Seven UK MPs have left the Labour party, citing dissatisfaction with leader Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of action on Brexit and antisemitism within the party.
Luciana Berger, Anne Coffey, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith and Chuka Umunna announced their collective exodus at a press conference this morning, signalling the largest split in a British political party since 1981, when four MPs left Labour to form the Social Democratic Party. The direction of the Labour party under current leader Jeremy Corbyn has dismayed Remainer MPs, party members and supporters; who feel the opposition party has been insufficiently critical of Brexit. Corbyn voted against joining the Common Market, the precursor to the EU, in 1975 and was subject to criticism in the lead-up to the 2016 referendum for failing to campaign for the Remain side.
The newly-formed Independent Group stated their intention to continue to sit in the House of Commons as independent MPs and listed the concerns with the party that had led them to take this step:
- Luciana Berger stated she was “embarrassed and ashamed” to be a member of the party in the face of the leadership’s failure to act on institutionalised antisemitism;
- Chris Leslie, citing the leadership’s lack of support for a second Brexit referendum as the trigger behind his exit from the party, criticised Corbyn’s “narrow and outdated” policies. He said: “Enough is enough. There has to be a better way forward and there can be a better way forward.”;
- Angela Smith, who grew up in a working-class Labour-supporting family, said her decision to resign had been painful; but that: “Most people are like my family. They do not want to be patronised by left wing intellectuals who think that being poor and working class is a state of grace.”;
- Gavin Shuker criticised divisive policies, saying: “At the root of today’s broken politics lie our broken parties”;
- Anne Coffey said she had thought she would remain a party member until the end of her life, but that recently “any criticism of the leadership is met with abuse and charges of treachery…loyalty cannot be an end in itself”;
- Mike Gapes spoke of his early career as a young activist, saying he joined the Labour party in 1968 to fight social injustice and expressing dismay at what he saw as a rising culture of racism and antisemitism within the party. He accused the party’s leadership of being “complicit in facilitating Brexit”;
- Speaking last, former Labour leadership contender Chuka Umunna said Corbyn and his close associates had “failed to provide the leadership” the party and the country need. The Independent Group did not claim to have all the answers, he said; but the prevailing message of the group was: “Politics is broken. It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s change it.”
Since the result of the referendum, critics have accused Corbyn of failing to take action to prevent or mitigate Brexit due to his inherent Euroscepticism. Labour’s official position on a second referendum has wavered, with the party leadership suggesting they may begin campaigning for a “People’s Vote” but only after exhausting all options for triggering a general election. Brexit is now 39 days away.
The party has come under further criticism for what is perceived as institutionalised antisemitism in its ranks. Luciana Berger has been vocal about the antisemitic abuse and threats to which she is subjected by Labour members among others, saying in a letter to her constituency party: “I have made no secret that I have been deeply disturbed by the lack of response from the leadership of the party to the antisemitism that stains our party…I joined colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party just over a week ago in a unanimous call on the Party to be transparent about what it has and has not done to root out antisemitism. I was deeply disturbed at the leadership’s lack of positive engagement.”
Other critics, meanwhile, have expressed concerns about the levels of devoted loyalty expected by certain factions of Labour. The Good Law Project’s Jo Maugham QC, a prominent Remainer who acted as an advisor to the Labour party under former leader Ed Miliband, accused Corbyn’s Labour of promoting “populism long on diagnosis and short on cures, selectively interested in bigotry, unwilling to oppose the flagship policy of the Hard Right, a personality cult with disdain for its members’ views”.
The timing of the announcement has been questioned, with second referendum campaigners concerned that the exodus of the Independent Group could cause Corbyn and the Labour leadership to back away from supporting a “People’s Vote” and potentially split Labour voters, leading to a greater Conservative majority in the next general election. Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show days before the announcement, shadow chancellor John McDonnell said any split in the party “would be like the 1980s. In my constituency in Hayes and Harlington we had a Labour MP join the SDP and we lost the seat to the Conservatives; and it basically installed Mrs Thatcher in power for that decade. I don’t think any of the people who have even been mentioned around this split would want that.”