Chaos theory’s assertion that tiny changes can have dramatic effects is being vindicated with a vengeance in Westminster. If not quite as paltry as a butterfly flapping its wing in the Amazonian rain forest, the creation of the Independent Group seemed a small event. Eight Labour and three Tory MPs joined. Eleven in total. Just 11: despite all the provocations of Brexit and Corbyn. Is that it? I thought when the breakaway began, and filed the groupuscule away under “lost causes”.
As it has turned out, the small difference has made all the difference. Last night the Labour party removed the whip from Chris Williamson, a supporter of the Maduro tyranny in Venezuela and the Cuban dictatorship. Jeremy Corbyn and his office reportedly wanted to keep him; a Labour MP told a political journalist that Corbyn ‘personally intervened to stop the suspension of Williamson.’ You can see why. Williamson’s associations are no worse than the alliances of Jeremy Corbyn or Seumas Milne, Ken Livingstone or George Galloway. They are part of the same gang. If Williamson is beyond the pale then so is Corbyn. Yet in the end, Corbyn had to retreat.
We must wait to find out what Amber Rudd and her fellow Tory centrists said to Theresa May to force her to accept that Parliament must have a vote on Britain crashing out of the EU. But it is noticeable that before the independents broke away, there was talk that Conservative remainers would have to resign from the Cabinet. This week May made her first significant concession to the left of the Conservative party without one minister having to leave. Before that, Corbyn, a lifelong opponent of the EU, was forced to concede that Labour would back the people’s vote cause.
I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was. Westminster politics was a system ready to be thrown into chaos. The far left controlled the Labour party. The Brexit right effectively controlled the Tories, as it was the only faction Theresa May made concessions to. Rigid, intolerant and unchallengeable: all it took to break it was the existence of an alternative. MPs can now allow the thought to hang in their leaders’ minds that, if they do not step back, politicians might find the courage to walk to a welcoming new home.
A pincer movement is closing around Corbyn. In the Labour party all but about 30 MPs are disillusioned with and repelled by the far left, and yearn for something better. Most have no intention of resigning but have coalesced around Tom Watson, who is now the de facto leader of the Parliamentary Labour party. They put pressure on Corbyn from the inside. The Independent Group puts pressure from the outside. There are significant ideological differences between the two. Most Labour MPs want to reclaim Labour and return it to being a social democratic party. They aren’t centrists. They hope, perhaps vainly, that Brexit will one day “be over,” and they can unite pro-leave northern MPs, metropolitan remainers, the trade unions, with the exception of Unite, and launch a combined struggle against the far left. For a while they hoped that Angela Rayner would be their leadership candidate but she seems to be falling out of favour. Yet the political differences between the two matter less than the fact that the Independent Group is there, and chalking up significant poll numbers. Corbyn cannot afford more defections and has had to back down on Europe and racism. Labour MPs, who have no intention of joining the independents, are happy to bank the victories and watch as the air of invincibility around Corbyn blows away before the new wind.
Before celebrating the extraordinary impact of a small act of defiance, bear in mind the long term trends. The most frightening aspect of the Williamson affair was not the black-shirted demagogue but the Labour members cheering him on. They are the authentic representatives of the dominant faction in the constituencies. They will eventually reshape the Parliamentary Labour party and select MPs who suit their prejudices. As with Labour, so with the Conservatives. The next leader of the Tory party will be the most right-wing candidate presented to the members, who are becoming ever more extreme. Amber Rudd may have won an important victory but the future belongs to the right.