Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

Rebels with a cause: The British MPs taking on the party machines


Independents have been edged out as the main parties prepare for December 12 national elections

The 11 MPs who rebelled against their parties pose for pictures at the launch of their group in February. Reuters
The 11 MPs who rebelled against their parties pose for pictures at the launch of their group in February. Reuters

With parliament deadlocked in February over Brexit, eleven disaffected MPs split from their parties to launch a new movement to fix Britain’s "broken politics" with a suggestion that other rebellious lawmakers would soon join them.

The new recruits never materialised. Nine months on, the movement that promised to redefine politics for the 21st century has largely broken up.

The movement-turned-party, the Independent Group for Change, now has three people contesting seats at the December 12 elections.

Another five of the founders, including Chuka Umunna, once tipped to be leader of the Labour party, joined the Liberal Democrats, a rival centrist group. The rest have retired.

“It’s quite clear that there isn’t room for more than one centre-ground option,” said a chastened Mr Umunna after he quit.

Party loyalties frayed further over Brexit throughout the year, leaving dozens of big names politically homeless.

A handful of candidates from the defectors' ranks are standing as independents. Experts said their chances of success were slim without the financial and organisational backing of the major parties.

“History shows that if you run as an independent in British politics, you’re not going to get very far,” said Dr Alan Wager, research associate at the think tank, UK in a Changing Europe.

In the last 40 years, only three independents have been elected to the UK’s parliament. Most independents have fought on single issue platforms.

The most famous was a former BBC war correspondent, Martin Bell, who in a trademark white suit successfully ran on an anti-corruption ticket in 1997 to oust a former trade minister who secretly accepted cash to ask questions in parliament.

Independents are normally crushed by the organisation of the major parties. A multi-millionaire food magnate bankrolled a project to promote independent candidates a decade ago but the project failed and not a single one was elected.

Britain’s last parliament ended with a modern record of 24 independents, largely as a result of the ruling Conservative party ousting its MPs who refused to back prime minister Boris Johnson’s vision of Brexit.

Some of those — including former finance minister Philip Hammond — have decided to step down rather than contest the election as independent candidates.

But a small group of ruling party grandees, including former justice secretary David Gauke and ex-attorney general Dominic Grieve — have decided to fight on against their former colleagues.

Mr Grieve, who led efforts in parliament to scupper his own party’s efforts to leave the European Union, is being backed by anti-Brexit campaigners.

“Voters are beginning to see that Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal leads to a damaging crash out in 2020,” he wrote on Twitter.

Mike Gapes, a former Labour MP who had a safe seat in multicultural constituency on the outskirts of London, quit the party over disagreements with leader Jeremy Corbyn including his stance on Brexit and foreign policy.

Mr Gapes, one of the three remaining MPs standing for the Independent Group for Change, has held the seat for 27 years. During those years, he helped compile a database of voting patterns based upon what residents told him on the doorstep.

But all that data is held by the Labour party. He is now reliant on a small group of supporters handing out leaflets across his constituency.

“People constantly come up to me and say ‘20 years ago I had a problem and you helped me … you’ve got my vote’. Whether that translates into enough votes for me to win, I don’t know,” he said.

“This is a real test. Independents don’t normally do well in elections fighting the big machines. But this is not a normal election.”

Anna Soubry, a former Conservative, is also standing for the new party, despite being a focal point for abuse because of her outspoken opposition to Brexit.

On Friday, a man was jailed for a year for sending her a “sickening and ominous” letter. It referred to the murder of another MP, Jo Cox, by a right-wing extremist just before the Brexit vote.

The Independent Group for Change failed in part because of its inability to entice enough big-name MPs to join their ranks, said Martin Smith, a professor of politics at York University.

But its launch had sought to tap disaffection of voters with the major party system that has seen either Labour or the Conservatives head Britain in all but one administration since 1945.

“People’s traditional attachments have disappeared,” said Prof Smith. “It creates a space for independents. Politics has fragmented and party allegiances have weakened but the independents still aren’t seen as large players.”

Updated: November 26, 2019 07:03 PM

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