Lonely life in the middle for Britain’s newest political movement

Toby Melville/Reuters
Members of the Independent Group depart following their first meeting in London on Feb. 25.

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For a parliamentary grouping that has existed barely a month and has only 11 members, The Independent Group (TIG) is showing disproportionately large appeal in British politics. One recent poll found 18 percent support for TIG, compared to 23 percent for Labour and 36 percent for Conservative. The asterisk: That came only after reminders that TIG existed; otherwise, the figure was a mere 6 percent.

There’s a hard road ahead for TIG, made up of members of Parliament breaking away from both Labour and the Tories and united by their opposition to Brexit and frustration with polarized politics. While the group is trying to occupy a center position left behind by Britain’s two dominant forces, it faces an unfavorable electoral system and media. That makes gaining traction in the long term hard. But TIG members believe it’s worth the try.

“Politics is broken. Both major parties are consumed, one [Conservatives] by hard-right ideology and one [Labour] with the hard left,” says Joan Ryan, a TIG MP. “Neither of them are addressing the people. The people tend to be much more around the center ground.”

Why We Wrote This

You’ve heard plenty from the dug-in extremes in Britain’s Parliament. But there’s a breakaway bloc that’s been trying to make a play for the middle. Can it become a more influential player?

Nursing a cup of Earl Grey tea, Joan Ryan glances at the TV monitor in her parliamentary office. It’s mid-afternoon on another long day of Brexit debate, and the chamber’s green leather benches are mostly empty, including the backbench whence Ms. Ryan has just returned after supporting an amendment calling for a second referendum to be held.

The amendment was the latest move in the three-dimensional chess game of Brexit – Britain’s fitful path out of the European Union – that is lurching forward again this week. Prime Minister Theresa May is seeking to build support for a twice-rejected Brexit withdrawal agreement ahead of an EU summit at which the United Kingdom will be asking to extend its departure date past March 29.

Ms. Ryan spent 17 years as a Labour member of Parliament. But she no longer sits on its opposition benches. The amendment that she has just put forward was proposed by an independent group of MPs who defected last month from the two main parties, united by their opposition to Brexit and frustration with Parliament’s febrile, polarized politics.

Why We Wrote This

You’ve heard plenty from the dug-in extremes in Britain’s Parliament. But there’s a breakaway bloc that’s been trying to make a play for the middle. Can it become a more influential player?

“Politics is broken. Both major parties are consumed, one [Conservatives] by hard-right ideology and one [Labour] with the hard left. Neither of them are addressing the people. The people tend to be much more around the center ground,” she says.

By breaking away, these pro-EU independent MPs are betting on a bigger shake-up to come. Early polling has shown a measure of support for The Independent Group, or TIG, which with 11 MPs is tied as the fourth-largest group in the 650-seat House of Commons.

But the group faces numerous obstacles to becoming a real player in British politics, ranging from Labour’s and the Conservatives’ near duopolistic control of the system to TIG’s precarious electoral position and its limited media influence.

Finding a middle ground

While one recent poll found 18 percent support for TIG, compared to 23 percent for Labour and 36 percent for Conservative, this was only after respondents were reminded of its existence. Without such a prompt, support drops to 6 percent.

Moreover, the center ground in British politics is already contested by a national party that is strongly anti-Brexit and socially liberal. “The space they’re occupying is not empty. It’s the same space that the Liberal Democrats are occupying,” says John Curtice, a politics professor at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland.

For any new party, the challenge is to scale up and contest elections. Some TIG members are in swing seats and will struggle to replace the party machinery and brand recognition that helped them into power, say analysts. Ms. Ryan’s seat changed hands in 2010; she won it back in 2015 and increased her majority to more than 10,000 in the last election in 2017.

However, the Liberal Democrats have also demonstrated that U.K. centrists can succeed. In 2010, the party won nearly a quarter of votes cast in an election that yielded a coalition government in which the Liberal Democrats shared power with the Conservatives led by David Cameron.

This day’s amendment on Brexit is an early test for TIG. And it’s not looking good: Labour has told its MPs to abstain, even though its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has said that he supports a second referendum. “They should be voting for this today,” sighs Ms. Ryan. “It absolutely demonstrates how disingenuous Jeremy Corbyn’s position is. He wants Brexit.” (Labour officials would defend their stance as a tactical one that didn’t preclude future votes.)

Ms. Ryan is one of eight Labour MPs who quit the party in February to set up TIG. The other three are former Conservatives opposed to Brexit. As MPs, they aren’t obliged to step down and run again for their seats, though they have faced calls to do so from local party activists.

For Ms. Ryan, who represents a district in north London which narrowly voted Remain in the 2016 referendum, quitting her party was a hard choice – she compares the feeling to “a bereavement” – that was not about just Brexit. “It’s the heart of your identity. It’s your politics, your values, your beliefs, your social life,” she says. (Her husband is a national trade union official.)

What forced her hand, she says, was Labour’s handling of anti-Semitism in its ranks, a problem that has surged under Mr. Corbyn’s leadership. Ms. Ryan isn’t Jewish, but she received death and rape threats as chair of the party’s Friends of Israel group. Other TIG members who are Jewish have accused Labour of being “institutionally anti-Semitic.”

“If it was just Brexit, I might have been able to stay longer and argued the case on a policy level … [but] anti-Semitism is non-negotiable,” she says.

‘This is a long way from done’

The nearest parallel for British politics is the formation in 1981 by four leading Labour moderates of the Social Democratic Party. Then, as now, Labour had a strongly left-wing platform. But the centrist SDP struggled to break tribal loyalties to Labour and wound up being absorbed into the Liberal Democrats in 1988.

Compared to the Labour heavy hitters who defected in 1981, TIG lacks high-caliber national politicians, says Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College London and director of its UK in a Changing Europe initiative. TIG’s de facto leader, Chuka Umunna, has been a prominent advocate for a second referendum and a telegenic critic of Mr. Corbyn, but as a “maverick backbencher” he will find himself less in demand from TV bookers.

“People are not interested in Chuka’s opinion on Brexit. People were interested because of the split in the Labour ranks,” Mr. Menon warns.

Those splits continue: Labour deputy leader Tom Watson has set up a center-left policy group of MPs that is widely seen as a counterweight to Corbyn’s leftist orthodoxy.

Ms. Ryan argues that her group’s walkout last month gave cover for Mr. Watson to act. “We’ve changed the weather. It remains to be seen if we can change the political landscape. I think we can. This is a long way from done,” she says.

She added that she didn’t see how Mr. Watson could wrest back control of “our party.” When prompted that she had said “our party,” she grimaced. “Yeah. The party.”

When TIG’s amendment is called at the end of Thursday’s debate, its defeat seems preordained. Conservatives line up to oppose it while Labour MPs stay on their benches; it fails by 334 to 85. But not all Labour MPs stay seated: 24 rebel against the leadership, mostly in support of a second referendum. And the main motion, on whether or not to seek an extension to Brexit, divides the Conservatives and prompts fresh speculation of a government walkout.

Given these divisions, TIG may see more defections, bolstering its case for a rethink of a party system based on adversarial majoritarianism. “If they hold our values, from whatever part of Parliament, come and join us,” says Ms. Ryan.

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