Seven pro-EU Labour Member of Parliament (MPs) on Monday resigned from Britain’s main opposition party in a major challenge to its leftwing leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The departure was the biggest blow to Labour since four senior members quit in 1981 to form the Social Democratic party (SDP). Berger has announced the formation of a new independent grouping in parliament with intention of seizing the centre ground of British politics. They represent the first co-ordinated departure of Labour MPs since Corbyn became leader in 2015.
The long-rumoured exit came days before key parliamentary votes on Brexit in which the MPs want Corbyn to back a second Brexit referendum.
Tom Watson, the Deputy Leader of Labour Party, in UK, has said his party faces an even more sharp crisis, if it failed to address the reasons for the departure of its seven Members of Parliament (MPs) who quit the party recently.
Watson, in an emotional statement, said he sometimes “no longer recognises” his own party, as he called on colleagues not to call the departing seven MPs as traitors.
He said he was particularly worried by the departure of Berger, who accused the party of being “sickeningly institutionally racist.”
Watson said Labour urgently needed to “confront the scale of the problem and meet the consequences to keep others from leaving”, as he urged a “kinder and gentler approach”.
“I love this party. But sometimes I no longer recognise it.
“That is why I do not regard those who have resigned today as traitors,” he said
Watson’s response is in contrast with Corbyn, who said he was “disappointed” in the departing MPs’ decision and highlighted the popularity of his party’s policies with voters.
However, Watson called on Corbyn to do more to reflect the “balance of opinion” among Labour MPs. The resignations by the seven Labour MPs are not expected to trigger an immediate change in Corbyn’s ambiguous Brexit policy, or alter the daunting parliamentary arithmetic facing prime minister Theresa May as she struggles to secure approval for her withdrawal agreement.
But the formation of the Independent Group highlights growing unease with the Labour leader, who has been at odds with party members pushing for a second Brexit referendum. Previously, moderate MPs have left Labour one at a time. Calls for a new centrist movement in the UK, inspired by French president Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, have been stymied by Britain’s electoral system, which makes it hard for small political parties to win parliamentary seats.
Corbyn said he was “disappointed” by the MPs’ departure. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said they had a “responsibility” to resign their seats and fight by-elections. But the seven MPs rejected that course, saying that by-elections would be inappropriate given the political upheaval over Brexit. McDonnell has argued that a Labour split would be “like the 1980s”, saying that the formation of the Social Democratic party in 1981 had enabled Margaret Thatcher to stay in power as Conservative prime minister.
Unlike the founders of the SDP, the seven Labour MPs do not have significant ministerial experience or a high public profile. They said that they lacked major funding or party infrastructure and would be operating initially as a separate group in parliament, rather than as a new party.
The Liberal Democrats, the pro-EU party which has 11 MPs, said they were “open to working with like-minded groups.”
The Independent Group delivered a broad critique of Mr Corbyn’s leadership, saying that his Labour party had failed “to provide a strong and coherent alternative to the Conservatives’ approach” to Brexit, “threatens to destabilise the British economy in pursuit of ideological objectives” and “would weaken our national security.”
Umunna, Berger and Leslie have faced threats from Labour party members wanting to deselect them as their MPs. Umunna, who is the most likely to emerge as leader of the group, said he and his six colleagues had “exhausted our ability to persuade” Labour to back a second Brexit referendum.
Berger said that she could not stay in a party that had become “institutionally anti-Semitic”. Other Labour figures were more scathing. Manuel Cortes, head of the TSSA union, which supports a second Brexit referendum, said the seven MPs “will rightly be judged very severely by history”. Young Labour, the party’s youth arm, called the MPs “cowards” and “traitors”.