The Independent Group - old wine in a new bottle

By Bernadette Meaden
February 22, 2019

The Independent Group (TIG) shows no sign of any fresh thinking, and every sign of being firmly attached to the status quo. But I fear that if people are seduced by TIG’s illusion of newness, it will help to prolong the life of policies which are socially and economically damaging.

I came across an illustration of this today on social media, when Dr Mark Porter, a GP and influential health broadcaster and writer tweeted,  “I have never been a member of a political party but I might change that if/when the #IndependentGroup form a new one. #hybridvigour”

Dr Helen Salisbury of the National Health Action Party replied, “If you are interested at all in the social determinants of health it may be worth looking at the voting records of its members on welfare ‘reform’ before you commit.” Indeed. Some novel packaging will not counteract the cruelty of Universal Credit, benefit sanctions and appalling disability assessments, or the economic illiteracy of austerity. 

Despite being comprised of MPs from two different parties, it appeared that TIG’s first split might occur between Conservatives Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry on austerity and social security. Whilst Allen bemoaned the fact that Conservative policies had deepened poverty, Soubry declared the Coalition had done a marvellous job and the cuts were necessary.

Seeing this glaring contradiction, an interviewer asked Allen whether she could agree with Soubry’s endorsement of the cuts. Allen blithely replied, "Probably not but that doesn't matter- this is a fresh start". That seems deeply unsatisfactory, to say the least. If Allen genuinely deplores the poverty over which she has famously wept more than once, surely she must in all conscience see it as a top priority to oppose the policies which she says deepened it? Does a fresh start mean simply moving on and ignoring the human cost of austerity? If so, it’s unlikely there would be any objection from fellow TIG member Chris Leslie, famous for being a Shadow Chancellor who opposed almost nothing in George Osborne’s 2015 budget. 

But we should get a clearer idea of where the Group stands from its statement of values, to which presumably all TIG MPs have signed up.  

The statement says: “The barriers of poverty, prejudice and discrimination facing individuals should be removed and advancement occur on the basis of merit, with inequalities reduced through the extension of opportunity, [emphasis in the original] giving individuals the skills and means to open new doors and fulfil their ambitions.”

Well - that seems to quite clearly rule out any redistribution of wealth, any need to tackle systemic economic injustice, and instead opt for the illusory panaceas of meritocracy and social mobility.

Coupled with the statement’s strong emphasis on individual responsibility, it is probably something Iain Duncan Smith could happily sign up to. There is nothing here to afflict the comfortable, or to comfort the afflicted.

And surprisingly, for a Group that says politics is broken, TIG’s statement shows no desire for real political reform. It says: “We believe that our parliamentary democracy in which our elected representatives deliberate, decide and provide leadership, held accountable by their whole electorate is the best system of representing the views of the British people.” No mention of the inadequacies of our First Past The Post system in which so many people feel their vote is wasted, or feel obliged to vote against the worst option, rather than for the best option.

As the Electoral Reform Society has pointed out, “The warping effect of Westminster’s voting system only exaggerates parties’ disconnect to the diversity of the whole UK. It should be clear to both parties that a new constitutional settlement is needed.” But TIG MPs seem happy to stick with the current dysfunctional system and the lack of representation it perpetuates.

Of course this new group has been greeted with delight by a media always grateful for novelty, and particularly appreciative of a distraction at the moment. Freed from party discipline, some TIG MPs have been unusually candid, which makes a refreshing change. But, for a country that desperately needs a political and economic reboot, there is little sign that TIG is capable of providing it, or would even want to do so. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden


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