In the U.K., a small group of Labour Members of Parliament joined by an even smaller group of Tory MPs have formed a politically centrist coalition, the Independent Group (TIG). Though the influence of these disgruntled and Europhile MPs is debatable, the fear of more defections may help explain why the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is now backing a second Brexit vote.
But beyond Brexit, it is also possible that TIG will preempt a more significant political realignment. After all, it’s happened before.
In 1981, a group of Labour MPs who were disgruntled by the increasing leftward lurch of their party broke away and formed the Social Democratic party (SDP). The SDP orientated itself as left-of-center, pro-European, and in support of a moderate and mixed economy. In 1983, under the hard-left leadership of Neil Kinnock, the Labour party set out an explicitly socialist party manifesto — in what one Labour MP famously called “the longest suicide note in history.”
That the Labour party’s explicitly socialist policies were unpopular was proven in the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, the year that the Conservatives won with a 43-seat majority — which was the largest electoral swing since 1945. Thatcher’s election in 1979 also began 18 years of uninterrupted Conservative rule — the longest party ruling in British history.
Learning the hard way then, by the mid-’90s, the Labour party reoriented along more centrist lines, and at the 1994 Labour party conference, then leader Tony Blair heralded the arrival of “New Labour.” New Labour rejected socialism, conceded the most popular economic policies of Thatcherism — anti-inflation, low taxation, trade-union reforms, and free-market favorability — and added progressive social values and pro-European and anti-Unionist stances (e.g. devolution for Scotland).
Such a profound change in the party was, naturally, accompanied by a profound change in its base. Under Blair, New Labour consciously ceased to be the party of the working class — as it had been historically — and rather tried to appeal to highly educated, middle-class liberals where it saw its future. But from this, disillusionment with hypocrisy and elitism followed. The working class felt disaffected. Some voted Tory instead.
In 2015, Jeremy Corbyn — a middle-class Marxist with Irish Republican Army, Hamas, and Hezbollah sympathies — found popularity among younger generations and was elected. Corbyn was then and remains now a highly divisive figure within his party. Last year Corbyn announced that “Labour is back as the political voice of the working class.” But that simply isn’t true.
The Economist noted:
The latest membership figures show that 77% of party members are middle-class (ie, they hail from ABC1 social groups). The proportion of Labour MPs who have had experience of manual work has declined from 16% in 1979 to 3% today. The party has almost no younger MPs without a university education despite the fact that 70% of school-leavers don’t go on to university (Angela Rayner is a notable exception).
The party’s most powerful pressure group, Momentum, was founded by a Cambridge-University graduate with an MBA from the London Business School, and is stuffed full of educated millennials. The average trade-union member is now a woman in her 50s who works in the public sector.
An intriguing new book by Ben Cobley, a former Labour activist, “The Tribe: The Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity”, points out that the 2017 Labour Party rule book, a 91-page document, contains 26 mentions of “gender”, 41 of “BAME” (black, Asian and minority ethnic), 43 of “ethnic”, 11 of “race”, two of “black” and “Asian” respectively, but only two of “class”.
Part of the reason for his prioritization of identity politics is presumably that Corbyn and his ilk are wedded to the philosophy of the New Left. Beginning in the 1960s, the New Left is also the birthplace of the party’s current anti-Semitism: the idea that since colonialism is an absolute evil, Zionism — the support of a racist, illegitimate state — must be a racist and oppressive ideology.
As I wrote previously, the creation of the Independent Group is primarily a reaction to the Labour party’s takeover by the New Left which is racist, thuggish, and offers no answers to any difficult questions from the economy to Brexit. However, clearly, TIG is more than this. Why else would it have Tory members?
Part of the answer is Brexit. But even this requires a look at the history of Tory defectors. Along with the SDP, the mid-’90s saw another short-lived political venture in the form of the Referendum Party (RP). The RP was a single-issue party set up by Sir James Goldsmith in 1995 to fight for independence from “a Federal Europe.”
In their 2001 book The Rise of New Labour: Party Policies and Voter Choices, Anthony Heath, Roger Jowell and John Curtice wrote that:
[Similar to the SDP] The experiment of the Referendum Party was hardly a great success either at the ballot box. It secured only 3 per cent of the vote in the constituencies where it stood, but it could alternatively be described as the strongest ever performance by a British minor party. Like the SDP, its success may have been more indirect through its influence on the Conservative Party policies on Europe.
The Social Democratic party paved the way for New Labour — the reaction to which was Corbyn. The Referendum party contributed to the Conservative party’s Euroscepticism — the result of which has been internal fracturing over Brexit. The long-term effects of TIG remain to be seen.