On 20 February 2019, just two days after its formation, the Independent Group, as it then was, killed itself. After swallowing the poison, it limped to its doom with an unbroken catalogue of stupidity until it broke apart on 4 June 2019.
It might have worked – it might have been the most successful break-out political party of our time but instead it stepped out into the new dawn, over a cliff.
The group began in the Labour Party. That party has for its whole existence been a compromising accommodation between factions, from raging Communists to soft social ideas which became Blairism. The rise of crazed Twitter-warriors though began a chain reaction which tore that compromise apart: local party by local party was taken over by Momentum, John McDonnell’s own Sturmabteilung, who would accept none but their own. Once they might have been three angry activists hurling abuse at the back of the room; now they had the members to ensure that they had control. With Momentum came anti-Semitism: its horrid rise in Labour and parts of the Liberal Democrats could be the subject of many articles, but in essence Socialism is a doctrine of finding enemies to hate, and on-line conspiracies found their target in an ancient hatred. In that atmosphere, no Blairite MP could remain without being deselected and no Jewish MP could remain safe. A breach could not be avoided.
On 18 February 2019, seven MPs left the Labour Party and formed The Independent Group. Great things were forecast for them; after all, most of the media establishment are by instinct Blairite soft-socialists. That tendency though may have blinded the eyes of media types who should have taken a more cynical look at what was happening, as it was not all about Momentum.
It might have worked, with focus, common sense and an eye to catching the tide, and a voter-friendly name. It could have been ‘Labour without the madness and anti-Semitism’, and that would have had a good popular impact, maybe overthrowing Corbyn Labour.
However, after just two days of existence they ended it: on 20 February three dissenting Conservatives joined the Independent Group and were welcomed, as any new movement may welcome converts. However with the Conservatives it could no longer be ‘Sane Labour’, and no more dissenters would come across, so by welcoming three new members they turned away maybe thirty who would have come to them. With the ex-Conservatives all they had in common was wanting to overturn Brexit. In this role they were not only redundant – the LibDems had this sewn up – but also alienated the very Labour-leaning voters they hoped to win.
The European election, the election which should never have happened, approached and they took on the mantle of a Remain faction and no more, adopted at least two new names, now as “Change UK”, but whose sole policy was to oppose change, and “the Remain Alliance”, which was ludicrously unself-aware to be kind, or dishonest to be frank.
Then on 4 June 2019 CUK-TIG-RA split apart, with most of its MPs going back to being independents dreaming of new things, and a rump, under the ever-angry, ex-Conservative Anna Soubry keeping the Change UK name, even if the man it was subconsciously named after, Chuka, has gone.
It might have been a success, but for that the actions of 20 February. When Anna Soubry came to them they could simply have said “sit near us but no closer”, but they did not. They could have claimed to be “reformed Labour” but they did not. They could have adopted a long policy platform positioning themselves as heirs to the Blair tradition (without the wars) without taking sides on Brexit and tempting their red-rosette colleagues, but they did not. They misread the mood of the country which is easy Within the Bubble but unforgivable outside it, and plunged into determined obscurity.
Now the group has sundered in two. It has not split logically into ex-Conservatives and ex-Labour but into two mixed groups. It is hard to see how this could be any better for them. If they are all seeing ahead of them the end of their political careers, maybe it does not matter.
There are no second chances now. Chuka may try to form a “Sane Labour” caucus now, but his motivations now look impure: his motivation can never again be seen as purely to bring sanity and responsiveness, but as a vehicle for a Remainiac obsession. He has shown his hand, and had it cut off.
Instead he may knock on Jo Swinton’s door and beg to be let into the Liberal Democrats, but would they want him? His presence may be poison to their brand.