What a difference a year makes. This week marks the anniversary of the split in which seven Labor MPs resigned from the party to sit as an independent group.
Next, media commentators drew breathtaking comparisons to the ‘Gang of Four’ which split from the Labor Party to form the Social Democratic Party in 1981 – though the 2019 separatists had nothing to do with it. the same stature. Now every member of the ‘Gang of Seven’ has lost their seats – along with all the other Labor and Tory MPs who subsequently joined the group (and in some cases left it again).
The independent group went through their own series of splits and reincarnations so quickly that it became difficult to keep up. It registered as a political party as ChangeUK, rebranded itself The Independent Group for Change after a legal dispute with Change.org, then split up after a dismal performance in the European elections – with two of its MPs having defected from the Lib Dems and four serving as “The Independents”, three of whom later joined the Lib Dems as well. It eventually disbanded after the 2019 general election, in which its three remaining MPs all lost their seats – Anna Soubry securing the highest share of the vote with a dismal 8.5%, and Chris Leslie coming in fourth in its own headquarters with only 3.6%.
So what does this sad story tell us about British politics? Frankly speaking, those who were convinced the public was calling for a centrist alternative were definitely wrong. And those – like André Adonis – who persist in suggesting that Labor would win if only they had continued to reheat Blairism, are simply not committing to the facts. A YouGov survey conducted in November 2019 found that a significant majority of people believed the economy should change, while only 2% said they believed it should stay the way it is. And yet, despite their name, ChangeUK (which I’ll use as a shorthand for this group of dividers for the sake of ease) were perhaps the only true conservatives in British politics.
As the Tories drifted to the racist and nationalist right and Labor sought to offer a radical alternative to the left, the Band of Seven promised the kind of change where everything would go back to how it was before. Their flagship policy was to stop Brexit; beyond that, things got more blurry. They initially issued a “values” statement making vague references to a “mixed social market economy” that seemed almost designed to mean everything to everyone – especially within the party itself. Questioned on the divergent views of its members on austerity, Heidi Allen admitted they probably couldn’t agree on such issues, before bizarrely continuing to pretend that “it doesn’t matter because it’s a new beginning.”
But while the political platform was vague, the central pitch was clear: vote for us and put sane people in the driver’s seat. This appeal to “moderate” central terrain proved fatally out of step with the times. Contrary to the splitters’ self-image as the last bastion of sanity, the Continuity-Remain trend has turned out to be rather crowded ground, with the Lib Dems garnering most of the support they could have hoped for. But even those who eventually defected to the Lib Dems have lost their hearts, while the much publicized Lib Dem wave also failed to materialize. ChangeUK didn’t crash and burn so badly just because they didn’t have a USP or fell victim to the first-party vote – something deeper is going on here.
Heidi Allen may have inadvertently put her finger on it when she said that ChangeUK MPs had ‘hung on to each other like a shipwreck’ during the ‘chaos’ of Brexit, and began to realize that they had ‘a lot in common’. This aptly describes the condition of the self-proclaimed centrist in today’s unstable and changing political times. The centrists are at sea on the sinking of the old political consensus, desperately trying to return to a time when they understood politics and were confident in their place. Whether the Tories are trying to stop Brexit or Labor MPs are trying to stop Corbynism, they see the convulsions taking hold of our politics as aberrations, mistakes that can simply be reversed. They refuse to engage in these phenomena as responses to the implosion of the post-1980s economic settlement, or to offer serious solutions to this implosion. Instead, they stubbornly insist that this colony still represents “moderate central terrain” even as the ground moves under their feet.
Chris Leslie in particular liked to describe ChangeUK as an advocate for ‘dominant values’. As a statement of political identity, this is both completely meaningless and deeply revealing. Your values are meant to be the part of your political identity that is timeless and unchanging; pragmatism is how you try to implement your values given the circumstances you find yourself in. The generation of MPs represented by Leslie and Chuka Umunna had so internalized the “pragmatic” embrace of New Labor neoliberalism that they came to define their policy. After the crash of 2008, when this political settlement began its long and slow outcome, they did not have the intellectual flexibility to adapt. After all, if it was no longer the “mainstream” position, where has it left them and their careers? Indeed, to some extent, ChangeUK can be seen as a career vehicle – albeit spectacularly self-defeating – for men who have always viewed politics as a career rather than a calling, and for whom Jeremy Corbyn was certainly not a part. of the career plan.
And yet, it turned out that this policy was neither dominant nor pragmatic. It has been argued that the small share of the splitters’ votes belies their impact, as the pressure they put on Labor was in part responsible for his shift to a more pro-Remain stance. Announcing their dissolution, Anna Soubry said: “I have no doubt that the Labor Party has changed its position in favor of a second confirmatory referendum due to the courageous decision of Chris, Mike, Ann, Joan and others.” Leaving aside the question of whether this is really true, it is a strange thing for the self-proclaimed pragmatists of British politics to brag. inevitable.
Moreover, I would say it happened at least in part precisely because the second referendum campaign was driven from the start by continuity centrists: pre-crash political bigwigs like Alistair Campbell who didn’t ‘never bothered to ask why people voted for the Party, just assumed they could press “Cancel” and ask them to vote again. Anyone who knocked on Labor doors during the campaign knows that for many people being pro-Remain seemed like being part of an arrogant and out of touch political elite. Whether we look at ChangeUK’s vote share or its impact on the Labor Party, the picture is always the same: their bombed politics.
So it’s fitting, this vivid image Allen conjures up of his colleagues “hanging on” to each other on a battered life raft of their own design, screaming desperately into the wind, “But we’re the mainstream!” As they drift further and further out to sea. In fact, this sense of political disorientation turned out to be the main thing the separatists had in common – which may be part of the reason why they have always struggled to propose a coherent political platform beyond opposition to Brexit. As Andy Beckett noted, this void in which a positive political project should have been is indicative of a crisis affecting the center more widely. Although they frequently insist on the contrary, it is the centrists who increasingly define themselves by what they are against rather than what they are for. This is equally true of the vestiges of this tendency within the Labor Party like those who left him. As Beckett concludes, “centrism now looks more and more like a movement that has lost its bearings.”
In some ways, this is not surprising. The concept of “center” is relative: it only makes sense in relation to the landscape of consensus and political contestation in which it exists. The British political center is, by any objective measure, well and truly collapsed. The consensus that held for forty years no longer works, and the dispute now focuses on what will replace it. Those who continue to define themselves as centrists find it difficult to navigate because they do not see this consensus as political in the first place: they have fully internalized the idea that liberal market policies are simply “common sense.” “. The declaration of independence of the Gang of Seven promised to “”pursue policies based on evidence and not guided by ideology”- a statement straight out of the New Labor playbook. The 1997 Labor Manifesto proclaimed: “New Labor is a party of ideas and ideals, but not of outdated ideology. What matters is what works. Of course, in practice this has turned out to mean accepting the existing Thatcherite consensus – that “what works” is more the market and more the private sector.
Despite Boris Johnson’s election victory, politics is still on the move, not least because we still don’t really know what his government is going to do. The central terrain is changing – but the new center will be defined by those who can come up with a new settlement that responds to the crisis we find ourselves in and build a base to support it. In the 2019 election Labor failed to do so effectively enough. But the fate of ChangeUK has shown that those who want to revert to the old model won’t, and just insisting on representing the center doesn’t make it. Indeed, they have almost become a giant metaphor for this truth.
By refusing to engage with the powerful currents sweeping their own parties, believing instead that they could revive the status quo ante simply by creating a new party outside of them, the separatists brought about their own destruction.