Scene two: In 2014 British businessman Arron Banks, a former Conservative donor, decided to give £100,000 to Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party to help it promote its dream of Brexit.
Conservative peer William Hague said on radio he’d never heard of Banks “so we are not going to get too upset about that”.
Banks decided Hague was calling him “a nobody”, he said, and upped his donation to £1 million.
The money enabled UKIP to lift its advertising budget and contest more byelections. Brexit moved up the political agenda, UKIP started wooing Conservative voters and MPs, and the Conservatives got nervous. Banks went on to make the biggest donation in British political history, to the Leave campaign.
And so here we are.
What the TIGgers want
This week, on top of the still-churning Brexit maelstrom, eight newly-former-Labour and three newly-former-Conservative MPs stood in front of TV cameras and said they didn’t like what their parties were becoming.
The Conservative defectors complained their party was now run “top to toe” by a “hardline anti-EU awkward squad”, and local Conservative associations were “being infiltrated by a nationally-orchestrated entryism” that was turning the party into “BlueKIP”. (Entryism is when ideological ginger groups from outside take membership of a party to affect its direction on an issue.)
The Labour defectors claimed – as one of their number, Chris Leslie, put it – that Labour had been hijacked by the “machine politics of the hard left” and had abandoned its progressive values. They had no confidence in Corbyn, who, they said, had failed to take a lead in addressing the challenge of Brexit, was hostile to businesses and would weaken national security – and had presided over a Labour party where “visceral hatreds of other people, views and opinions are commonplace”.
Anti-Semitism was rife in this incarnation of Labour, they said.
Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson, a relic of pre-Corbyn Labour and reportedly excluded from leadership meetings, called it a wake-up call for the party he wanted to stay and reform, rather than abandon. “I love this party but sometimes I no longer recognise it,” he said.
All the MPs of The Independent Group, quickly dubbed the “TIGgers”, are convinced that there are millions of voters out there feeling unrepresented since the major parties shifted away from the political centre ground.
“If we do our jobs properly, there won’t be a Tory party to go back to,” former Tory Heidi Allen said. “We’re about creating something better that is bang-smack in the centre ground of British politics that people out there, I am convinced — we are convinced — want.”
This is not the first time Britain’s political parties have split, reformed and re-combined. It has happened before and, taking a historical view, is bound to happen again.
British Prime Minister Theresa May will be hoping she doesn’t end up like her Tory predecessor Sir Robert Peel, who repealed the Corn Laws (still a sore point, they are used as a warning over Brexit) in 1846 at the cost of destroying his party.
And many have cited the Labour-SDP split of the 1980s, which saw the centre-left go on an adventure into the electoral wilderness while Labour went on to write a socialist election manifesto dubbed by one of its own MPs “the longest suicide note in history”.
She was accused of being a traitor and a Mossad agent ‘based purely on my Jewish background’. One member called her a ‘Zionist bitch’.
Historian Laura Beers wrote in the New Statesman that she prefers another analogy: Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald’s 1931 decision to pass a drastic austerity budget opposed by the majority of his own party (he was then formally expelled from their ranks).
Beers likens this to Corbyn’s willingness to support the Brexit project, which last year’s party conference showed a huge majority of Labour members bitterly oppose.
Corbyn is in an obvious bind: there is much more support for Brexit among Labour voters than among Labour members (or MPs). But still, his reluctance to push for any measure that would delay or frustrate Brexit has led to a reported wave of member resignations from a party that claimed to be the biggest in Europe.
The bigger problem for Corbyn is the anti-Semitism that most of the party leadership admits it has been too slow to crack down on in its ranks.
One of the TIGgers, Luciana Berger, said the abuse from Labour supporters had been enough to convince her the party was “institutionally anti-Semitic” before she left, and had become worse afterwards.
She had been accused of being a traitor to her country, even an agent of Mossad “based purely on my Jewish background”. One apparent Labour member called her a “Zionist bitch”.
The double blow of anti-Semitism and Brexit have caused Corbyn’s leadership ratings to crash to the lowest of his time as leader. No previous leader of the opposition has ever reached a dissatisfaction rating of 70 per cent in polls: Corbyn scored 72 per cent. Just 17 per cent were satisfied with his performance as opposition leader.
‘A born campaigner’
Corbyn’s stated policy on Brexit has been to push for a general election, and then proceed with a softer divorce that would leave Britain more closely tied to the European Union.
But since 1979, only two leaders of the opposition have unseated a prime minister, and both had significant and consistent «satisfied» ratings in the polls.
Of course, May isn’t doing much better in leadership satisfaction ratings. But the unpopularity of Corbyn with the general voting public very likely explains why his party is polling neck-and-neck, or more often behind, a Tory party that is making such a hash of Brexit.
Those on Corbyn’s side argue, however, that he’s a born campaigner, as was shown in the last general election when his party was set for a wipe-out and instead managed to force May into minority government.
Labour’s new manifesto under Corbyn has proven to have mass appeal, says Navendu Mishra, a representative on Labour’s powerful National Executive Committee.
Mishra, from Stockport in Manchester, is a former activist for Momentum, the (mostly) young grassroots Corbyn-loyalist organisation that is now accused of being a “party within a party” in Labour, a front for the far left.
But Mishra was a party member before Corbyn became leader and he doesn’t talk like an interloper. When he expresses the disappointment of the party in the defection of his Stockport neighbour, Ann Coffey, it’s on behalf of the local party members and volunteers who put in work to get her re-elected in 2017.
“I think these [defectors] are people who have a fundamental difference in political viewpoint from most of our members and party leadership,” he says. “It’s not a difference you can smooth over – a fundamental difference on economic policy and our relationship with trade unions and socialist affiliates.”
It’s sad that people felt the only option was to leave, he says. “There is a new kind of politics in the UK and the party is doing its best to navigate the current landscape,” he says, pointing out that it’s not an easy time to lead a party with over half a million members, with politics so polarised.
On anti-Semitism, Mishra acknowledges they have a “better job to do” and have been slow in the past, but he claims they are working hard to address the issue and streamline processes while still allowing, for example, people to have time to respond to accusations against them.
Mishra says when there were first rumours of Labour MPs who wanted to quit, there was “a number of around 30 floating around”. Compared with that, he says, “seven or eight is a small number”.
A new swing vote in parliament?
King’s College London professor of politics Anand Menon says it is impossible to say if the new split in British politics is permanent, or if this new centrist push will falter and fade.
He dismisses the claim by some that the old left-right political divide is falling away. It was not a useful way to predict the result of the Brexit referendum, he says, but apart from that “it’s still there”.
The big test for TIG will be after Brexit, he says. If this defining political issue for the group goes away, they might find it hard to coalesce around a set of shared values or they might discover they are an important swing vote in parliament.
But Louise Thompson, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester, warns there are significant hurdles the group must clear before they get to that stage. For a start, she says, the group is not likely to change the parliamentary arithmetic on Brexit because they have already been voting according to their beliefs.
“They keep saying ‘we’re not going to vote any differently’,” Thompson says. “In a lot of ways they are in a much weaker position. Without that party label they are pushed down to the bottom of the pecking order in the [House of] Commons. In a debate they could have to wait three hours to say anything.”
Both the Tories and Labour are making themselves unelectable.
Tory defector Sarah Wollaston MP
If they form a party – at the moment they are just a private grouping – they will get stronger rights in parliament, but until they face an election they will struggle with fundraising, as they will not have access to the money provided by the state to political parties that is used to pay for staff.
In the meantime, says Thompson, “they’ve got to try and function without any of that structural support from a party that has been telling them how to vote, what the business is, briefing them on amendments and so on”.
When the Scottish National Party suddenly grew its Westminster numbers in 2015, it took them two years to build a proper research and support team, Thompson says.
But TIG does have one very useful asset, one that the SDP didn’t have, she adds. Tory defector Sarah Wollaston is the chair of the Health and Social Care select committee in parliament, and since 2017 the chair of the Liaison Committee of all select committee chairs.
The Liaison Committee summons the prime minister twice a year to quiz her, and the chair is basically in charge of questioning. And according to precedent Wollaston should keep that role, despite leaving her party. “It’s good for the group she moved early, she’s the most significant person you could get,” Thompson says.
And Wollaston is in a feisty mood. On BBC radio she said the Tory party was “destroying itself” with a “shift to the fringes” along with Labour. “Both the Tories and Labour are making themselves unelectable,” she added.
Space for a new party
But Matthew Goodwin has some bad news. Despite one early poll that found 14 per cent support for TIG, the appetite for a new centrist party could be a mirage.
The University of Kent professor of politics displayed some foresight in August last year, when he looked into the rumours around Westminster of the possibility of a new political party emerging in Britain. Imagine, he wrote in Politico, Labour’s Chuka Umunna on stage with Conservative Remainer Anna Soubry (both are now members of The Independent Group). “For many on Britain’s liberal left the idea is incredibly exciting,” Goodwin said.
But when pollsters YouGov asked voters on which issues they felt they were unrepresented by the major parties, the most popular were that “the justice system is not harsh enough”, “immigration restrictions should be tighter”, “government should regulate big business more”, “Britain should leave the EU”, “Britain should militarily intervene in other countries” and “the benefits system is too generous”.
Goodwin says TIG are right to argue there exists space in British politics for something new. Unfortunately for them, he says, it’s not in the political centre. The public aren’t crying out for an anti-Brexit liberal party, a kind of British-style Macron movement.
“Research shows there is more space for a party that is economically on the left but culturally on the right,” he said this week. That is, precisely the opposite of the anti-Brexit, pro-market TIG.
Six out of 10 people say they no longer feel represented by either of the main parties.
However, more than anything else, they want a party that respects the vote for Brexit and the desire for lower immigration and a tougher response to crime, but is also committed to spending more on public services, regulating big business and addressing inequality.
“Few liberals have seriously reflected on the events of the past decade,” Goodwin says. “Had they done so they might not have reached the flawed conclusion that what most voters want is to double down on the same brand of economic and social liberalism that led us to this chaotic moment in the first place.”
Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age