The Independent Group Might Just Be Pushing At An Open Door

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Jeremy Corbyn is not the only thing dividing the Labour Party. If he was, Ian Austin and Frank Field would be sitting with the new Independent Group. But something deeper is going on. And it’s not just Brexit - politics is changing.

The party is splintering because economics is no longer the only game in town. Increasingly our approach to politics and the way we vote are driven by our cultural values – open or closed. That shift is transformational because it cuts directly across old alliances and existing party lines. Thus, for all they share, Labour’s rebels sit apart because they disagree on the defining issues of the day – most viscerally, in their approach to immigration.

The political axis has been moving for some time, but its rotation has been supercharged by the Referendum. That archetypal ‘open vs closed’ contest has redrawn the battle lines of British politics to such an extent that more of us now see ourselves as Leave or Remain than Labour or Tory.

It is this values divide, not a soft centre, that The Independent Group are seeking to exploit. They are betting that that cultural schism will define the politics of the next decade – and unlike the two main parties they will not be held back by alliances built for an old political system.

The difficulty they face is clear – their natural constituency, the strongest Remain voter, looks an awful lot like the strongest Corbyn voter. Young, liberal, metropolitan, they are internationalist not nationalist, liberal not traditional. They like immigration and aid, and believe in equal marriage and our duty to asylum seekers. These values are not limited to London and a couple of university towns, they are broadly shared by under 45s in every region of the country.

At the moment we know what the Independent Group are against – Hard Brexit, antisemitism, May and Corbyn, and of course the ‘old broken politics’. And in the eyes of most voters that’s not a bad start. But where can the Independent Group carve out a positive platform that is more appealing to open voters than what’s on offer today? Here are three places to start.

Let’s begin with foreign policy. Anyone who thinks Jeremy Corbyn has consistently been on the right side of history hasn’t done their research. From Veneuzuela to Nato, Corbyn isn’t just wrong, he’s out of touch with the vast mainstream of British society, Remainers included.

This is important because the Labour leadership’s sympathy for repressive regimes echoes a second point – the wider problem with the way they and their outriders do politics. Support for murderous dictators and a blind eye to bullying, antisemitic or otherwise, are two sides of the same coin – an authoritarian zeal in which the ends always justify the means if done in the name of socialism.

The Independent Group should carve out a foreign policy from first principles, based on multilateralism and progressive, open values. The Tories refuse to offend old allies like Saudi Arabia, Labour’s leaders won’t criticise old comrades – even, ludicrously, when like Russia they commit murder on our own soil. They are both wrong, and on the wrong side of public opinion, and the Independent Group should say so.

And ‘open’ voters want an optimistic style of politics which is deliberative, respectful and human. One that accepts that decent people can disagree in good faith, and (and I’m amazed this needs saying) one that has absolutely zero tolerance for bullying, racist or otherwise.

Finally – free movement, no ifs no buts. The Labour Party of Corbyn, McDonnel and Abbott has the most restrictionist immigration policy the party has had in decades. The reality of this fact is only just beginning to dawn on their supporters, and eventually they will have to move. The Independent Group should move first. Free movement is a touchstone ‘open’ policy, it has been good for Britain and the Independent Group’s potential supporters want to keep it.

Of course, they will need a lot more than that, not least a radical but realistic economic policy. Open, internationalist values won’t thrive if the system seems rigged. Too many businesses and individuals don’t pay their fair share of tax, the average family has paid a bigger price for the financial crisis than the banks that caused it, and the growth of food banks and homelessness are a national disgrace. None of these are easily solved, but if the Independent Group is to position itself as the party of a fair and functional economy all will need to be properly addressed.

If the Labour Party are to fight off this challenge there will have to be changes at the top – of behaviour if not of individuals. It is still salvageable – many fine MPs and activists will stay and they have the giant advantage of their infrastructure and historic support. But long-term they will either move to occupy the Open ground or they will be swept away by the changing tides of British politics.

If Labour fails to change, the Independent Group might just find they are pushing at an open door.