Gabriel Huntley was political adviser to Chuka Umunna until 2015.
Consider this: the message underlying the launch of the Independent Group of MPs wasn’t actually about the Labour Party. By putting the “best interests of the country above short-term party-political considerations” it cast Labour’s experience as a symptom of a wider malaise: a crisis of partisanship that has intensified over recent years. According to this analysis, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership have added petrol to flames that were already burning.
As someone who worked for Chuka Umunna from his Streatham campaign before 2010 until after the 2015 election defeat, this narrative doesn’t surprise me. While it will strike a chord with many MPs and voters, it is particularly relevant to his experience of parliament since he was first elected almost nine years ago.
In 2010 Chuka entered parliament for the first time — along with Luciana Berger and Gavin Shuker — into a Labour Party dominated at its upper levels by former special advisers and those who had grown up in, worked in and lived and breathed the party.
Ex-special advisers made up four out of five of the candidates standing for the leadership that year and the core of the shadow cabinet during the years that followed.
All too often the atmosphere this created was a Labour Party of those inside and those outside the tent, those in the know, part of the networks, and those who weren’t.
The recognisable CV points of many MPs — a stint in Labour Students, working in parliament, for a minister, or in the world of Labour-aligned think tanks — simply didn’t fit with Chuka’s experience as a solicitor in a law firm. He hadn’t “done his time” climbing the recognised ladders.
As the person who journalists phoned for a comment on negative stories or briefings, I was never able to shake the feeling that because of Chuka’s background before becoming an MP — and because frankly he looked and came across so differently to many other MPs — he was marked out for criticism and hostility. Yes, from the opposition (I was once told CCHQ had an entire team working on it) but from people on our own side too.
Our experience in the shadow cabinet only added to the sense of partisanship as a restrictive, damaging force.
Shadowing the business department and going up against Vince Cable — the critic-in-chief from within government of many of its flagship policies — the party lines that the centre demanded we follow on an “out of touch” Tory government that was “hitting working families hard” simply didn’t land.
The role required a more nuanced approach, being honest about the times when Cable was right in what he said, even if his actions didn’t always seem to match his words.
Making the case for a proper industrial strategy — more accepted now, but controversial then — required being politically fleet of foot. In 2012 we hit on the idea of praising Michael Heseltine, highlighting the disjoint between the active approach he’d taken in government and that of the Osborne-led Treasury.
Unsurprisingly there was a great deal of push back on this. I remember being told by a party official that we simply couldn’t give a speech in Liverpool praising a Tory minister (ignoring the fact he’d been awarded the freedom of the city). In the end the speech and the political positioning was a success: the government was forced to change tack and even appointed Heseltine to lead a growth commission.
Responding to Brexit — the backdrop, but not the main focus of this week’s announcement — has shown MPs the merits of working beyond traditional party lines, the necessity of forming alliances.
So Labour tribalism didn’t begin in 2015. But the lived experience of it has intensified a good deal since then. Where Labour meetings used to be a good-natured balance of different political traditions and something that some members actually looked forward to attending, they’ve become nasty, tribal battlegrounds in which voicing dissent is not tolerated. No one joins a political party out of a desire to engage in low-level tactical warfare for decades.
Although polls consistently show strong support for politicians working together to solve common challenges, the Independent Group is not guaranteed success (which is why charges of “careerism” are so badly misplaced).
It would be premature to put in place metrics and milestones that it must meet over the coming days and weeks. But if part of its legacy can be in inspiring people from all parties and none to be more honest about the dysfunctional elements of our system, that would be a powerful shift indeed.
This article first appeared in The Times on 19 February 2019.