After weeks of speculation, seven backbench MPs have left the Labour Party.
At a press conference this morning, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker, Ann Coffey, Mike Gapes, and Chuka Umunna announced that they have resigned the Labour whip, and will sit as the so-called ‘Independent Group’ in Parliament.
The MPs levelled strong criticism at the Labour leadership - in particular Jeremy Corbyn - on topics including Brexit and anti-Semitism, and although they constitute a very small minority of the parliamentary party, many of their former colleagues hold similar views.
Chuka Umunna broadened the criticism, claiming that all mainstream parties were ‘failing to fulfil their duties with the competence that the British people deserves’ and called on politically homeless MPs and activists to join their new movement.
Responding to the announcement, Jeremy Corbyn said in a statement that he was disappointed that ‘MPs have felt unable to continue to work together’, and reiterated that ‘now more than ever is the time to bring people together to build a better future for all’.
With Parliament in deadlock over Brexit, and the nation sliding towards No Deal, the new ‘Independent Group’ - all supporters of a second referendum - are frustrated by what Chris Leslie called the leadership’s willingness to ‘enable this government’s Brexit’ by refusing to fight for alternatives.
While it remains the official Labour Party policy to pursue a second referendum if they cannot get a general election, critics see this as nothing more than lip service to the widespread pro-EU stance of Labour’s membership.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has insisted that all options are still on the table in an interview with Andrew Marr, but for MPs pushing for a so-called People’s Vote, the party’s policy seems deliberately evasive.
The most striking criticism was reserved for anti-Semitism, which Ann Coffey called ‘rife and tolerated’ within the Labour Party. Luciana Berger, who has been the victim of intense anti-Semitic abuse online, said she was ‘ashamed and embarrassed’ by the party’s record.
The row over anti-Semitism in the Labour party has raged for more than two years, with critics arguing that officials in the party are slow, or even unwilling, to act against members who express anti-Semitic views.
Last year Jewish communities around the UK strongly criticised the party for not adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism in-full and un-altered - a decision which received heavy criticism from Labour MPs and activists alike.
At today’s press conference, Mike Gapes said that he was ‘sickened that the Labour party is now a racist and anti-Semitic party’, and Gavin Shuker added that anti-Semitism had poisoned the debate due to a ‘complete absence of leadership’ on the issue.
While those leaving Labour have emphasised their disagreement with the leadership’s position on leaving the EU, at the press conference this morning, Leslie insisted that ‘Our differences go far deeper than Brexit’.
Corbyn’s election as party leader precipitated a significant move to the left for Labour’s economic and social policy. Many centrist Labour MPs feared electoral wipeout because of this shift, and were surprised by the result of the 2017 General Election, when the party gained seats.
But since then Labour have struggled to make gains in opinion polls - against a government in apparent disarray - a fact that has convinced some MPs that a change in direction is urgently needed. Coffey argued that any internal criticism of the party’s policies is met with abuse, and that ‘the party is no longer a broad church.’
Leslie claimed that the party had been ‘hijacked by the machine politics of the hard left’ and Gapes criticised the party’s foreign policy, arguing that Jeremy Corbyn is ‘on the wrong side of so many international issues, from Russia...to Venezuela’.
Many on the left of Labour have expressed relief that Umunna and his colleagues have finally left the party. For some supporters of Corbyn, Blairite MPs have been a constant source of division and self-sabotage within Labour - and a thorn in their leader’s side since his election in 2015.
Labour MPs are said to be furious with their outgoing colleagues too, saying the move could automatically hand the next election to the Conservatives. While those leaving make up only a tiny fraction of the Parliamentary Party, there is concern that in a close-run election, every single seat would count.
Stephen Kinnock, a vocal critic of Corbyn, has urged other MPs who are unhappy with the leadership to stay in the party. Speaking on BBC Radio 4, he said “The way to win the battle, if you like, is to stay and fight.”
With criticism coming from all sides, it is still unclear how many other frustrated Labour MPs - if any - will follow the ‘Independent Group’s’ example in the coming weeks.