TIG is a wake-up call to both parties – if they will hear it.
The emergence of The Independent Group of MPs (TIG) has brought a new thread to the Brexit weave with just five weeks to go until 29 March. Our clients have been asking if this represents a real shift in UK politics or a moment that will pass. To give something that resembles a coherent answer we need first to hit pause and look at the different elements at play.
The seven first movers for TIG represent a part of the Labour Party that looks back to New Labour. The night of Labour’s 1997 landslide, Tony Blair was confused to see the “bloke who does Gordon’s photocopying” on television, not realising that his victory in the Conservative “safe seat” of Shipley meant he was no longer photocopying but now an MP – Chris Leslie held that seat until 2005. Brexit has driven them to this point, but it is not the only issue for them. Their values are those of a social democratic party, and echo the Labour/SDP split of the 1980s and New Labour. The anti-semitism row that hangs over Labour is another strong motivation; obviously for Luciana Berger, who has been subject to so much hateful abuse, but also for Mike Gapes and Joan Ryan, the eighth refugee from Labour. Lots of centrist Labour MPs are saying they want to stay and fight, but they will look at the TIG’s values and feel comfortable with them. There will also be personal factors at play – for MPs under threat of deselection crossing the floor is less of a wrench.
Three Conservatives joining TIG makes this a much bigger story. But its more complicated than the smiling selfies suggest. Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry are not three of a kind. Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen were elected by open primaries – chosen by any local resident who turned up to select a candidate rather than by the paid-up party members. This Cameron-era innovation was supposed to bring in a wider range of candidates and diversify the types of people who stood for the Conservative. Open primaries are now quietly discouraged, not least because some candidates come to believe that their selection makes them the choice of the people over and above the party; in truth, it’s the word Conservative on the ballot paper that gets them into the House of Commons. Their voting record shows that in the eyes of many of their colleagues “they’re not Tories anyway”.
Anna Soubry is different. A former minister, good on the telly (her former career), good at connecting, she was almost a poster girl for Cameron/Osborne/coalition politics. She says she is pro-Thatcher, pro-small state. And when Brexit was not on the agenda she could vote with the government for cuts and for austerity – unlike either Heidi Allen or Sarah Wollaston and unlike all the former Labour MPS in TIG.
Leaving the tribe
So much has already been written about the problems of making a new party work – not least as the mechanics of our democracy are geared against it. But it’s also hard for people to leave their natural political home – voters and MPs alike. Earlier this year Matthew Parris offered this neat analogy:
What your politics are depends on where you’re coming from, where you’re anchored. An anchorage in politics (or shipping, or life) does not confine you to a static position. Times change, facts change, problems change, and you can move; but it secures you and in moments of uncertainty draws you back.
Matthew goes on to cite the catchwords of Toryism (“competition”, “choice”, “free market”), things that can coexist with social democracy, but only as a means to an end. And that’s why I don’t think the TIGs have a long-term future: they aren’t anchored to anything and they don’t have a tribe. And tribal loyalty really counts – look how long the old Liberal party returned Liberal Democrats in the South West of England and in Scotland, long after the candidates and their policies had divested themselves of Gladstone and Lloyd-George’s inheritance.
If you were to put all the TIG in a room and play film clips at them to capture their reaction what are the touchpoints, what would unite the room for or against? If you showed them the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, I think they would all have a warm glow. But what if the next clip were Trooping the Colour or Carols from Kings? And what if you made them sit through I, Daniel Blake or that paean to Attlee’s government (also by Ken Loach), Spirit of ’45?Show the TIGs a bunch of flashcards and clock their snap responses to the following: “taxes should be lower”, “the state does much good”, “home ownership is at the heart of a responsible society”, “school selection is unfair”. Don’t give them time to think – see how they react. It’s easy to show the massive gap between Jacob Rees-Mogg and Anna Soubry because JRM has purposefully marched away from the centre since he could walk, and it’s easy to see the gap between Chuka Ummuna and Chris Williamson, because only one of them writes for the Morning Star. But the gaps between Chuka and Anna are there too.
What happens next
This week we’ve been reminded that the SDP hit 50% in the polls, won a load of by-elections and “let Mrs Thatcher win in 1983”. However, their legacy was not the comedic SDP-Liberal Alliance but Tony Blair and New Labour. By framing Labour as too left-wing, the Gang of Four forced those in the party who wanted to get into power to really change. It took a long time, but it delivered three consecutive election wins. Could the same happen with the TIG? It does not look promising – it would take a vivid imagination to conjure Seamus Milne and Jeremy Corbyn working out how to win back the centre of their parliamentary party. By contrast, many (though by no means all) in the Tory party do think that electoral success means rowing back to the look and feel of the Cameron era. And they hope that post-Brexit there will be a chance to do so. Labour has a leadership that thinks it will win the next election on its current platform, the Tories should remember that they have only won a majority once since 1992; they tried a different tack in 2017 that didn’t work.
The Tories know they need a new leader and a new story to win the next election – TIG is a useful wake-up call. The fact that nothing is likely bring change to the Labour leadership’s direction will be focusing the minds of many Labour MPs.