In the nearly three years since the Brexit referendum, there have been many up-until-now unthinkable developments in politics in British politics, but perhaps none have been as dramatic as the emergence of the Independent Group (IG) last month. Made up originally of seven defecting members of the Labour Party, they were quickly joined by a further Labour member and – incredibly in the tribal politics of the U.K. – by three members of the other main party, The Conservatives.
In a first-past-the-post electoral system which favors the two dominant parties, the emergence of new parties is a rare enough thing in and of itself. In the last four decades, only two have burst on to the scene and had any meaningful impact: the SDP In 1983 and the U.K. Independence Party in the mid-1990s.
What made the emergence of the IG even more of a rare beast was the way it emerged: explicitly as a group, and not a party; explicitly without a defined policy platform; and explicitly as a revolt against these very strange times indeed.
The Independent Group
Critics understandably pointed to the IG’s lack of policies, their lack of a leader, or their lack of anything like an understandable party structure. Others made unfavorable comparisons to party splits of the past that failed to flourish.
However, we now know that their emergence as an undefined group was shrewd indeed: it allowed the original seven to become eleven and it allowed essentially for the next four defectors to join them, irrespective of their original party allegiances.
And shrewder still is the message these defections sent. For career politicians to take the plunge and leave their original parties – their political tribes – is no small step. Not only is it to risk their income and employment (the threats of byelections that emerged immediately afterward were proof enough of this) but it is also to leave friends and colleagues, and perhaps most importantly, it is to leave policy platforms and principles that they have spent their professional lives on promoting.
Leaving to form a breakaway group is difficult enough on its own: it screams that we must be in exceptional times. But again, the genius of the IG message is that they left their parties without another party to go to. This is where they were most shrewd: they said, implicitly, without words – with just the act of leaving itself – that enough is enough, and on Brexit and in politics generally, we need to do things differently.
Broken Political System
And how powerful IG has proven to be. In the short time since their emergence, the narratives around Brexit in both parties have shifted dramatically: from three Cabinet ministers publicly telling Prime Minister Theresa May that no-deal must be taken off the table – which led to a dramatic change of direction from the PM in the Commons this week – to the clarification on the Labour Party’s position on a second referendum announced by the Labour leader. These were in no small measure forged by the emergence of the IG.
Essentially then, despite the criticisms mentioned above, the act of creation of the IG was enough to project its central claim: that the political system that has produced Brexit is broken and badly in need of change, and that change must start now.
That change has indeed started, and with alacrity. How then should the IG respond to these changes, to the fact that the landscape they emerged into is shifting around them, not to mention shifted in their favor? In light of the scale of their impact already, the only possible next step for them is surely: more of the same, please.
Changing British Politics
Eventually, yes, the time will come for them to tell us exactly what they would do should they hold positions of power, what they would stand for should we vote for them, and how they would be structured. But that time is not now.
The IG should do exactly what they have done so far: to exist, and by existing, validate their very need to exist. They should continue to appeal to other disaffected members; they should continue to discuss their values and what they would like to see change in British politics.
As in our personal and professional lives, so too in politics: one of the greatest impediments to change is the constant narrative that change is impossible. This has been such a dominant thread in British politics: that people are always either Labour or Conservative and will never change; that voters are interested only in tax, spend, and the economy; and that the electoral system favors the two main parties, and as such will never change (and never be changed willingly by politicians in those parties). These are the dominant tropes of the British party system.
The IG casts doubt on all of these tropes. True, it hasn’t actually changed any of them, yet. But cast them into doubt the IG most certainly does, and as a first step, that’s enough.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.