The newly formed The Independent Group has already picked up 8 Labour MPs, with more scheduled to follow and they may be joined by a few Tories and the Liberal Democrats. People are calling this a Blairite split, but let’s look a little more closely.
Certainly at first it is easy to dimiss the split as Blairite – after all Chris Leslie and Chukka Umunna are regularly associated with the Progress wing of Labour. Anne Coffey served as the Private Parliamentary Secretary (PPS) to Blair in his first year of government. But I am not intersted in a political biography of each TIG member, or going over the issues on anti semitism and Brexit, though I would say that Labour handled the anti semitism issue poorly and Brexit looks like it will be a catastrophe. Nevertheless I remain committed to the formation of a social democratic government by Labour. But enough about me, what is more important for an analysis of their politics is what the official Blairite organisation – Progress is saying.
Firstly Progress have not joined the split. This tells you something in itself. Progress leader Alison McGovern MP announced that she “fundamentally disagrees” with the split and called for a Labour government. She made the case that “The Labour party has always been a coalition of social democrats and democratic socialists, valuing our different traditions whether that be the trade unions, cooperators, Fabians or councillors and activists who have sustained our party in the country for more than a hundred years” and that “Labour has always been at its best when it has been a broad church.”
As I argue in my book Labour was certainly not a broad church under Tony Blair – it was a party placed into a straight jacket of conformism around the cult of Blair and the ‘single idea’ of globalisation. Blairism was a new ideological trend in the Labour Party, not the old social democrats of Roy Hattersley or Tony Crosland but a new tendency, social liberalism, seeking to take the social aspects of the old right and fuse them with neoliberalism delivered through the prism of Labour. The social liberal agenda was encapsulated in the public sector reform agenda, it was public private partnerships, private finance initatives, it was the Third Way.
And despite what McGovern claims, Blairism was (at times) ideologically hostile to the very existance of Labour. Blair saw the creation of Labour as a historic mistake, a political act that had split the forces of ‘progress’ from those of ‘conservatism’. That is why he appealed as much to the traditions of Keynes and Lloyd George as he did of Clement Attlee (whilst also trashing Attlee’s entire poliitcal legacy).
Now in the same way that TIG claims to be opposed to the ‘old fashioned’ way of doing things, so did Blair. As he argued in 2001; “the 21st century will not be about the battle between capitalism and socialism but between the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism.” This is exactly what the TIG group stands for which is why they are reaching out to build a new political movement, not as part of the Labour movement but by appealing to a liberal centre that they hope to create.
The key difference however between the Blairites and TIG is that the Blairites understood that the death of the Liberal Party in Britain had rendered Labour as the only meaningful vehicle for their project. This is why they, as Lewis Minkin argues in The Blair Supremacy, the Blairites were almost Leninist in their insistence on the role of the party as a political vanguard. The Blarities key lesson from the SDP split in 1981 was the utter failure of third party politics to make an impact on parliament. Everything through Labour, even if you had to tear it assunder from its traditional politics and roots to make it work.
This is why so many Progress MPs are sceptical of the split.
However there are a number of considerations for Labour MPs thinking of quitting to make.
First is that the growth of the SNP and UKIPs 3.8 million votes in 2015 might lead some to suspect that you can make a splash. The obvious problem is that the SNP is an entirely Scottish phenomena and UKIP got 12% of the national vote but still only had one MP to show for it.
They might look to Macron in France as an example of where a strong centre ground candidate can get you – but of course that is a presidential system and Macron was boosted by the anti fascist vote. His actual approval ratings aren’t that great.
By standing in marginals they might be planning to win a few seats but it will take them years to build up a base of parliamentary support in a first past the post system. How many of them will be willing to quit their positions as MPs and enter upon the rocky road of possible parliamentary failure?
So to sum up: we are seeing an attempt to build a new liberal political party in Britain. Unlike the SDP they are not really trying to claim the traditions of labourism (beyond some rhetorical flourishes) but they are making eyes at the liberal Tories around Dominic Grieve to join them and of course the Liberal Democrats themselves. Since it isn’t likely that they can stop Brexit, their primary goal is in fact to stop a social democratic Labour government from being formed.