How will TIG affect local government?

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This was supposed to be half term! A nice quiet week to get away with the kids or catch up on paperwork…

But politics has not gone on holiday. First the Government announced MPs would not have a recess, in order to make progress on Brexit. And then seven Labour MPs decided they could no longer bear Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and left the party to sit as Independents.

At time of writing, one more Labour MP has joined them, as well as three moderate Tory MPs unhappy with the rightwards shift of their party on Brexit.

It’s still not yet clear whether this is just a tremor, or a substantial movement of the tectonic plates of British politics.
And, although it’s a minor concern in comparison, for those of us interested in local government, might there be implications for councils too?

Despite the febrile nature of modern politics, it’s worth remembering that people do not make life-changing decisions on the spur of the moment. These things take time.

In 1981, there were fully two months between the Gang of Four issuing its “Limehouse declaration” and the SDP being formed.
Most councillors are not full-time career politicians. Their involvement in politics will have begun as a hobby, a desire to do what they can to improve their local area or to act on their beliefs, or both.

Only a small proportion will have signed up to a life of meetings most evenings and canvassing most weekends because they wanted a career – after all, very few are paid a living wage!

Rationally, that ought to make it easier for them to leave – there’s not much to lose. But politics is not rational, it’s deeply emotional. People who’ve given years to a cause, building up a social life around it, won’t want to give it up easily. Who would want to be called traitors, or risk losing lifelong friendships?

So, what should they do if the party they belong to no longer reflects their beliefs? Most Labour councillors will have joined the party before Corbyn became Leader. Many will have been inspired by previous moderate party leaders and local MPs, or by a contempt for the likes of Derek Hatton, who was thrown out of the party in the 80s after his Militant faction brought Liverpool council to its knees, and has now just been let back in only to be suspended again two days later.

In 2016, more than 600 Labour councillors signed letters calling for Corbyn to resign. It is therefore conceivable that many are now at breaking point, especially in areas where they are friends with a local MP who has resigned.

But as their boss is the Leader of the Council, not Corbyn, the imperative to sever relationships with the Council’s Labour Group will be less pressing.

Likewise, Council Leaders with small majorities can’t afford to lose talent from their benches at the Town Hall. Some might themselves have more sympathy with the likes of Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna than Corbyn and Hatton themselves.
Over the coming months the picture might become clearer.

Small numbers of councillors resign or defect all the time – just this week a Labour councillor in Brighton, angry about the party’s antisemitism, switched to the Tories.

However, The Independent Group does appear coordinated and organised, and it has a cause that will be privately supported by many councillors, particularly Labour centrists, but also some moderate Conservatives.

In the 80s, the emergence of the SDP and then the Alliance and the Lib Dems made a big difference in many councils, so if TIG makes it big we can anticipate a similar shift in the coming years.

Anyone with an interest in local government would be foolish not to keep a close eye on what happens next.

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