It is not easy to leave a political party, least of all when you are an elected representative of that party. For a start, if you are an MP, you have given a great deal of your time and your energy to the movement you represent. You have canvassed many thousands of homes, delivered leaflets in the pouring rain, been shouted at and abused: because you believe in what you are doing. Secondly, but interlinked, the party has given you so much of what you have. In the end, you know that it was the rosette you wore as much as your hard work that got you into Parliament. Leaving means abandoning both the investment that you have made and the protection that the party gives you.
So, we should not take lightly or sneer too quickly at the seven Labour MPs who have today resigned their membership of their party. The ‘Independent Group’, as they wish to be known, shares a horror at unpunished antisemitism, a reasonable fear of deselection by their local parties and a mutual frustration with the leadership’s position on Brexit. For them, enough has become enough. And whilst the merits of their strategy and their chances of success are very much open to debate, the individual bravery of some of them should not be.
But is the Independent Group anything more than a vanishingly small collection of unhappy and disappointed Labour MPs? The early signs are that they are not. They are not a new party (they have not yet registered) and whilst they are all clearly very angry and upset with Labour they lack a coherent positive vision. We know what they are united in opposing, in other words, but next to nothing about what they are united in proposing. Most Labour voters abhor antisemitism, are not committee-obsessed bureaucratic bullies and are supporters of a referendum on Brexit. But how many will follow Chuka out the door? And where would they be following him to, given that he has yet to set up something that they might join instead?
Supporters of the new outfit tap their noses and say ‘watch this space’. The idea is that others will follow this magnificent seven – from Labour, yes, but also disaffected Tories – and that this grouping will then merge with the Lib Dem’s to displace the SNP as the third party. That would bring huge advantage – cash, through short money, and guaranteed slots in the House and on TV. But to get there they need 35 MPs to join them. That feels… ambitious.
The Labour leadership will start to feel threatened by the Independent Group as it sinks in that this makes their task of assembling a majority harder than otherwise. The process for trigger ballots in Labour is now gathering speed and lots of normally supine MPs may feel their only choice is to jump before being pushed. There are up to another 50 MPs who are on various hit lists. It is not yet a party, not yet anything really, and will probably not as things stand take votes from Labour as the SDP once did.
Corbyn would be wrong to succumb to complacency. This may be the moment that starts a process that will lock him forever out of Government. And on antisemitism, on bullying, on Brexit the truth is that the Labour Leader is out of step – with his party, with the softer side of his support, with Labour voters. How he now reacts will determine whether the Independent Group snowballs into something bigger or becomes a rolling stone unable to gather further moss. The ball is in his court.