The Independent Group: the start of a new era in British politics?

Formation of breakaway Independent Group described as ‘seismic’ shift

Ann Coffey and Chuka Umunna
Ann Coffey and Chuka Umunna arrive at press conference to announce their resignation
(Image credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

The formation of the new Independent Group by breakaway Labour MPs - and now three Tory defectors - is dominating the headlines.

Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry have written a joint letter to Theresa May to confirm their departure from the Conservative Party to join the new splinter group.

“The defections were timed for maximum impact, just before Mrs May appeared in the Commons for Prime Minister’s Questions,” notes The Daily Telegraph.

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Their resignations come two days after Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker and Ann Coffey - dubbed the Gang of Seven - turned their backs on Jeremy Corbyn, amid growing dissatisfaction over the Labour leader’s Brexit policy and handling of the anti-Semitism row. They were later joined by their colleague Joan Ryan.

The Daily Mail trumpeted a “truly seismic day for British politics” as the Labour split was announced. The rebel group has been compared to the Social Democratic Party (SDP), set up by four former Labour cabinet ministers in the 1980s.

“Whether the defectors can go one better than the SDP and succeed in creating a new force in British politics capable of destroying the old party system and winning power is an open question,” says The Times.

But there “appears to be a deep public appetite for an alternative to the traditional parties”, the newspaper adds.

Indeed, Labour’s split highlights the “dislocation” of British politics in general, says the Financial Times.

“The centre-left has struggled to adapt to a new era where national populism is on the rise, globalisation is in retreat and nativist sentiments are rife,” the paper continues.

The Times predicts that the decisive moment for both Labour and the Conservatives will come at the end of the month, when MPs vote on whether to back Theresa May’s EU withdrawal deal.

“That is when the strains on the party system may reach breaking point, when dreams of realignment may yet become reality,” says the newspaper.

However, The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee was sceptical about claims that Monday’s resignations mark a significant turning point.

“The great Brexit crisis slices through both parties, dividing families, friends, neighbours and colleagues,” she says. “It may yet break apart the moribund political system. But that seismic rupture didn’t happen when seven MPs walked out of the Labour Party.”

Toynbee views the walkout as merely a “damaging distraction” that has diverted attention from the “supreme task” of this generation of politicians: Brexit, or the effort to avoid it.

“Still, we live in momentous times that seem ready for momentous change,” says The Independent, which adds that British politics has “long been overdue a fundamental realignment”.

With tensions over Europe further strained by rows over anti-Semitism, the economy and defence, voters in the UK and across the Continent are “more and more willing to abandon political affiliations that were once thought immutable”, the newspaper continues.

And with both the Tory and Labour parties “divided, captured by extremists, and led by lacklustre leaders”, British politics “could do with some idealism and energy and, above all, hope”, The Independent concludes.

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