A Third Way?: What Party Defections in the UK Mean for Brexit and Beyond

Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

If the news of the recent defections of eleven British Members of Parliament (MPs) from their parties escaped your attention, you’re not alone. Over the deafening chaos of an unresolved Brexit, the formation of the so-called Independent Group went almost unnoticed. The eight former Labourites and three Tories, who initially came together to support a second referendum, were mocked by Labour MP John McDonnell as “completely irrelevant.” Yet, in reality, these strange bedfellows are far more remarkable than they may seem. A symptom of the country’s political malaise, this rebel group represents a new force in British politics.

The unlikely alliance offers a centrist alternative to the increasingly divergent left and right. In her struggle to divorce Britain from the European Union, Theresa May’s conservative government is splintered between hard-line Brexiteers and soft-Brexit Tories. On the opposite bench, Labour is locked in its own existential battle, suffocating under the weight of reported anti-Semitism and its leader Jeremy Corbyn refusing to pick a side in the Brexit debate. Meanwhile, with the leader of the traditionally centrist party, the Liberal Democrats, stepping down due to internal critiques of his performance, the British public is in desperate need of a strong party whose policies occupy the middle ground.

The Independent Group offers just this. The deliberately ambiguous christening of the alliance as “independent” and its denouncement of the most radical Labour policies, such as free college tuition, help establish the group as a tabula rasa for public opinion. Indeed, in an interview with the New Statesman, the de facto leader of the rebel alliance expressed his desire to transcend bipartisan politics, stating, “We’ve got a good chance of moving towards less of a left-right dichotomy and less of a politics based on class and ownership, and more of one that is principally made up of a populist offering.” This centrist approach is an attempt to recalibrate Britain’s political sphere after the divisiveness of Brexit, which has cut across the traditional left and right and fractured party allegiances.

The dominance of the British left and right is arguably more deeply rooted today than in any other contemporary state. Though Americans might feel restricted by their own limited elephant and donkey options, political scientist Leslie Lipson argues, “even during a presidential election, the cohesiveness of the Democrats and the Republicans is far from matching that of the Conservatives and Labourites.” Thus, the formation of the Independent Group seeks to break down the restrictions of a two party system, offering a third choice of more nuanced policies that are representative of the variation of views among the British public.

Indeed, more political parties necessarily enable the representation of a greater range of views. In countries such as France and Canada, the presence of multiple parties leads to a politics that is more representative of the nuanced policy demands of their citizens. And with more parties comes more collaboration. The Commons was designed to be deliberately adversarial, with its benches, as the old lore goes, facing each other at a distance of two sword lengths away. Thus, the group’s proposal of a ‘horseshoe-shaped’ chamber physically embodies this move towards a more collaborative, multi-party politics.

John McDonnell’s dismissal of the party as “completely irrelevant” also seems flawed given its immediate impact on British politics. Although the new bloc will not change voting in Parliament, since the rebels disobeyed their party whips before their departure, they have already contributed to a new political culture. As BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg noted, “The defections change not just the official arithmetic in Parliament, but its alchemy and atmosphere." Now, as the fourth biggest group in Parliament, the Independent Group’s numbers are larger than those of the government’s coalition party, the Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP. This highlights the potential influence of small parties in hung parliaments.

Moreover, the maverick alliance has already asserted its force in pressuring Corbyn to support a second referendum. Indeed, MP Chuka Umunna advocated to “give people the final say on Brexit,” and tabled his own amendment for a people’s vote. Corbyn responded to the pressure by committing Labour to supporting attempts to pass a second referendum. Thus, the groups are not only significant as potential coalition forces, but as voices steering the policy of the main parties.    

To undermine the Independent Group as a flash in the pan is to completely underestimate their influence in creating a more centrist, collaborative type of politics. Whilst crystal ball political forecasts are never a good idea, the alliance’s current record of success and today’s political climate indicate a demand for a party like the Independent Group. Although it remains to be seen whether the new bloc will become a force majeure in the Commons, it is fair to say that their formation at least represents a distinctly new direction in British politics-a third way, if you will.