When historians look back upon our current political environment, it will be hard for them to top Anna Soubry’s declaration on Newsnight that The Independent Group have no policies as a pithy summary of current political hegemony. “It’s almost difficult to articulate (the common ground between the MPs), as it’s just so obvious to us” Soubry explained when pushed about what binds the defectors from Labour and the Tories. Well quite.
The key elements of Soubry’s interview, and the wider political development of The Independent Group, have been in play for a few decades now. Here’s just a few of them:
-Extensive training to reframe even the most straightforward of questions. See Soubry’s incredulity at the idea of even having policies for an example.
-A focus on “evidence based policymaking” and on what “works”. The obvious questions of what evidence and what something “working” might look like are of course never answered.
-Treating balance, neutrality and reasonableness as political tenets, such that a contrast with left or right wing politics is made to imply there is something inherently unbalanced, biased and unreasonable about other political positions.
Despite all this, it hasn’t taken too much effort to coax more details from the Group, who have admitted they are opposed to raising taxes on the rich, probably about right for a group compromised of those on the right of the Labour party and eh, from whatever section of the Tories the other 3 could be described as being from. In addition, any political organisation will still be a sum of its parts, and one comprising characters, and I do mean characters, such as Mike Gapes or Angela Smith should probably expect a few speed bumps along the way.
There is little new in all of this, with the “third way” of Blair, Clinton, Schroder et al, having dominated electoral politics in the west throughout much of the 1990s. The left, the orthodoxy goes, would have to compromise with capitalism to make any progress. The right of course, well, they could stay where they were. Or just rebrand as “Big Society” Toryism or Compassionate Conservatism etc whilst keeping the large parts of their agenda intact.
What is more unique about The Independent Group is their mirroring of a wider tactical trend that has seen the establishment of separate parties and movements as a vehicle for centrist values and policies. Rather than attempting to steer social democratic parties towards free market policies, the strategy now is to construct new platforms which are devoid of the structures, logos or names of legacy political parties.
Inspired by the En Marche grouping of Emmanuel Macron, which was formed as a vehicle for the former Socialist cabinet member to gain a parliamentary group which backed his agenda, the trend can also be said to encompass the rise of Ciudadnos from being an anti-Catalan nationalist fringe party to a vehicle to disrupt the two party hegemony of Spain.
The need to discard legacy parties, a Macronisation process, is necessary for centrists for a number of reasons. First is the Paskoification of Social Democratic parties leading to their collapse as viable electoral vehicles, within Spain, Germany, Italy as well as the eponymous Greece. The reflection on these processes has generated some notable contradictions, with Hilary Clinton’s declaration that such parties are insufficiently tough on immigration being not untypical of the rhetoric.
The second reason is closely related to the first, with the memberships of these parties, who are unsurprisingly a little closer to everyday politics than elite figures, backing a turn back towards social democracy and leftist politics more generally. This led to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, off the back of a pretty spectacular own goal by the traditional right and center in the party by opening up leadership elections to the membership. However this tendency has been successfully disciplined in other countries, Germany notable amongst them.
In general terms, the hollowing out of parties and their divorce from representing interest groups (at least on the left) has meant many politicians are more concerned with favorable media coverage than with motivating and mobilizing mass movements. However they must still operate under the existing political governance structures, and the threat of deselection within their constituencies focused the minds of TIG members, as a mentor of Chris Leslie’s let slip.
Having to deal with the tricky question of your party members not agreeing with you, and even attempting to deselect you, isn’t the kind of thing you need when on a mission to save them from themselves, although the Independent Group are likely going to find Britain is not France, and old fashioned electoral politics may yet deal them a tough hand.
The final reason is the need to present a fresh and unblemished entity to the public, and perhaps more importantly, the media. Free of previous embarrassments and defeats, as well as the political meanings and positions that parties inevitably hold, the construction of these vehicles avoids having to reconcile such contradictions.
The strategy has, despite some setbacks, given TIG a strong showing in the initial polling but as the 2017 general election and Brexit have shown, political dynamics are not always easily captured by traditional assumptions pollsters make. The 2010 general election, where a positive showing in polling for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats actually saw them making no gains at, should give them pause for thought.
But there is a degree to which no such reflection will take place. The stakes for the individuals within the TIG, which is nothing less than their political careers, are too high for them not to try anything. And just as importantly, the possibility of failure for the wider centrist political project is nothing something they are prepared to countenance.