The Independent Group Wasn't A Failure – It Was About Putting Country Before Party

The objective of that day a year ago was to say publicly what many would only say in private, former executive director of The Independent Group Nicola Murphy writes.
The Independent Group, before it disbanded last year.
The Independent Group, before it disbanded last year.

There have been reports that MPs will split from the Labour Party if Rebecca Long-Bailey becomes Leader. Whether this would happen is questionable. Leaving is a difficult and deeply personal decision. It is more than just leaving a job, though it is that too, it is walking away from your purpose, political family, breaking ties and friendships.

A year ago today, I watched Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith, Ann Coffey, Mike Gapes and my husband Chris Leslie, do just that.

I was leading a small group who were helping the MPs plan how to communicate why they were leaving Labour and what they stood for as well as against. The to-do list was endless – a company; governance; name; narrative; questions and answers; media plan; website; raise, receive and report funding; employ staff; hold data; plan activity and a launch. All without telling anyone anything that could leak.

Parliament was in recess the week of 18 February 2019. Not ideal. After months of making sense of Brexit and arcane parliamentary procedure, no one would blame political journalists for taking the week off. We shortened the room to avoid empty space but they came in droves.

The seven MPs arrived – it had been eight (I was told he changed his mind because he didn’t want to upset his mum).

We had rehearsed everything. A group of adults walking to a stage and moving from chairs to lectern may sound straightforward but when you have a group where one is due a baby and another a hip replacement, best to leave nothing to chance.

Luciana began: “My name is Luciana Berger and I am the Labour Member –”. Instinct. Luciana gave one of the most devastating and extraordinary critiques of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, which at any other time, in any other party, would have sounded the death knell of a party’s leadership.

Chris was next. His voice caught as he said it had not been an easy decision. It is the only time I have seen him emotional in public.

Angela told her personal story from poverty to parliament, then Gavin with an excoriating description of the Labour leadership. Ann followed: “I thought I would be in the Labour party for the rest of my life”. Mike’s words were angry and sad but full of fight and determination just like Mike himself. Lastly, Chuka echoed the journey and regret that had brought us here, but with hope for the future.

The words were theirs but they were speaking for all of us who had reached the end of the road with a party unrecognisable from the one we joined.

The speeches and questions ended. It felt positive and full of emotion. Genuine. We had created The Independent Group. Now we had to survive.

The media plan was stretched with the sheer scale of the bids versus the tiny team.

But this was politics and it is the unforeseen that smacks you in the face. As an adviser, you kick yourself for not thinking of every possible scenario but some things are literally unimaginable. There would be a few of these moments. The first came on day one.

I’d only stepped out for a sandwich but I returned to faces of “oh god”. A Daily Politics discussion had turned to racism and Angela had referred to people with a “funny tinge”.

Horrendous but we needed to get through horrified disbelief. Angela had to apologise – an understatement. She was devastated and wretchedly sorry. Clearly no excuse or explanation could lessen how awful this was, but Angela did apologise and meant every word.

Everyone was angry but we had no choice but to carry on.

Just as I was heading home to go and be a parent, while Chris stayed for Newsnight, he appeared in his office: “The Tories are coming.”

We had talked about a small number of Conservatives joining us but nothing was certain.

“We need another event, same as ours.” We had 36 hours.

TIG was going to be a rollercoaster, with no respite and we were just setting off.

When I did finally leave, Luciana’s picture beamed up at me from a pile of newspapers and people were talking about us on the train.

Many take satisfaction in saying TIG failed but whatever happened next, the objective of that day a year ago was to say publicly what many would only say in private: that Labour in the grip of the hard left should not be trusted to be in government. Taking a stand is not failure. Those seven MPs (joined by Joan Ryan and the four Conservatives) put their country before party and themselves, when others did not. It is what we should expect from all our elected representatives. I am proud and grateful they did.

Nicola Murphy is the former executive director of The Independent Group.


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