The new party has ignored the important matter of timing
Whether it’s the announcement of a new policy or even a resignation - politics, like comedy, is all about timing. And founding a new political party is such a haphazard and difficult venture that timing becomes even more important.
Many were surprised when Chuka Umunna defected from the Labour Party along with six of his colleagues back in February. No one seriously doubted that such a move was on the cards and many considered it the right thing to do, given the reported unhappiness of most Labour MPs with a leadership that simply cannot be ousted or changed. But I doubt if I was alone in feeling that the occasion lacked a certain punch, like waiting eagerly for the last season of “Game of Thrones” and then… watching the last season of “Game of Thrones”.
My first observation was, “Is that all?” When the SDP officially launched on March 2, 1981, four former Cabinet ministers were joined by eleven former Labour colleagues. This eventually swelled to a total of 28.
The Independent Group looks meagre in comparison, even with its three additions from Conservative ranks. Perhaps more Labour – and even Conservative – colleagues will join them in the months ahead, but my guess is that the prospects are not good. Leaving a political party, especially if you occupy a safe seat and have a reasonable hope of being reselected as a candidate to fight the next election, is a huge wrench. You are more likely to take that leap if you judge your new destination to be one that is at least making the political weather and seen by voters as a sensible, realistic alternative to your old party. Such is not the case with the Independent Group, at least not yet.
And thanks to the unfortunate timing of its formation, it has lost the political momentum new movements rely on. The general view, before Umunna and his colleagues made their announcement, was that Labour malcontents would wait until Brexit was over with before making their exit and using the fact of our departure from the EU as a hook on which to hang the defections.
Older readers might recall that March 29, 2019, was supposed to have been Brexit day, and in February, as time marched on, other considerations, like Luciana Berger's pregnancy, came into play. The Liverpool Wavertree MP was reportedly keen to get the schism out of the way before she departed the battlefield to start her maternity leave.
Whether or not this was the main driver behind the unexpectedly early launch date of the Independent Group, it posed two immediate problems for them. The first was that, with Brexit still unresolved, the new group could do little other than campaign on that defining issue, making it all the more difficult after Brexit (if it happens at all) for Leave voters to consider giving the Tiggers their support. The second – and probably bigger challenge – was that a later launch date might have encouraged more Labour MPs to join them.
What TIG succeeded in doing was edging Labour closer to a formal split, with Tom Watson forming his new Future Britain Group of moderate MPs, whose timing, if not its actual existence, was dictated by TIG’s formation. Watson’s calculation – and Umunna’s fear – is that Future Britain will sate the appetite of the moderate majority for some sort of rebellious action against the leadership, without the awkward and messy business of defecting.
Meanwhile, whatever momentum TIG may have enjoyed in the early days following its launch now looks to have well and truly dissipated. The candidate placed number one on their list of European Parliament candidates in Scotland today announced he will be voting Liberal Democrat. And that’s after the original top-placed candidate bowed out shortly after announcing his candidacy.
While observers try to make up their minds about whether this latest development is amusing or hilarious, it casts another doubt in the minds of Labour MPs who might have been looking at TIG as a safe berth further down the line: wasn’t the new party supposed to be a professional outfit? What level of scrutiny did it apply to its choice of candidates in these elections? What training did it put them through?
These might seem like obscure considerations for most of us, but to professional politicians being asked to risk everything on a new party, they matter a great deal. This is about more than TIG’s anaemic logo or the indecision over its name. It’s about strategy. It’s about judgment. And yes, it’s about timing.
All is not yet lost. It’s significant that moderate MPs have so far held their fire on public criticism of TIG and its members and have made serious efforts to remain friends with their former party colleagues. Those still in Labour and who oppose the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn understand perfectly the motivations of Umunna, Berger et al. But that’s not enough, not yet. For TIG to survive and prosper, new parliamentary recruits are absolutely essential. Fresh daily unforced errors are exactly what the new party does not need right now.