Several MPs Leave Labour Party, Form New Independent Group
In a press conference on Monday, seven members of the UK parliament (MPs) announced their departure from the opposition Labour Party. In a protest of leader Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to take a firm stance against Brexit and the mounting accusations of anti-Semitism against the party, the MPs have formed the Independent Group. Though this separation bears a resemblance to the 1981 formation of the Social Democratic Party by MPs who broke from the Labour Party and eventually joined the Liberal Party, the group does not plan to follow suit and is not launching a new political party.
Corbyn came under fire in August after the release of a video in which he accused a group of British Zionists of having, “no sense of British irony.” A vocal supporter of Palestine, Corbyn has long been accused of anti-Semitism, sometimes without due cause. However, in past years, an escalation of blatant anti-Semitism in the Parliamentary Labour Party has cast doubt on Corbyn’s values as he continues to defend the party against the accusations.
In 2016, when Corbyn ally and former mayor of London Ken Livingstone opined on the radio that Hitler, “was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews,”
Corbyn requested a two-month inquiry into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Civil-rights lawyer Shami Chakrabarti reported that the Labour Party was “not overrun” by anti-Semitism but recommended that party members refrain from using phrases including “Zio” or from using “Hitler, Nazi or Holocaust metaphors, distortions or comparisons,” when discussing Israel and Palestine. Corbyn has also been criticized for defending the artist of an anti-Semitic mural, a decision he later defended as a mistake.
Still, some claim that reports of anti-Semitism have been exaggerated in a political move against Corbyn. “Is anti-Semitism rife in the Labour party? No,” Professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and Labour Party expert Jon Tonge told The New York Times. “Has Corbyn made a few mistakes in handling it? Yes. In broader terms, Labour MPs think he’s unelectable, and anti-Semitism is a battering ram to attack Corbyn.”
The protesting MPs — Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, Mike Gapes, Ann Coffey, Angela Smith, and Gavin Shuker — have stated they will not challenge by-elections, an election that serves to fill a vacancy in the House of Commons. The Independent Group’s website states: “To change our broken politics, we need a different culture. The Independent Group aims to reach across outdated divides and tackle Britain’s problems together. We all have the right to be heard. We can all make a difference."
The group’s members shared an assortment of reasons for leaving Labour. Liverpool Wavertree MP Luciana Berger said she was “leaving behind a culture of bullying, bigotry, and intimidation." Ms. Berger, a critic of Corbyn’s positions on anti-Semitism and Brexit, has faced torrents of anti-Semitic abuse from the public since joining Labour in 2010. In early February, a no-confidence motion and a meeting to discuss her future were made but then withdrawn following the news that one of her key opponents within Labour had called her a “disruptive Zionist.”
The no-confidence motion and meeting had been put forth in response to Berger’s demand earlier that week for Labour to release details of how it was tackling anti-Semitism, a move which some MPs viewed as an undermining of Corbyn’s leadership and disloyalty to Labour. Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson responded by writing to Jenny Formby, the party’s general secretary, asking for a suspension of the Liverpool Wavertree Constituency Labour Party. Watson pronounced, “It is clear to me that Luciana Berger is being bullied. This behavior by her local party is intolerable.”
Streatham MP Chuka Umunna also announced, “We've taken the first step in leaving the old tribal politics behind, and we invite others who share our political values to do so too.” To reset the scene of UK politics, Umunna also encouraged other MPs within and outside of Labour to leave their parties and, “forge a new consensus on a way forward for Britain.”
Other UK parties have not come under fire for anti-Semitic sentiment as Labour has. However, in a Parliamentary debate on anti-Semitism on Wednesday, Conservative Andrew Percy claimed UKIP (UK Independence Party) has “now become a far-right party” that he believes is a component of the “rise of anti-Semitism.”
Late Tuesday an eighth MP left Labour to join the Independent Group. With Enfield North MP Joan Ryan added to the group, a SkyData opinion poll gives it a 10 percent level of support, one point above the 9 percent of the Lib Dems. Additional MPs are expected to follow the Independent Group in upcoming days.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he was, “disappointed” by the departures while also defending Labour and its policies. Corbyn claimed they “inspired millions at the last election and saw us increase our vote by the largest share since 1945,” citing the hike in Labour votes from new and young voters in 2017.
Following the resignation, several walked out of a Parliamentary Labour Party meeting in response to a speech by chairman Ian Lavery that failed to adequately address the issue of anti-Semitism in the party. Deputy leader Tom Watson commented that the party would have to undergo major changes if it wants to avoid more resignations, saying, “I love this party but sometimes I no longer recognize it.”
The new Independent Group staunchly supports holding a People’s Vote days before Brexit, an issue that has long agitated Corbyn and Labour. Monday’s split adds another layer of complexity to the growing difficulties surrounding Brexit and UK politics.