After months of fevered speculation, on 18 February last year a small coterie of Labour MPs quit the party to start a rival group in parliament. The following day they were joined by three Conservatives – Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry – with the organisation soon gaining the soporific title the ‘Independent Group’. Within months that became ‘Change UK’, and before the end of the year, an organisation founded to recalibrate British politics had dissolved.
Those MPs heralding from the Labour benches had near-universally descended into political obscurity during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Chuka Umunna, once touted as the “British Obama”, had gained a reputation for performing u-turns more frequently than a London taxi. Meanwhile the most memorable intervention of his confrère Chris Leslie, briefly shadow chancellor in 2015, was to declare how Labour’s future consisted in appealing to readers of Which? magazine. Mike Gapes, whose nickname “Iron Mike” seems to have been known only to himself and Umunna, would later regale how his unique brand of political resilience was the result of “fighting battles on Twitter”. This was particularly ironic given Gapes’ perennial enthusiasm for deploying British soldiers abroad for actual battles – the pitfalls of which extend to potential death and psychological trauma rather than simply being ratio-ed.
Besides these individuals were other self-described moderates who, with the exception of Luciana Berger, offered a veritable ‘who’s who’ of party non-entities. Now, we were assured by much of the media, little-known figures such as Gavin Shuker, Ann Coffey and Angela Smith were in fact giants of the Labour movement – on a par with the infamous ‘Gang of Four’ who founded the Social Democratic party (SDP) in 1981. In a video published shortly after the Independent Group uttered itself into existence, weight loss guru Tom Watson remarked how his immediate feeling was one of “deep sadness”. This was particularly strange given Watson himself had been aware of the breakaway in advance of it happening. The fastidiously objective Guardian decided to post his entire video to its YouTube channel.
Despite these MPs claiming to uphold ‘real Labour values’, their career trajectories since December have been particularly enlightening. If February last year was when the Independent Group emerged, July 2020 was when its leading protagonists sincerely disclosed their political commitments.
This applies most comically of all to Chris Leslie, a man whose political persona blends vapid centrist platitudes with Dada-esque performance art. Last week, in an announcement which would have tested credulity on April Fools, the former MP was unveiled as the incoming CEO for the Credit Services Association – the trade body for Britain’s debt collection industry. As millions of people face arrears on their homes and businesses as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Leslie has become the benighted voice of bailiffs.
A fortnight earlier, Luciana Berger was announced as a managing director for the controversial consultancy Edelman. A week later she was joined there by Chuka Umunna, who became its executive director and head of environmental, social and governance consultancy. While equal parts absurd and formulaic, neither of these appointments were as predictable, however, as the earlier news that Angela Smith, who frequently admonished Labour’s plans to take utilities into public ownership, had become a non-executive director for Portsmouth Water – a private water company.
Among those MPs who left Labour to start the Independent Group, Gavin Shuker and Mike Gapes remain uniquely unattached. While both may profess to love private enterprise, it appears the feeling isn’t mutual.
Although the appointment of Leslie as the country’s bailiff-in-chief and Smith’s elevation to water lobbyist might border on the farcical, Umunna and Berger’s switch to Edelman shows how the revolving door between politics and lobbying is deadly serious. Both figures are well-suited to the corporate sector, which is precisely why they struggled in a Labour party focused on reducing income inequality and expanding public ownership. At Edelman they join Anji Hunter, formerly the gatekeeper to Tony Blair. Until recently James Morris was also a managing director at the consultancy, having previously worked at the Number 10 strategy unit during the Blair years before later working for Ed Miliband. The occasional free flow of advisors between politics and corporate lobbying is one thing – but for two former Labour politicians to jump into that world with both feet shows that the politics of the party’s ‘moderates’ is anything but progressive.
As Tribune editor Ronan Burtenshaw highlighted last week, Edelman’s “Working Families for Wal-Mart” effort was “one of the most notorious anti-union propaganda campaigns this century.” The definition of astroturf advocacy, it saw the consultancy pay two ‘bloggers’ to travel across the US to interview company employees while posing as ‘grassroots’ activists.
Later, in 2011, Edelman provided crisis communications to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation when it was revealed a News of the World journalist had hacked into the voicemails of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. This was merely the tip of an iceberg which extended to criminality – a public relations trail that Edelman were all too eager to obscure.
More recently, the firm was commissioned to run PR campaigns supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, a huge piece of energy infrastructure transporting Canadian tar sands oil across North America. Greenpeace detailed how these efforts again embodied an astroturfing approach, while Vice described the campaign as “targeting everyday citizens and convincing them to become pro-oil support troops”. Prior to this, Edelman worked for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – a climate change denial organisation opposed to the use of renewable energy.
The purpose of working for a company like Edelman is simple: to become a millionaire while rigging the system for billionaires. Anyone who can effortlessly slip into such an organisation with ready-made alacrity has no place being a Labour MP in the first place.
Ironically, the chief legacy of the Independent Group – which partly emerged from a desire to ‘stop Brexit’ – was to make a hard Brexit far more likely. Illustrative of this is how every Independent Group MP voted against a customs union last year – along with most Liberal Democrats and even Caroline Lucas. Despite the (untrue) claim that high-profile ‘remainers’ would have accepted a ‘soft Brexit’ compromise, that strategy was all or nothing. It now seems inevitable that by the end of this year, Britain will have an utterly transformed relationship to the EU. The hardest of hardcore remainers, particularly Change UK, played their part.
For some, however, it seems this was the plan – or at the very least an acceptable overhead for the more important goal of stopping Corbyn becoming prime minister. As Shuker told the Observer earlier this year: “I will be able to say I helped prevent Jeremy Corbyn from leading us through a huge national crisis. And to be honest, I’ll take that.” For others, like Umunna, Smith, Leslie and Berger, the prize goes beyond posterity.
If you want to understand the absence of moral fibre amongst Labour MPs before Jeremy Corbyn became party leader, you only need to look at the positions his most trenchant critics now occupy. British politics is better for their exit.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.