What is a Gavin Shuker? Most of the time, it isn’t necessary to know, unless you live in the Luton South constituency. If you don’t live there, even if you’re a Labour voter, you don’t really need to know what a Gavin Shuker is. It is a vote in Parliament. It helps make a majority, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it might next time. It is a sort of guarantee. It is a face in the crowd. Most of our 650 MPs never become household names – we don’t think of them at all. What is an Ann Coffey? A Mike Gapes? An Angela Smith? What is a Joan Ryan? Every once in a while we are forced to grapple with questions like these. We are forever asking for our MPs to be human; but when we are confronted by their humanity, their spiky, quirky, sulky particularity, it quickly becomes painful for us. Who are these people? we demand. Who let them in? Where have they been hiding?
They’re not hiding any more. All these Shukers and Coffeys and Gapeses and Smithses and Ryanses are getting their revenge. What are they now? They are members of the Independent Group. And what is the Independent Group? It is a group of, at the time of writing, 11 MPs – eight from Labour and three Tories – who claim to represent the centre ground of British politics, at risk of falling away between the widening divides of right and left. (A twelfth, Ian Austin, has left the Labour Party, but not joined the group.) They are not all of them unloved creatures, crawling out of obscurity: Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston are in varying degrees familiar to politics-watchers – though none of them has enjoyed a distinguished ministerial career, or ever become a darling of the party membership. But this no longer matters. All of them – Shukers as well as Chukas – now blaze forth as individuals, persons in their own right, entirely worthy of our attention; they are representatives, selected to exercise their wisdom and judgment on our behalf, not merely delegates, glorified stooges of public or party. In their wisdom they have chosen to break with their colleagues, and in their wisdom they have stuck to generalities when pressed to explain their present purpose. They have no policies, but they do have principles, a wall of affirmations behind which lies a political brownfield site. What might be built on that site is anyone’s guess – though some guesses are better than others – but while it is in development, the Independent Group, fêted practitioners of a new politics, have been doing something very traditional indeed, which is explaining how it all came to this. Consciences which once slept soundly under the warm, familiar blanket of party unity were gradually stirred awake; principles began to itch, until the blanket had to be thrown off in order for them to catch some air. The blare of patriotism sounded louder, finally, than the siren calls of political tribe. Independence of mind had to be maintained, even if it meant the abandonment of friends, and of cherished ambitions. Parties can change very quickly, people not so fast; some are liable to find themselves left behind, which may in fact prove the best and truest place to be.
This language is not new. It is very old. Here is Joseph Chamberlain, defector and founder of the Liberal Unionist Party, in 1889: ‘We are Liberals and unchanged, even though our leader has deserted us.’ And here’s Anna Soubry in 2019: ‘I’m not leaving the Conservative Party – it has left us.’ Every breakaway party in British history, and there have been several, though you might be forgiven for believing there has only ever been the SDP, has talked like this. That this latest iteration should have had a positive reception in some quarters – it is already polling 14 per cent, if we trust the polls, which we shouldn’t – is a testament to the deep roots of anti-party sentiment in our political culture. Ever since parties definitively established themselves as the most effective way of doing politics – in the 1830s or thereabouts – the values of independence, patriotism, conscience and principle have periodically been mobilised in opposition to their ever increasing claim on the loyalty and obedience of MPs. And the people who speak the language of anti-party have always found an audience in those unhappy with the trend of events, especially at moments of political Sturm und Drang. The ‘centre ground’ is a newer coinage, but as a concept it springs from the same mellow loam: what, after all, are independence, patriotism, conscience and principle if not expansive abstractions, commanding wide assent? So it is that most anti-party parties have claimed to represent a middle way, or political ‘common sense’. In doing so they have been marking out a particular political and ideological space, and seeking to define it in terms favourable to themselves. This isn’t a disturbing fact – it’s what it means to act politically – but it isn’t a neutral one either. Behind that wall of appealing rhetoric, there is bustling activity: something is being constructed.
To point out that ‘the centre’ – as a proclaimed area of shared, sensible assumptions about the values, needs and possibilities of a political community, defined against threatening ‘extremes’ – is a frequently remade fiction, masking specific ideological commitments and positioning, is not to say that it can’t have real political purchase, or that it can’t cater successfully to real wants (a separate question is whether those wants are ultimately satisfied by it). History tells us that ‘centrism’ as a construct becomes politically consequential when one party – sometimes more than one – gets pulled in a particular direction by another’s force of gravity, and it is noteworthy that, on every occasion this has happened, a breakaway party has played a key role.
In 1886, the Liberal Party split over the issue of Home Rule for Ireland, and the breakaway Liberal Unionists had 77 MPs elected that year. Their alliance (but not merger) with the Conservatives – what became known as Unionism – would be the dominant political force in Britain for the next two decades. In August 1931, both Labour and the Liberals split over the political response to the financial crash: National Labour and the National Liberals allied with the Tories, and the National Government went on to win 554 seats out of 615 in October. Labour was kept down for the rest of the decade and a savage austerity programme implemented by the government under the banner of ‘Safety First’, its working-class opponents placed outside ‘conventional wisdom’, in Ross McKibbin’s phrase. After 1979, the Conservatives, assisted by the breakaway SDP, dragged Labour into the neoliberal era. New Labour was, to a very considerable extent, an anti-party party (it’s in the name). And what could be more symbolic of the new ‘centrism’ than the fresh-faced David Cameron’s bouncing in on it? Who has forgotten the sight of both parties – Labour and Conservatives – rising to their feet to applaud Tony Blair after his last PMQs in 2007?
The question in 2019, then, is not whether a ‘centre’ exists but whether political circumstances have once again made ‘centrism’ a viable political strategy. The Independent Group is betting that they have. Various calculations are being made, not all of them compatible. The ex-Labour MPs are motivated by their dislike of the leadership’s position on Brexit and its alleged softness on antisemitism, as well as by a more general disapproval of its left-wing prospectus. The ex-Tory MPs cite Brexit and the overweening influence of the European Research Group, and two of them – Allen and Wollaston – are unhappy with the social consequences of austerity (Soubry, on the other hand, thinks the coalition did a marvellous job). The common factor is Brexit – without which it is impossible to imagine the Independent Group existing – and it is Brexit that is seen, both inside the group and by a significant section of opinion outside it, as the latest crisis that calls for ‘centrism’. Is it though?
It’s striking that there already exists an avowedly ‘centrist’ party light on policy and committed to reversing Brexit, albeit by the rather uncertain means of a second referendum: the Liberal Democrats, currently polling an average of 7 per cent. The assumption on the part of the Independent Group and its supporters seems to be that, like a magician’s handkerchief, the 7 per cent tucked in Vince Cable’s back pocket can be pulled out and out and out and out, revealing itself as great armfuls of political opportunity. Perhaps it can be, but in that case why has Cable been so modest about what’s in his trousers? If people are now expected to fling themselves into the arms of Gavin Shuker, why have they been so reluctant to embrace the Lib Dems?
One possible answer might be that Brexit isn’t, in strictly political terms, the be-all and end-all that some people think it is. This would seem to be the lesson of the 2017 election, which Theresa May tried to make all about Brexit, but which turned out to be about lots of other things as well. And if, despite everyone’s best efforts, politics in 2019 still isn’t all about Brexit, we will eventually have to put our heads over the wall, and look down at what it is the Independent Group is building. It’s hard to believe many people will be pleased by what they are likely to find: a nothingy programme, timid compared to Labour’s and liable to be outbid by the Tories’, masterminded by a bunch of uncharismatic MPs nobody has ever heard of, who don’t seem to have very clear ideas about anything other than the EU. It still seems most probable that what we are currently witnessing is the drawn-out death of the ‘centrism’ ushered in by Blair and Cameron, that the majority of people are wishing it over rather than wanting more. We will ask again: what is a Chuka Umunna? What is a Chris Leslie? What is a Heidi Allen? After some time has passed, we may fail to catch even the echo of their names. And after that, we may forget these were ever questions we needed answers to.