The Independent Group Of MPs Needs Radical Policies And Unity To Survive, Former SDP Leader David Owen Warns

TIG shouldn't have a single leader or fight by-elections, peer says
HuffPost UK

The new Independent Group of MPs (TIG) should not choose a single leader or fight by-elections, but must produce radical policies in order to survive, former SDP leader David Owen has suggested.

In his first interview since 11 backbenchers quit Labour and the Tories last month, Lord Owen warned that their bold move risked being undermined if they failed to stay united on key issues like the economy and austerity.

The former Labour foreign secretary and co-founder of the SDP in the 1980s, who now sits as an independent social democrat peer, said TIG had made a good start by ruling out pacts with the Lib Dems.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s The Week In Westminster programme, Owen said that the new grouping “might work” if Labour and the Conservatives refused to change their ways.

“I think it’s a quite clever name, Independent Group. I wouldn’t choose a single leader, have a leader of the Conservative side and a leader of the Labour side. I wouldn’t be forced into by-elections, I wouldn’t even be forced into council elections. I’d say we have one purpose and that’s to fight the next election,” he said.

“They’ve got to hammer out some policies. If they say that politics is broken, and again it’s got some truth in it, how are you going to put it together? They must be in the market of ideas.”

“It depends on whether the two large parties act in collusion together to stifle any new grouping, whether they go on behaving like they are at the moment, in which case of course this new group might work.”

Lord Owen
Lord Owen
PA Wire/PA Images

TIG chose Chuka Umunna as its ‘group spokesman’ this week, but is yet to even turn itself into a political party.

Owen said that recent differences of opinion over the Tories’ cuts programme under Cameron was a potential running sore for the new grouping.

He pointed out that the SDP early on had ‘very damaging’ divisions over trade union reform, even with its 29 MPs.

“They must not disagree. Whatever they do they must act together when the microscope is on them and they must give the appearance that they have new ideas and they can carry them through, that they are united on it.

“Already people are beginning to exploit the differences on economic policy between the two, which on the surface are quite considerable.”

Owen, whose SDP allied with the Liberals in the 1983 general election and came close to beating Labour in the popular vote, added that one shrewd early move was TIG’s decision to have an arms-length relationship with the Lib Dems.

“They’ve chosen right from the start to be a centrist group. We chose to be a left of centre grouping then gave that up. On the other hand they have in my view, sensibly said the Liberals are very welcome to join them whereas we made the mistake of being dragged into the Liberals.

“Because they must retain their unique selling point, that they are different and once you link with another political party you change that image and we did that with very damaging long-term consequences.”

Roy Jenkins and David Owen at the launch of the SDP in 1981
Roy Jenkins and David Owen at the launch of the SDP in 1981
PA Wire/PA Images

Owen added that among the radical policies the new grouping could support would be replacing the House of Lords with a German-style federal system and a new attempt at electoral reform.

“They’ll probably be tempted to go down the route that I did and what I still believe in, proportional representation. But the country doesn’t like it, they don’t like losing their link between their member of parliament. I would float a new idea, the French system which applies to their assembly elections of a second vote.”

But the former SDP leader said that the real risk for the independent group of MPs was that politics went back to normal once May passed a Brexit deal through the Commons.

“If we vote for the EU-UK withdrawal treaty a lot of this will settle back into a normal politics and then you’ll have people looking at who should be the leader of the Conservative party.

“Labour is now a socialist party in the Attlee sense and they could generate a 1945 mood and I would welcome it. I haven’t given up on the Labour Party but I will certainly withhold support until they change their leader.”


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