Why seven MPs are quitting Labour

The Independent Group will sit together and vote as a separate block in Commons

The Independent Group
Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna at press conference to announce new breakaway group
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Seven Labour MPs have left the party over Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of the anti-Semitism row and Brexit policy.

Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Gavin Shuker and Ann Coffey today announced the launch of the Independent Group, in which they sit together and vote as a block in the House of Commons.

In a joint statement, the seven MPs said: “Our primary duty as Members of Parliament is to put the best interests of our constituents and our country first. Yet like so many others, we believe that none of today's political parties are fit to provide the leadership and direction needed by our country.”

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Berger, who is Jewish, said that Labour had become institutionally anti-Semitic and that she had become “embarrassed and ashamed” to be in the party.

Asked whether the rebel MPs would be prepared to fight by-elections, Leslie said “general elections, by-elections are absolutely not what is needed now”, and argued that voters had elected them as individuals.

Meanwhile, Corbyn said he was “disappointed that these MPs have felt unable to continue to work together for the Labour policies that inspired millions at the last election”.

Their departure “is the biggest split in Labour since the ‘gang of four’ senior figures left the party in 1981 to form the Social Democratic party (SDP)”, says The Guardian.

The Independent Group is not an official political party, although its members say it could develop into one over time. They will have their first formal meeting within the next few days to assign roles and responsibilities.

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Scottish Labour MP Ian Murray - who is believed to have considered joining the breakaway group - has warned Corbyn that he faces a deeper split and further Labour backbench resignations unless he shifts ground on Europe and anti-Semitism.

“The challenge now is for Jeremy Corbyn to listen and learn, and decide if he wants to keep the Labour Party together or if he will continue to foster a culture of bullying and intolerance where his own MPs feel unwelcome and are being forced out,” he said.

But Laura Parker, national coordinator of grass-roots Labour campaign Momentum, told the BBC that the seven MPs wanted to “take us back to the politics of the past” and the “Blair years programme of privatisation, tax cuts for the rich and deregulation of the banks”.

“They offer no concrete solutions, no new ideas and have no support amongst the public,” she said.

‘Not a simple centrists vs. left split’

Defections to the Independent Group “are likely to increase - but it will need to attract some of those beyond Labour to become a proper ‘centre party’”, says the BBC’s Iain Watson.

“This is not a simple centrists vs. left, or indeed, ultra-left split,” Watson adds.

Another important issue is the new group’s policy platform. Although there is “a relative degree of ideological kinship here, they don’t all sing from the same hymn book”, says the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush.

Indeed, it is wholly possible “that this grouping will struggle to decide if it is offering ‘Labour minus anti-Semitism’ or ‘the Liberal Democrats plus political viability’”, he adds.

What we also don’t know “is what the Labour Party will do”, Bush says. The dilemma facing Corbyn and his leadership allies is that “if they are to be an effective government, they need to remake the parliamentary Labour Party. But if they remake the parliamentary Labour Party, they may give swell this new grouping’s size well beyond seven,” Bush notes.

The mystery “is why today, rather than in a fortnight or six weeks, when perhaps the UK’s EU destiny will be a bit clearer”, says The Spectator’s Robert Peston.

He points out that “those running the People’s Vote campaign for a referendum have been desperately trying to persuade Umunna and Leslie to delay their split - because they think if they were to leave the party now, that would entrench the reluctance of Corbyn and those close to him to back a referendum”.

“So the big question for Umunna and the Labour refuseniks on Monday is whether in leaving Labour because they want a referendum they are not in practice undermining the prospect of a referendum,” Peston concludes.

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