ON A visit to Paris in 1972, Chou En-Lai, Mao’s Number 2, was asked for his opinion on the French Revolution. When he responded ‘It’s too early to tell’, he was credited with a long view of history as someone from a country which had an unbroken succession of dynasties from 200BC onwards. It was nothing of the sort. Chou was referring to the protests of 1968. A communist mindset regards all popular dissent as revolutionary and to be violently suppressed. It was less Confucian and more polite confusion.
It’s still too early to tell about the fate of The Independent Group (TIG) that has recently formed in Parliament, but that has not stopped many from trying. What is interesting is how muted the hostility has been from most back-bench Labour MPs, though not all. In fact, there are quite open shows of sympathy verging on support.
The worst attacks have come from people too extreme be allowed into Labour. Lipstick Communist Ash Sarkar criticised Angela Smith to her face on the BBC, pointing out that Smith had left a party with whose manifesto she agreed. What Sarkar did not mention is that on the nuclear deterrent, UK membership of NATO, nuclear power stations and the Special Relationship, Corbyn, who is a vice-president of CND, disagrees with Labour’s manifesto, which is quite unprecedented in a party leader. Tim Farron had to quit for less.
The least worst argument is that the creation of TIG reduces the possibility of the election of a Labour government for people who ‘need’ one. The person who ‘needs’ a Labour government the most is Jeremy Corbyn. That is not a reason for other people to vote Labour.
Corbyn expressed ‘disappointment’ rather like the parent of a wayward child. But he has also called for MPs who defect from their parties to be subject to a recall petition which could lead to a by-election, thus equating defecting MPs to others who are sentenced to over a year in prison for criminal activity. This is a direct assault on individual political freedom. It is surprising that more has not been made of this. It is the clearest possible expression of the authoritarian socialism that now runs Labour.
There have also been demands that TIG MPs should resign and seek re-election. This appears based on the precedent of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless’s actions back in 2014, as well as Dick Taverne in the 1970s, when they successfully defended seats after leaving their parties. These are, in fact, the exceptions.
There was a time when any MP who was made a Minister of the Crown had to seek further approval from the electorate as the MP would be regarded as now profiting from the Crown, and thus would no longer be able to express independent views based on personal conscience or conviction. This was abolished in back 1926. So it is absurd now to demand a fresh mandate when an MP actually exercises his or her conscience, especially when Labour is led by someone who has placed his own conscience well before his own party’s policies for decades.
When Dave Nellist, Terry Fields and later on George Galloway were expelled from Labour for the clash between their personal ideology and that of their party, none of them saw fit to stand for re-election even though the party that had helped them win had disowned them. There were no calls for them to do so. So this demand is merely spurious politicking.
Comparisons have been made between TIG and the SDP of the 1980s. These are also absurd, as the implication is that the political landscape of 1981 resembles that of 2019 and that politics has stagnated in the intervening period. It is as ridiculous to compare the two as it would be to compare 1981 to 1943, and 1905 to 1943.
TIG have made a smart move in not actually forming a party, as this sidesteps the whole ‘who funds you’ jibe that Left-whingers, perpetually devoid of any better argument, always use. But TIG also cannot form a party unless they have policies, and currently they do not have policies that are sufficiently distinctive.
In fact, TIG are a protest group. They protest at the Stalinisation of the Labour Party, Labour’s fully-established institutional anti-Semitism, the anti-West posture of Labour’s leadership, and Labour’s failure to formulate a coherent and focused policy over Brexit. TIG’s Conservative defectors protest at the discovery to their horror that Conservatism is a form of centre-right politics and also the Conservative government’s much-unloved but still coherent and focused policy over Brexit, which they wish to dilute into Brexit In Name Only.
TIG are a party that could never become a government. Small parties, outside of competently representing their constituents, come into their own only when there is a need for confidence and supply or a coalition partner during a hung Parliament, such as now. One of the reasons for the spectacular defeat of Ed Miliband in 2015 was the prospect of his forming a coalition government with the SNP. But TIG has another far more interesting function in Parliament.
In 2016, 80 per cent of Labour MPs declared they had no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in a non-binding vote that he completely ignored in much the same way he has ignored these defections. Those dissident MPs that remain after the 2017 General Election face de-selections and votes of no confidence by their constituency Labour party. Should these continue, the MPs affected now have a new destination. This might kill the de-selection bids stone dead for fear of serious consequences.
Labour now have only 247 MPs. It might sound ridiculous today, but if 118 Labour MPs desert their party, TIG will become the official opposition. If there are more than 118 Labour MPs facing deselection or confidence votes, or MPs object to how their party is being run, or they feel they cannot remain a member of a party swarming with anti-Semites, there is now a place on the back benches where they can go. But as Chou said 47 years ago, it is too early to tell . . .