The Independent Group - will it be a political force?
- Credit: PA
A new independent group of Labour and Conservative MPs is setting out its agenda for a more tolerant, less ideological approach to politics. But could it succeed as a new party? History is not on its side.
It isn’t the first time we have had a breakaway political grouping.
With news a number of Labour MPs plus a trio of Conservative MPs have been moved to leave their parties and form a loose coalition, some of us look back at history and recall the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
It came about when the so-called Gang of Four, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, David Owen and, er... the other one... (Bill Rodgers, that was him) left Labour to form a new party in 1981.
Unlike this latest grouping, the SDP was created as a new party with specific aims that, it was hoped, the nation would rally behind at a General Election.
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It’s credo was along the lines of European social democrats and, notably, backed proportional representation - recognising that the UK’s first-past-the-post system favours the two party status quo.
Many Labour Party members were shocked by the move, not least because Shirley Williams, who was much loved in the party, upped and left. Between March and December 1981, 28 Labour MPs left to join the SDP plus one Conservative , Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler, MP for North West Norfolk,
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Although the SDP was seen as being largely a breakaway from the right-wing of the Labour Party, an internal party survey found that 60% of its members had not belonged to a political party before, with 25% being drawn from Labour, 10% from the Conservatives and 5% from the Liberals.
The Gang of Four had been disillusioned by the Labour Party’s January ‘81 conference commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Economic Community (Yes, it might have been an early Brexit!). It will not have escaped your notice, however, that it was to be another 17 years before Labour would win another election - and only after a big internal upheaval.
What happened to the SDP? In June 1981 it formed an alliance with the Liberal Party, enjoying some electoral success at the 1983 and 1987 elections. At its high point in late-1981, the party had an opinion poll rating of over 50% as the public expressed its dissatisfaction with Labour and the Tories. In the 1983 general election the SDP-Liberal Alliance won more than a quarter of the national voted but this yielded only 23 MPs - just six of them SDP.
In 1988, the SDP merged with the Liberals to become what we now know as the Liberal Democrats although a rump of the SDP remained, under the leadership of David Owen.
It was an attempt to realign British politics but it failed, partly due to the electoral dominance of the Labour and Conservative parties and partly because the Labour Party shifted to the centre ground of politics, becoming, eventually, New Labour.
The latest breakaway is different in style and substance. For a start, the MPs who have deserted their parties have not proposed forming a new party, sitting instead as an independent grouping.
Generally, breakaway parties have made little impact on the make-up of Parliament. Since 1918 there have been a number of different groups formed. The National Democratic and Labour Party, formed in 1918, merged with the Liberal Party in 1922. Oswald Mosley’s New Party (unrelated to a party of the same name) was formed in 1931 but was subsumed into the British Union of Fascists the following year.
In fact, one might conclude that only one party has ever successfully challenged the two-party system and that is the Labour Party although the circumstances of its ascendence were unique in that it was able to draw upon a newly-represented electoral class. But even then, it took time.
Founded in 1900, it was not until the 1929 general election that the Labour Party became the largest in the House of Commons with 287 seats. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was still reliant on Liberal support to form a minority government, however.
The new Independent Group (TIG), formed earlier this month is a centrist and pro-EU political association of Members of Parliament. How will it fare if it decides to form a party?
The omens are not encouraging. But there is a sense that these MPs are not immediately expecting to grasp power but, perhaps to be (in their opinion) the voices of reason in a turbulent political landscape; to shake off the trappings of party politics.
With its message: “Politics is broken. Let’s change it”, the group says it aims to shake off policies led by ideology and be tolerant of differing opinions. Specific values include social market economy, freedom of the press, environmentalism, devolution, and opposition to Brexit. Could it succeed as a new political party? Maybe we will have the chance to find out.