Protest Politics

Lorna Finlayson

On Monday, seven MPs resigned from the Labour Party – though not from their seats in the Commons – to form a new ‘Independent Group’ in Parliament. An eighth joined them yesterday, and three Tories today. Few people, arguably including the splitters themselves, have much confidence that the breakaway group can garner significant public support, or achieve any particular objective. They have not yet tried to launch themselves as a political party, but only issued vague murmurings about doing so at some point in the future. Their departure will do nothing to help avert Brexit. The most likely effect – if a breakaway of such unimpressive proportions is to have any significant effect at all – will be to scupper Labour’s chances at the next election, delivering yet another period of Conservative government which few can afford.

Corbyn and his supporters used to be accused of an irresponsible lack of interest in attaining power, of sacrificing ‘electability’ for a ‘politics of protest’ – a chorus eventually quietened if not entirely silenced by the 2017 election result, in which Labour made striking gains and relieved the Conservatives of their majority. But when self-styled ‘centrists’ act in ways that risk undermining the party’s prospects of electoral success, it’s different: evidence not of irresponsibility and a lack of concern for those they were elected to represent, but legitimate and principled dissent which must be protected from condemnation.

The deputy Labour leader, Tom Watson, rather than condemn the splitters or defend the programme he supposedly wants to see implemented in government, intervened to warn people not to use the word ‘traitors’. Meanwhile, in the absence of any credible suggestion as to what their departure might positively achieve, the Independents are not to be criticised, but praised for their ‘courage’ and ‘conscience’.

Anti-Semitism and Brexit are among the issues cited in the MPs’ explanations of their decision to leave Labour, but their statement doesn’t say how the proposed new party would tackle anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, or anything about Brexit – except that the Labour Party ‘has failed … to provide a strong and coherent alternative to the Conservatives’ approach’. The statement is composed almost entirely of platitudes:

The people of this country have the ability to create fairer, more prosperous communities for present and future generations. We believe that this creativity is best realised in a society which fosters individual freedom and supports all families.

There is nothing here to distinguish this from the current rhetoric of the Conservative Party.

Individuals are capable of taking responsibility if opportunities are offered to them, everybody can and should make a contribution to society and that contribution should be recognised.

Punctuation aside, Margaret Thatcher would be pleased enough with that.

It isn’t that the Labour defectors don’t stand for anything, or that they have nothing in common. Angela ‘funny tinge’ Smith is passionately opposed to the renationalisation of water. Chuka Umunna opposes Labour’s plans to bring the Royal Mail back under public control – despite overwhelming public support for the policy – and Chris Leslie is sceptical of nationalisation in general. Any embarrassment fellow Independents may feel about Gavin Shuker’s views on abortion and homosexuality is offset by his belief in the importance of ‘national security’, which Umunna emphasised in his column for the Independent shortly after the split. Umunna is worried about Labour’s ‘lukewarm attitude towards Nato’ and ‘reluctance to act where necessary’. Mike Gapes voted not only for the Iraq War, but against inquiries into the invasion. He has opposed calls for sanctions on Saudi arms sales as British bombs rain down on Yemen.

The emptiness of the Independents’ alternative programme and the vagueness of their complaints indicate a partial recognition that the Blairite model of neoliberalism at home and aggressive interventionism abroad cannot simply be rerun, as do their unconvincing efforts to capture what they see as a pissed-off but basically irrational ‘populist’ zeitgeist. Umunna gives it his best:

There are those who say there is no alternative. That we are doomed to be saddled with the same old politics. That we have to settle for voting for the least worst option or simply to make sure the other lot don’t get in. That no matter how incompetent they are, we have no option but to vote for them. We reject this.

But they know at some level that nobody is buying this slick patter. Otherwise they would resign their seats and stand again as Independent candidates. This is protest politics at its crudest.


  • 20 February 2019 at 3:03pm
    WSolent says:
    I am buying this slick patter. The current Brexit impasse and the lack of effort in addressing it from both main party leaders is depressing and extremely worrying. The 11 MPs are all politicians, but they have bothered to stand up. As for how the new party would 'tackle anti-semitism', not tolerating anti-semitism will be a great start.

    • 20 February 2019 at 6:42pm
      Michael Collins says: @ WSolent
      Good point at the end but I fear anti-semitism is assuming ominous dimensions now. French Jews (i.e. EU citizens) are feeling particularly embattled and the rise of far-right movements will require more than a few tweedy middle-class English politicians spouting platitudes to counter effectively. As a life-long Labour voter, though, I can see why the seven bailed out. The pilot's lost his bearings.

  • 20 February 2019 at 4:26pm
    Michael Collins says:
    I once decided, aged six or so, to run away from home on the principle of fairness for all on the issue of who licked the caramel custard spoon when my mother had prepared the said concoction, a process that seemed unfairly tilted in favour of my little sister. I got as far as Catford Bridge station (not far) before realising I had no long-term, overarching strategy regarding the practical terms and conditions of my self-righteous exile and that it was in fact pretty cold. Not quite a moment of epiphany but I learnt that day that any act of withdrawal has consequences. I would henceforth resolve the caramel custard spoon issue in a more reasonable and consensual manner. In short, I'd been silly little boy. But I was only six.

  • 20 February 2019 at 5:37pm
    woll says:
    I am delighted to see the LRB has redesigned its blog. But why launch it with a spiteful piece propoganda on behalf of the Corbyn faction. There are many interesting things to say, pro and con, on a realignment of UK politics, but this piece is merely vindicative. The LRB has some excellent political commentators, something more informative and less biased would be much appreciated.

    • 20 February 2019 at 5:52pm
      semitone says: @ woll
      Hear hear, Woll: you beat me to it, I was going to post something similar but thought I'd say something nice about the new blog design first.

      I opened the blog this evening hoping for something of the lrb's trademark insight and analysis, but was dismayed to see Finlayson's name at the top of my screen. Still, benefit of the doubt and all that …

      Maybe just one sentence will suffice, though most of them are similarly problematic. Here we go: "The deputy Labour leader, Tom Watson, rather than condemn the splitters or defend the programme he supposedly wants to see implemented in government, intervened to warn people not to use the word ‘traitors’."

      The Independents were attacking Labour's programme only in Finalyson's mind. They have not left Labour on a principle of utility nationalisation or of past or future wars; they have left because they can no longer countenance the Labour leadership's inaction on antisemitism or its reluctance to support a People's Vote on Brexit. I suspect Finlayson is deliberately mischaracterising their position so it allows her to make a fresh cognitive leap: now Tom Watson is disloyal (the 'supposedly' in this sentence is telling) because he asks his party not to call the Independents traitors.

      That Finlayson would prefer they were called traitors, or in any case criticises Watson for asking that they not be, only confirms (for me) that the Labour Party has lost much of the internal civility and tolerance that once made it such a potent force for good.

    • 20 February 2019 at 6:55pm
      Michael Collins says: @ woll
      Maybe to get people like you responding, woll? So we can hear your side of the argument. Don't forget that for all its cerebral profundity ( I thank you!) the LRB is essentially a paper. And you know what they're like...

  • 21 February 2019 at 9:59am
    gracelyn7 says:
    An accurate summary. I suspect there are more defections planned in what is clearly an orchestrated series of events, with many unanswered questions about their financing. It will prolong Conservative rule, something the group either intend or at least prefer, by damaging Labour and other centrist parties in a very crowded field, unless they come to an electoral arrangement with the LibDems and perhaps eventually absorbed by them as were the SDP.

  • 21 February 2019 at 10:08am
    gracelyn7 says:
    Meanwhile anti-Islamism and anti-black racism grows apace in the UK and the rest of Europe affecting many millions of people directly in their daily lives in employment and physical security. All racism needs to be combated equally with no exceptionalism, nor should it be politicised to advance the interests of any particular group

    • 21 February 2019 at 10:22am
      semitone says: @ gracelyn7
      Sorry Gracelyn, did you just say 'racism should not be politicised'? Care to explain or rethink that statement?

      And I wonder which 'particular group' you have in mind, whose interests should not be advanced by addressing racism.

    • 21 February 2019 at 1:44pm
      Michael Collins says: @ gracelyn7
      "All racism needs to be combated equally with no exceptionalism (sic), nor should it be politicised to advance the interests of any particular group." I just need some clarification here, Gracelyn, as I'm not the brightest button in the box, apologies. My own take is that racism is politicised hatred, a view of human ethnicity that automatically grades people into "better" or "worse" categories, with the racist ever ready to consign others to the latter. Remember the old American saw: "A patriot is someone who loves their country whilst hating eighty percent of the people who live in it." Also, I must echo semitone's curiosity about the "particular group" whose "interests" may be "advanced" by addressing racism. Again, I'm the thickest plank in the LRB timber yard so if you could spell out to whom you are referring that would be most helpful.

    • 22 February 2019 at 10:02pm
      Charlie says: @ Michael Collins
      I guess by "particular group" Gracelyn7 could mean:

      The media
      The establishment
      The Conservatives
      (Anti-Brexit) Capitalists
      (Pro-Brexit) Disaster Capitalists

      All these categories may seem dubious (or worse) in one way or another, but "Jews" seems to correspond to "Antisemites in the Labour Party who are there because of Jeremy Corbyn" in its weird lack of any coherent conspiracy theory to back it up, or at any rate the sense that it would be impolitic to provide one. Apparently antisemites are just the sort of vermin that inevitably coalesce around historically anomalous peacenik demagogues, attracted by the stench of allotment.

  • 21 February 2019 at 10:12am
    Briain C says:
    This is an excellent summary of this pathetic spectacle. Of course some dishonest and disingenuous centrists are upset that this isn't the usual mealy-mouthed, faintly contemptuous treatment of Corbyn's Labour that you usually get from the ever so reasonable and balanced LRB.

    These politicians are acting purely in their own self-interest. If they had any principles, they would call by-elections and let their constituents decide if they support their non-existent policies. Their actions are flagrantly anti-democratic. They are well-aware that most of them are very unpopular with local Labour activists and are facing deselection. Most of them will not be MPs after the next election. They also would not be doing this if they had any real concern about Brexit. The People's Vote is an idiotic fantasy. Remaining in the customs union is a practical, realistic option.

  • 21 February 2019 at 1:47pm
    Simon Wood says:
    The vibrant colour of the new blog makes boring opinions seem more interesting that they are. Hugh Pennington's post about insects ("Not enough insects?") says far more about sects and their survival than any of this "yet again" and "Blairite centrist" stuff.

    May I say that Michael Collins' story - indeed, parable - of his escape to Catford, however, is proper proper, as we say in Camberwell and actually says something, which is becoming as rare as the coffin fly these days.

  • 21 February 2019 at 4:35pm
    David Smith says:
    We aren’t members of the Labour Party because we like the leader, we’re members because we have a vision of a fairer society. Those who have run away do not share our vision and should stand down IMMEDIATELY and be elected on whatever their manifesto turns out to be!

    • 22 February 2019 at 11:56pm
      FoolCount says: @ David Smith
      Well, we also kinda like the leader too. Because there is much to like.

  • 21 February 2019 at 4:41pm
    Hilary says:
    I too am buying this slick patter. What stuck in my mind - and I haven't seen this mentioned in all the rush to comment - is the statement that the formulation of policy would be 'evidence-led'. What a strange and revolutionary idea. Not a catchy slogan, perhaps, but a promising sign of a willingness to think outside the box of slogans and dogma.

    • 22 February 2019 at 11:54pm
      FoolCount says: @ Hilary
      Revolutionary? It is called "triangulation". Bill Clinton perfected it, with the main "evidence", of course, being opinion poll data. Not surprisingly, the clintonite establishment suck-ups lead this "revolutionary" movement in UK too.

  • 21 February 2019 at 5:45pm
    Chris Miller says:
    It's too early to say whether the politics of the new IG will be well received or not, assuming they do eventually declare themselves a new political party and along with it a political programme. The decisions taken by the various individuals in the past and their previous pronouncements are certainly indicators of what they might put forward but it is possible that together they will come forward with new proposals. After all political decisions taken in parliament tend to be endorsements of what their parties whip on any issue.

    More significant than what they might propose and how appealing it will be is what these defections mean for the two party system and first past the post voting system. the break up of both Labour and Conservative parties has been discussed for some weeks now if not months and the capacity of each party to continue to hold together such diverse views is clearly debatable, even if they were inclined to try. Might the emergence of smaller parties and the disintegration of the larger ones[should it occur] lead to a more progressive and fairer electoral system.

    As for the idea that the IG MPs should resign and stand again in a by-election depends really on one's standpoint. Sure, there is an important issue about representation in play but that could be said for the way existing politics operates. It certainly would not be the first time that those defecting from a party do not trigger a by-election. If one supports Labour or Conservatives one would want a by-election now as this would be the best opportunity to get rid of the new independents. If one is interested in how the politics of Brexit are played out, then the ability of the IG to act as 'spoilers' for both major parties is maximised by them staying put until a new general election is called.

  • 21 February 2019 at 6:52pm
    steve kay says:
    Lorna Finlayson's piece and the comments can be seen as graphic evidence of politics scampering about and fiddling whilst Rome is about to burn. Corbyn has either chosen or been unable to mount any sustained campaign against the impending disaster of Brexit.
    He has played only to the gallery or the pit of Westminster and the Metro media. He has wholly failed to identify one major issue that should have had Labour opposing at every opportunity since May's dreadful election, that caused her to take on the DUP. Now the Tory's used to be the "Conservative and Unionist Party" so they know full well that if they allow themselves to dance to the DUP tune, the music will be flutes and the Lambeg drum. The DUP are the only, utterly unashamed, sectarian party still in the UK. By failing to mount a consistent and noisy ongoing campaign to challenge and thwart the future of the UK being acceptable to the DUP, Labour is in the process of sacrificing what little support remains in Scotland, and possibly Merseyside as well. The constitutional implications don't end with Corbyn by default strengthening the SNP. Letting the DUP get away with making May adopt a Brexit policy the opposite of what a large majority on Northern Ireland wanted will have almost inevitable results. In twenty years time there won't be a border, but the cost of becoming a united Ireland will be savage.
    The baddies have been as bad as ever, why have we utterly failed to stop them?

    • 22 February 2019 at 7:05am
      FoolCount says: @ steve kay
      Impeding disaster of Brexit? Come off it already. It is a done deal and a good one at that. Stop being such a sore loser. True disaster, and a big lough, would be to reverse everything and to remain in the EU, which is coming apart regardless with or without UK in it. Good on Corbyn for not catering to delusional EU-lovers.

  • 22 February 2019 at 7:36pm
    Graucho says:
    I keep reading that there is anti-semitism in the labour party which hasn't been dealt with, but have yet to see a concrete example of who did or said what to whom and what was or wasn't done about it. Can any contributor help out please?

    • 22 February 2019 at 10:30pm
      FoolCount says: @ Graucho
      I guess some Labour people do occassionally critisize Israel. So there you go ...

    • 23 February 2019 at 7:10am
      ARW says: @ Graucho
      The following Twitter accounts are a good start if you are looking for evidence

    • 23 February 2019 at 9:56am
      Graucho says: @ ARW
      Thank you for these. It would appear that in many cases anti-semitism has been confounded with Thou shalt not criticise the state of Israel. Anyone with a twitter account who peddles global Jewish conspiracy theories who is a member of the labour party should be expelled. Are there any who do and haven't had action taken against them?

    • 24 February 2019 at 6:07pm
      Trevor Hoyle says: @ Graucho

      The following Twitter accounts are a good start if you are looking for evidence

      Are these people members of the Labour Party? If so, how do you know?

    • 24 February 2019 at 6:49pm
      Graucho says: @ Trevor Hoyle
      I have no idea and my point in all this is that I have yet to see members named and actions cited in the public domain. People seem to believe that there is anti-semitism in the Labour because everyone is saying so. I'm only asking for hard evidence.

    • 25 February 2019 at 1:04pm
      Martha12345 says: @ Graucho
      When people self identify online as labour party members and post their jew hatred in forums, they likely are what they say they are. There are organizations, some identified above, that have been tracking this for some considerable time now and have gone to some lengths to verify. And, since he is likely to know, perhaps you should ask for the hard evidence from Jon Lansman, Momentum founder and member of Labour Party national executive committee.

      Lansman stated, this morning on BBC Radio 4 Today programme, :

      “I do think we have a major problem and it always seems to me that we underestimate the scale of it.
      I think it is a widespread problem. It's now obvious we have a much larger number of people with hardcore antisemitic opinions which, unfortunately, is polluting the atmosphere in a lot of constituency parties and, in particular, online.”

    • 26 February 2019 at 12:39am
      Graucho says: @ Martha12345
      So can these people be identified and checked against the party membership list and expelled, because if so and they haven't been then the accusation of failing to tackle the problem is justified, or do they claim to be members but cannot be identified in which case they might just be doing it purely to damage the Labour party.

    • 6 March 2019 at 12:04pm
      Martha12345 says: @ Graucho
      This article might also assist you to understand leftwing anti semitism.

      Leon Trotsky’s Long War Against Antisemitism

  • 23 February 2019 at 7:03am
    ARW says:
    "The most likely effect – if a breakaway of such unimpressive proportions is to have any significant effect at all – will be to scupper Labour’s chances at the next election"

    I really don't understand this argument because you also accuse them of using rhetoric that is no different to that of the Conservative party and lambast thier "neoliberal" credentials, so presumably they will appeal to Conservative, not Labour, voters?

    Or perhaps this sort of confused and vitriolic thinking is precisely the reason they, and many more of us, are thinking of leaving the Labour party.

    A kinder, gentler politics it was not.

  • 28 February 2019 at 8:27pm
    enfieldian says:
    Brexit, in so many ways a fiasco, illustrates the cool calculating strategic sense of the British ruling class when one considers its main motivation: the age-old urge to divide the working class and thus decrease the chance - minuscule enough at the best of times - of a political challenge to the capitalism system. Corbynism, totally wedded to electoral politics, could not itself mount such a challenge, but amid the chaos of Brexit, who knows what might result. So: lead off one section of the working class with the Union Jack and fantasies of naval superpowerdom - the Tories and their press can do this on their own. Lead off another section - better educated? public-sector white-collar? Guardian readers, at any rate - in horror at Brexiteer xenophobes and in ecstasy about identity politics. And leave the rest to Jezza, who will soon be dead meat anyway, thanks not so much to Blairite breakaways but more to the vile accusations of anti- semitism, which historians of the future will have a thing or two to say about.

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