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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > April 2019 > Parties over

Parties over

The Independent Group might lack shape and specific ideas. But it is already shaking things up—and might continue to do so because the old political tribes have been losing cohesion for decades

Absence, the post-modernists say, is just a special form of presence. The Independent Group (TIG) of MPs is so half-formed, so hazily-defined that it is more of a gap in the party system than anything else. In terms of ideas, its founding statement offered only negation, vowing its as yet unstated policies would be “not led by ideology.” The same document proposed to “fix our broken politics” but didn’t say how; two of the first eight Labour MPs involved, Angela Smith and Joan Ryan, had championed “No to AV” in 2011, when Nick Clegg was making similar noises in the name of changing the old voting system. One of the first Conservative members, Heidi Allen, almost immediately pledged to do nothing to bring down the May government, which—in conventional terms—would render this more of an adjunct to the Tories than an independent outfit. But who is to say whether she was speaking for a bloc of some sort, or only for herself?

Despite this long run of negatives, however, TIG could still be a something—or perhaps a non-thing—that proves to be the start of something big. Its arrival was followed within days by big shifts on Brexit policy on the part of both the government and the opposition front bench, and, in some circles at least, the excitement went wider too. Centrist Westminster commentators expressed a thrill at hearing centrist voices unleashed, and I know of temperamentally moderate voters hundreds of miles from Big Ben— the sort who regard compromise itself as a virtue—who also aired relief and enthusiasm about something being unjammed. The early polling suggested there might be quite a lot of them.

The individuals involved are not without talent: Anna Soubry’s fearless intelligence, Chuka Umunna’s fluent charisma and Sarah Wollaston’s proven independence of spirit are all valuable political commodities. But such personal merits do not stack up to a programme. And the history of specifically centrist breakaways in Britain is, as the boxes across and overleaf lay bare, a long and punishing one. So what reason—if any—is there to think things could turn out more happily for today’s middle-of-the-road deserters?

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In Prospect’s April issue: Mark Damazer, the former controller of BBC Radio 4, tells the inside story of how the BBC has tried—and sometimes failed—to cover the political crisis that overshadows everything else. Elsewhere in the issue: Playwright and screenwriter James Graham profiles John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, as he takes centre-stage in the unfolding Brexit drama and Tom Clark examines the Independent Group and argues that they could well shake up the established political tribes. Also, Jennifer Williams highlights the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in Manchester—a city that is simultaneously experiencing a housing boom and a homelessness crisis.