Britain: Change UK – a rocky start for Blairism 2.0

It has been a shaky start for Change UK – the Independent Group, in Britain. Impressive early polling figures for the new "centre ground" party suggested it would take 15 percentage points and a few seats off Labour, thereby robbing Corbyn of a general election victory. But despite this strong initial push, it all seems to have gone horribly wrong. This should come as no surprise. Change UK represents the failed politics of the past.

Formed of frustrated “moderates” from both Labour and the Tories – isolated within their respective parties, particularly over Brexit – the Independent Group was initially lauded by the political establishment for daring to take the plunge and eke out a space for “sensible, centre-ground, pro-EU politics” in Westminster.

“The Independent Group will at last give us real opposition to Brexit,” gushed the Guardian. “Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes, Chuka Umunna and others have shown that there is still an innately reasonable element within British politics – and good for them,” cheered the Independent. “I've got a great deal of sympathy with what they're doing and what they're saying…I think they're courageous in having done it,” Tony Blair chimed in. High praise indeed!

TIG also amassed a “six-figure war chest” from sympathetic donors. Clearly, a lot of hopes were invested in this new antidote to the left-wing, Corbyn-led Labour Party, on the one side, and the Tories under the thrall of the hardline Brexiteers of the ERG, on the other.

Politics of status quo

It didn’t take long before these hopes were dashed. Officially registered with the Electoral Commission as Change UK – the Independent Group, TIG rapidly began to try the patience of the public – and eventually, even its former champions. Its representatives incessantly dodged the question of what they stood for, other than wanting to remain in Europe and not being either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn.

Anna Soubry Chuka Umunna Image Socialist AppealChange UK was supposed to be the new "centre ground" force in British politics, but nobody wants what it has to sell / Image: Socialist Appeal

The group also came under fire for its MPs’ cowardly refusal to stand in by-elections, despite having won their seats under the banners of parties they no longer belong to. Again, no surprises here – they know they’d have been booted out.

For the same reason, interim leader and ex-Tory Heidi Allen has hinted TIG would prop up Theresa May’s government in any future no-confidence motion, or even replace the DUP as the Tories’ confidence-and-supply partners. Far from the party of ‘change’, Allen is leading a party of maintaining the status quo at all costs.

Support for TIG quickly started to ebb. It is now on around 5 percent in aggregated polls, below the Liberal Democrats, and predicted no seats in a general election. By contrast, Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party is on 13 percent, and Labour is polling in the lead, on an average of 32 percent.

In short, TIG is currently failing in its raison d’etre: to prevent a Corbyn-led government. The latter has even been openly admitted by the party’s main public face, Chuka Umunna.

Poetic justice

Ironically, given it was co-founded by former-Labour MPs who defected over alleged anti-semitism in the party, TIG can’t seem to stop dropping racist clangers. This started practically on day one, when Angela Smith described people of colour as having a “funny tinge” in a television interview. Smith later defended herself by saying she was “tired”.

Recently, TIG was forced to ditch two MEP candidates in the space of a few hours. A third is in hot water.

smith angela copy small Image official portraitAngela Smith set the tone by saying people of colour have a "funny tinge". It was the first racist gaffe of many for CUK / Image: official portrait

A 2017 tweet dug up by prospective MEP Ali Sadjady (a former Tory) read: "When I hear that 70 percent of pickpockets caught on the London Underground are Romanian it kind makes me want Brexit."

A day later, Joseph Russo, who was announced as the party's lead candidate in Scotland, was found to have tweeted a slew of derogatory remarks about black women between 2010 and 2013, including: "Black women scare me. I put this down to be[ing] chased through Amsterdam by a crazy black wh***." Both Sadjady and Russo were forced to pull out of the race.

Soon afterwards, London candidate Nora Mulready was accused of Islamophobia by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) for claiming in 2017 that: it was a “fallacy that Islamism is nothing to do with Islam”; that radical Islamism could be “Koranically justified”; and that Tommy Robinson should be taken seriously because he had “hit [a] societal nerve and that needs to be acknowledged”.

A spokesperson for TIG defended Mulready, and complained that Change UK was facing a “smear campaign”. Mulready herself claimed she was being “targeted by…an active campaign of smears and lies from hard-left activists and the MCB.”

Taste of their own medicine

The Blairites and their milieu have spent years hysterically smearing and slandering Corbyn and the left as “institutionally anti-semitic”. Now TIG is getting a taste of its own medicine.

The difference, however, is that whereas comments by left-wingers such as Chris Williamson MP, for example, have clearly been taken out of context and exaggerated, it would be difficult to misconstrue ravings about “Romanian pickpockets” and “crazy back wh***s” as anything other than bigoted.

The TIGers exposed their total cynicism by leaping to Mulready’s defence, despite having happily weaponised trumped-up claims of anti-semitism against Corbyn and the left. As one commentator on Twitter put it:

“In last 48 hours 2 Change UK candidates stepped down because of racism against Romanians and Black women. Did you see the heartfelt apology and brilliant condemnation by Luciana Berger, queen of antiracism? No, me neither.”

The same goes for the liberal commentariat, who enthusiastically laid into Corbyn over anti-semitism charges, but who have been tepid at best over dubious comments from Change UK MEPs. This only shows they never actually cared about oppressed groups - they simply wanted to attack Corbyn.

Such racist gaffes are hardly surprising though. Despite overwhelming attention on “left-wing racism” in recent months, the legacy of Blairism includes imperialist wars in the Middle East and reactionary immigration controls. The ex-Tories in Change UK, meanwhile, have a legacy of Windrush and the ‘hostile environment for migrants’ behind them. These recent slippages by Change UK candidates simply expose the rot for all to see.

European elections

TIG is currently gearing up for the European elections on 23 May. These elections should be in the group’s wheelhouse. But instead the wheels are coming off. Even the party's logo was rejected by the Electoral Commission.

It achieved another PR gaffe by outsourcing its selection of MEP candidates to a private company. The 70 candidates that the company came up with included the aforementioned racists, former Conservative cabinet ministers, retired army top brass, right-wing journalists, and Boris Johnson’s sister.

We are in a period where the politics of the status quo are being rejected everywhere. And these people are bastions of a hated establishment. The tone-deafness of TIG’s commitment to the music of the past was summed up by Heidi Allen, who told a European election campaign launch event in Bristol: "This is no rebel alliance. This is the home of the Remain alliance."

The trouble for the TIGers is, rebellion is on the order of the day, as can be seen in the rise of the Corbyn movement, mass climate demonstrations by school students, and even (in a distorted way) the rising popularity of the Brexit Party. Change UK’s ‘more of the same’ rhetoric is enthusing precisely nobody.

Cynical centre

Luciana Berger Image Flickr Hot GrillChange UK represents the failed and discredited politics of the past. Their incompetence is only symptomatic of this fact / Image: Flickr, Hot Grill

The death of the so-called centre can be seen in European election polls, in which Labour and the Brexit Party are currently vying for the lead. It is also evident across Europe, where Eurosceptic parties are expected to make significant gains, reflecting the continuing disintegration of the European Union, leaving bourgeois analysts terrified of an imminent ‘populist wave’. 

Despite hype for pro-Remain parties' better-than-expected performance in the local elections last week (in which the Tories got a drubbing; and TIG and the Brexit Party did not stand, due to registering too late), this was mostly a result of the Tories being abandoned en masse by their Brexiteer bases, and voters' disgust with austerity-implementing Labour councils. The Euro elections will likely paint a very different picture. 

However, in Britain, Change UK is refusing to ally with other pro-EU parties, even though this will harm their overall performance. In fact, they are currently polling behind the Brexit Party, even in the firmly-Remain London area. And despite hammering on about the need for a second referendum, they have been so useless in getting their message across that more voters think Labour is pro-Remain than Change UK.

TIG wants to be the sole umbrella for pro-EU, centre-ground politics in Britain, and make the biggest possible dent in Labour’s vote in a general election. Recently, a leaked TIG memo revealed its plans to cannibalise and destroy the Liberal Democrats, rather than seek any alliances with the party. This is ironic, given the Lib Dems have just enjoyed a "wave" of victories in the local elections (mostly at the Tories' expense). In any case, Change UK's whole approach to the EU elections is contradictory, as explained by the Financial Times:

“Change UK sees itself as a new political force. It doesn’t want to be tarnished by the image of the old Liberal Democrats, or the fringe elements of the Greens. And it certainly doesn’t want to work with the Labour party, which most of its MPs came from.

“The problem for Change UK is that failure to do well in the European elections will kill off the party and any hope of shaking up Westminster politics. While the pro-Brexit vote appears to have coalesced around Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party...the Remainers are looking just as divided as they did in 2016.”

Despite making a second referendum its defining policy, TIG is willing to damage the performance of pro-EU parties in the European elections in the pursuit of its overarching objective: preventing a Corbyn government.

This further shows TIG’s cynicism: it only cares about stopping Brexit secondarily. This was already evident in Umunna’s initial opposition to a second referendum. The Blairites eventually coalesced around this demand primarily as a stick to beat Corbyn with.

Failed politics of the past

Allen unintentionally got to the nub in an interview with the Financial Times: “We’re a party that wants to stand and shake up Westminster politics...So we have to prove to people that we are a competent force.”

Between racist tweets, PR blunders, plummeting support, and a lack of any coherent platform, TIG has completely failed in this regard. But its incompetence is only a symptom of a deeper issue: nobody wants what it has to sell – namely, reheated Blairism.

The former-Labour MPs in TIG are irrevocably tarnished by their past, with their support for war, austerity and privatisation. The former Tories, for their part, are seen as traitors by largely-Brexiteer Tory members and supporters.

As a result, the new party has no social base. Notably, a number of TIG MPs (from both sides) faced no-confidence votes in their constituencies before they split.

Corbyn heading for Number 10

It is no accident that Tom Watson (in a rare moment of candour) described the TIG breakaway as “premature”. The more foresighted Blairite MPs recognise that their historic task is to prevent or bring down a left-wing Labour government, and that this is much better achieved by biding their time inside Labour, continuing to sabotage Corbyn from within.

Should a left Labour government come to power, as looks increasingly likely, these careerists will cross the floor and split the party. But the time for this is not yet ripe.

CorbyntoPower 11 Image Socialist AppealDespite all the efforts of the ruling class and media mouthpieces to sabotage the march forward, the Corbyn movement is moving inexorably towards Number 10 / Image: Socialist Appeal

The rolling disaster of Change UK is further proof that the liberal centre is totally rotten and collapsing. The crisis of capitalism has utterly discredited establishment politics on an international level – reflected in the breakdown of the EU and the Brexit impasse in Britain.

Despite all the efforts of the ruling class and media mouthpieces to sabotage the march forward, the Corbyn movement is moving inexorably towards Number 10.

It is imperative that rank-and-file Labour members move to send the rest of the Blairite saboteurs the way of their former colleagues who now reside in Change UK, before they have the chance to inflict further damage on our movement.