Mon | Apr 22, 2019

Editorial | The uphill climb for Labour’s rebels

Published:Tuesday | February 19, 2019 | 12:24 AM

Yesterday’s defection from Labour of seven members of the British Parliament will, as was the case nearly four decades ago, likely again reveal how difficult it is to up-end the entrenched two-party arrangement of Westminster-style politics, with its first-past-the-post voting system. It is a fact that we know only too well in Jamaica.

In this case, the rebels’ task will probably prove even more difficult unless they somehow convince big hefts of both Labour and Tory voters that they are driven by, and stand for, more than antipathy to, Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn. From this distance, we question their strategic capacity to do so. Their timing, at best, seems to be badly wanting, if not atrocious.

The seven who decamped Labour are Ann Coffey, Angela Smith, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, David Shuker, Mike Gapes and Chuka Umunna, whose action has clear echoes from 1981, when there was another split in the party. Back then, four members – David Owens, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Bills Rodgers – left to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which, a decade later, merged with the old Liberal Party to create the Liberal Democratic Party (Lib Dems).

The seven haven’t, at least not yet, created a party, calling themselves, instead, the Independent Group. Their intention, however, as was the case 38 years ago this past January, is clear. Making the claim that Labour had become anti-Semitic and that under Mr Corbyn, it was pursuing ideology rather than economics, they urged both Tory and Labour members of parliament (MPs )to join them.

On the latter point, there are similarities with the fallout of ‘81. The quartet of that era argued that Labour under Michael Foot, as is much of the complaint against Mr Corbyn, was being dragged too far to the left, including with proposals for unilateral nuclear disbarment and renationalisations that made it unelectable.

SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCES

There are significant differences in the circumstances of the two periods, however. For instance, unlike the rebels of ‘81, none of this group, except for Mr Umunna, with his limited service on the opposition front benches, has experience in government and commands a substantial national profile. None is, as they were even then, a towering political figure of a Dr Owen, Mr Jenkins or Ms Williams.

Further, there will be plenty people ready to mount an argument in favour of Labour’s electability. Mr Corbyn may have got on the leader ballot by a whisker in 2015, but he won the contest by a landslide and did even better merely a year later, even after a massive vote of no-confidence in leadership by MPs.

More critically, in the 2017 general election, when Mr Corbyn’s critics expected the party to be mauled, there was a 9.6 per cent voter swing to the party, and it received 5.5 million more votes than in the election two years earlier under Ed Miliband’s leadership.

Diverse front bench

While Ms Berger, a reported victim of abuse, and others may have credible claims of Mr Corbyn’s slowness in tackling anti-Semitism, the racial and gender diversity on Labour’s front benches under his leadership is apparent.

Critics of the group will probably recall that Ms Coffey was a seconder of the motion by MPs in Mr Corbyn’s leadership; that before he backed away, Mr Umunna was touted as a front-runner to challenge the leader; and that Ms Berger and Messrs Umunna and Gapes were being mentioned as possible targets for deselection by Mr Corbyn’s supporters in their constituency parties. The point is that Labour MPs have long been uneasy with Mr Corbyn, a lifelong left-winger, and this group, as much as any and more than most.

It may yet be that British politics deserves, and is about to get, a shake-up. But the rebels will do well to remember history and determine the investment for this to happen.

In the 1983 general election, the SDP got 25 per cent of the votes but 23 seats in the more-than- 600-member commons. Its successor, the Lib Dems, has oscillated in support since, but is yet to get the big breakthrough.