to get its act together).
These sort of attacks will continue because, in Game of Thrones style, the two are challenging for much the same space and much the same voters and in such circumstances, you win or you die.
However, unless TIG consolidate themselves into a party and build the sort of electoral coalition and political machine necessary to maintain their voice and presence beyond Brexit Day, that opportunity will be missed – and missed forever. TIG would not only have failed to break the (still-brittle) mould but would have failed to even try.