Formation of the Independent Group in British Politics

Formation of the Independent Group in British Politics

The formation of The Independent Group out of a cohort of centrist MPs could signal the eventual demise of the two-party system in the United Kingdom.

The British party system is unique to parliamentary politics because of the dual monopoly the two largest parties have traditionally held on power and the consequent rarity of governing coalitions. The general left-right framework has undergone little change since it evolved into its modern form in the mid-nineteenth century, with Labour’s usurpation of the Liberal Party on the left in the 1920s being the only occurrence of significant change.

Impact on Contemporary Politics

The recent formation of The Independent Group (TIG) thus signals a notable development in British politics, and it might well shape political society in the United Kingdom (UK) after Brexit.

The group was formed on February 18, 2019, by a cohort of seven centrist Labour MPs (eventually joined by an eighth) dissatisfied with the party’s opposition to a second referendum, charges of pervasive anti-Semitism, and its leftward swing since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader in 2015.

The renegade Labourites were joined days later by three centrist Conservative MPs who left their own party in opposition to its rightward shift since the Brexit referendum, the growing influence of the hardline European Research Group (ERG), and their opposition to the party’s nonchalant attitude towards a no-deal Brexit.

The defection of centrists necessarily exposes the parties to their more extreme elements, and both leaders have already reacted to this new challenge. After months of appeasing the hard left and firmly backing the original referendum result, Corbyn recently threw his support behind the moderate wing’s push for a second referendum. Similarly, May has spurned the hard right and announced that in the event her withdrawal agreement fails in Parliament again next month, a vote would be held to explicitly reject a no-deal Brexit. Both moves are marked departures from the leaderships’ long-standing positions. However, they align with the interests of TIG and are clear overtures to their respective moderates in an effort to stave off further defections.

Future Prospects

It is difficult to predict what this will mean for the whole of British politics in the long-term. TIG is not a formal political party and has no official leadership, and although members have suggested that might change in the coming weeks, it remains uncertain what form it will take or whether it can even attract more defections from the main parties. Still, opportunities do exist for meaningful growth.

Most of its core policy positions align neatly with those of the Liberal Democrats (including its centrist ideological approach, opposition to Brexit, and support for a second referendum), and an alliance could turn them into a legitimate parliamentary force virtually overnight. A recent Times opinion poll suggests that 18 percent of voters prefer TIG over all other parties and 6 percent prefer the Liberal Democrats. Although still far behind the 36 percent enjoyed by the Conservatives, the combined figures place them on the cusp of Labour’s 23 percent which, if replicated in a general election, might force it into governing coalition. Other polls have reported similar numbers.

Of course, one should be wary of judging the future based on an early (and narrow) set of data, and the major parties might have already curbed short-term growth inside Parliament by moving closer to the middle ground. Nonetheless, it is clear that the political center remains a potent force in British politics and in the event of some alignment between TIG and the Liberal Democrats, it would likely pose a serious challenge to both traditional parties post-Brexit. This is especially true if the UK leaves the European Union without an agreement in March, diminishing the governing credentials of both major parties and making it more likely that voters will seek out third alternatives.

In Conclusion

To return to the subject of the opening paragraph, the emergence of a legitimate third contender would fundamentally realign British politics because it would make it much more difficult (and thus far less likely) for any one party to win a majority in Parliament. Parties would then have to rely increasingly on the support of smaller parties to command any real authority. While all of this depends on the emergence of a viable TIG-Liberal Democrat bloc (far from guaranteed), the creation of TIG itself is significant because it might represent the first step towards upending the traditional dual-party system and creating a more diverse political conversation in the post-Brexit era.

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