Yes, our system favours the established parties. But it is not invulnerable to change. This could be the start of a breakthrough.

The failure of the SDP by no means proves that a new movement of this kind is doomed to failure.

When you leave a political party to which you have remained faithful for the whole of your adult life, and set out to form a new grouping, you have no idea what is going to happen.

Many observers of the departure of seven MPs from the Labour Party say that because the Social Democratic Party, founded in March 1981, failed to win the 1983 general election, the new grouping must be doomed to failure.

And it is certainly true that under our electoral system, new parties find it very difficult to establish themselves. The last to do so at Westminster is Labour, its rise assisted by the split from 1916 in the Liberals.

But that is not quite the end of the argument. In recent years, UKIP has failed to establish itself as a party of government, but it did force the Conservatives to promise a referendum on EU membership. The No vote in that referendum has destabilised both main parties, and may well have created the conditions for a major realignment.

And whether or not such a realignment takes place, the SDP deserves a subtler verdict than outright failure. Labour survived because it adopted many of the SDP’s policies. The 1983 Labour manifesto was from the point of view of the SDP intolerable, but the 1997 manifesto on which Tony Blair led Labour (rebranded as “New Labour”) back into power was in many respects a tribute to the SDP.

The success of Jeremy Corbyn and his friends can in turn be seen as a kind of belated revenge by the Labour Left on Blair. After decades of being marginalised, the Left has seized control of the party.

Its domination has led to the present rebellion. The seven MPs who lead it – Chris Leslie, Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Chuka Umunna, Mike Gapes, Angela Smith and Gavin Shuker – are evidently not such heavyweight figures as the Gang of Four – Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers – who founded the SDP.

But a rebellion of this kind can benefit from being underestimated. The unremarkable nature of the seven MPs may lead Corbyn and his friends to tell each other that no change of course is needed.

And a movement of this kind does not only depend on its leaders. One might even say that the SDP was hindered by having too many leaders.

What matters even more is the volume and enthusiasm of the followers. The creation of the SDP revealed the existence of a large number of people who were totally fed up with the existing parties, but were prepared to throw themselves body and soul into a new movement.

When Rodgers was wondering in the summer of 1980 whether to break with Labour, he records in his memoir, Fourth Among Equals, that

“David Marquand…urged me to make the break even if only three or four MPs were to follow. By staying, I might, he said, be able to keep the Labour Party from total self-destruction but I would not save it. The most I could achieve was ‘a ten-year (or 20-year) labour of Sisyphus, endlessly pushing the boulder up the hill only to see it roll down again’. It was a convincing image given the legitimate left’s continued tolerance of the wreckers, and the lack of stomach for the fight of Hattersley and others like him.”

In January 1981, when Rodgers, along with Jenkins, Williams and Owen, signed the Limehouse Declaration, in which they declared their intention to “rally all those who are committed to the values, principles and policies of social democracy”, and added that “the realignment of British politics must now be faced”, they could not tell what would happen:

“We knew that eight or nine other MPs would immediately join us and believed that we would soon get 100 names from amongst the great and the good to endorse our Council for Social Democracy. But otherwise we were in the dark about the response we would provoke, expecting to build steadily over a period of months to the launch of a new party. But the publicity given to the Limehouse Declaration brought a snowstorm of letters, which became an avalanche when the names of the first signatories to our Declaration for Social Democracy appeared in The Guardian on 5th February. I had letters from old school friends, former civil servants and, more predictably, men and women who had supported the Campaign for Democratic Socialism 20 years before. Instead of having to recruit, like Garibaldi, a thousand political irregulars with whom to start our bold campaign, we found that we had placed ourselves in the leadership of an army already formed and waiting…we decided to bring forward the launch to 26th March.”

Such things are inherently unpredictable. So are the changes and chances which may be offered in by-elections. When the Warrington by-election came up, Jenkins stood for the SDP, and astonished almost everyone by finishing in a strong second place, with 42 per cent of the vote.

Had Williams been the SDP candidate in Warrington, she might well have won, and become the new party’s leader, with a wider appeal than Jenkins. She was instead returned to Parliament at the Crosby by-election in November 1981, with Jenkins following at Glasgow Hillhead in March 1982.

Those were famous victories, which few would have predicted when the Limehouse Declaration was signed. Disappointment followed when at the general election of 1983, the SDP gained 25.4 per cent of the vote, but only 23 seats, while Labour, with 27.6 per cent, had 209 seats.

But although the obvious lesson of this is that the first-past-the-post electoral system favours the established parties, that law should not be regarded as immutable.

There comes a tipping point, not quite attained by the SDP in 1983, at which an insurgent party finds that first-past-the-post works in its favour. In the 2015 general election in Scotland, the SNP won 56 seats, compared to six in 2010, while Labour won a single seat, compared to 41 in 2010.

Our politics can be astonishingly volatile. If Corbyn and his advisers treat what happened yesterday as insignificant, it is all the more likely to turn out to be the start of something big.

‘The Independent Group’ is stage one of a plan for a new party – but will it work?

Ten initial thoughts on today’s announcement by Umunna and his colleagues.

After all the speculation, it’s finally happened – seven Labour MPs have quit the Labour Party and are setting up on their own, as “The Independent Group”. Or TIG for short, presumably. (If they don’t borrow “the wonderful thing about TIGgers, is TIGgers are wonderful things…” from Winnie the Pooh then they’ll be missing a trick.)

A few thoughts on the news:

  • Why now? If the question needs to be asked, you have an issue. Remember when Theresa May launched the snap election on the grounds that some people were out to stop Brexit – it was true, but there was no clear reason why that had suddenly become so pressing it required drastic action when it didn’t earlier. Each of the seven MPs has their own answer, some more persuasive than others. Luciana Berger has strong, recent cause to believe that a Labour Party riven with anti-semitism is now beyond rescuing. But many of the assorted other reasons – that Corbyn would be a bad Prime Minister, that he intends to accept Brexit, or that many of his followers act like a bullying mob – are hardly new. Expect Labour, fairly or otherwise, to exploit this gap by suggesting other reasons, particularly the possibility of imminent deselections.
  • Will there now be seven ‘people’s votes’? Chuka Umunna and his colleagues seem to have accepted that if you cannot reform an organisation from within then you ought to leave it, which is slightly at odds with their shared view on the EU. But more pressingly, Labour HQ is apparently calling on them to hold by-elections under their new branding, a sort of ‘people’s vote’, if you will. The Carswell Doctrine, that MPs who defect to other parties ought to hold by-elections, is a good one, that this site supports. The seven seem less than keen, presumably for the same reason that Labour is enthusiastic about the prospect, and it seems that one benefit of sitting as independents rather than as a new party is that it might offer some wriggle room to argue they’ve left one party rather than joined another.
  • Will they be ‘independents’ forever? It seems more likely that this is an interim position than the MPs’ endgame. Angela Smith at one point referred to “the other parties” then corrected herself to “the main political parties”, Umunna cast the move as the first step of a project which seeks supporters and intends to “create an alternative”, and as a group they now have a website and a statement of values. The SDP, remember, began with the Limehouse Declaration and the formation of the Council for Social Democracy, and only became a new party two months later.
  • It must become a party in time if it is to have a future. While sitting as independents – even as a group of independents, with meetings and so on – might offer an excuse to try to wriggle past the expectation of a by-election, and might provide limited armour against accusations of organised betrayal, it is a dead-end position in the longer term. Today’s press conference did not simply talk of withdrawing support for Labour, it was filled with mentions of wanting something better, offering an alternative, addressing Britain’s problems and so on, and it came with the hashtag #ChangePolitics. Most of the MPs involved seem interested in continuing their political careers. None of that can happen without infrastructure, money, supporters and everything required to try to stand for re-election and thereby create some kind of future. Umunna spoke unconvincingly of inviting the people to suggest to him and his colleagues what form a movement would take, but without a party they are essentially in a political twilight zone. They surely know it.
  • The current vagueness is intended to aid recruitment. It’s currently all very bland – an independents group, a simple black on white brand which resembles Cards Against Humanity more than anything else, and a broad brush statement of values that would fit with various self-described centrists. That isn’t accidental, and reinforces that this is a temporary stage in a longer-term plan. Keep it simple, keep it straightforward and as uncontroversial as possible, and you maximise the chance that you might be able to pick up more MPs – either from Labour, or from the Conservatives. This was tricky for the SDP (which eventually secured one Conservative defector) but the seven ex-Labour MPs appear to be hoping that Brexit in particular will deliver them some formerly blue colleagues.
  • Is there a leader? Officially, there are no responsibilities or roles yet, as the group has yet to hold its first meeting. However, it was notable that the speeches were wrapped up by Umunna, who went beyond his colleagues’ repertoires of personal back story and reason for quitting, to deliver a speech that covered the group’s mission, its intentions and an appeal to join it. So he definitely isn’t the leader, but he just delivers all the messages that you might deliver if you were, well, the leader. He’s probably the leader.
  • The “new politics” sounds a lot like the old politics. The Not-Leader’s speech was particularly heavy on references to “the old parties”, “the same old politics”, “the old-fashioned politics”, “leaving the old tribal politics behind” and so on. We get the message, and there are plenty of reasons for decent people on the centre left to be deeply uncomfortable about the state of the Labour Party. But what’s peculiar is how dated the supposedly modern bits of Umunna’s pitch sounded – it was an old-fashioned Blairite speech, all polish and Third Way vagueness. The cultish tribalism around Corbyn is, of course, a new phenomenon, not some old tradition of British politics that has become threadbare – I do wonder if this particular pitch, delivered by a very Blair-like politician, will really resonate all that well.
  • Meanwhile, the Corbynite eternal revolution will intensify. Non-Corbynite Labour people I’ve spoken to today are less than chuffed about this news – it not only deprives them of allies, but it hands their opponents a stick with which to beat them. Even more than before, all internal dissent will be treated as a sign of forthcoming betrayal. The leadership’s allies are already celebrating the benefits of getting rid of people they dislike, and talking darkly of which names might be next on their little list. The seven MPs raise a series of important questions for the Labour Party, but none of them will receive any serious consideration – indeed, asking them at all might now become an unforgivable act of disloyalty.
  • What next? The first question will be if any more Labour MPs join them – is this the extent of the group, are there sympathisers who weren’t in on the plan but will now back it, or are there sleepers who will be unveiled over the coming days, as the Tory opponents of Chequers did last summer? Might some of the former Labour MPs sitting as independents already – particularly John Woodcock and Ivan Lewis – join up? Then, are there Conservative MPs willing to jump ship in a similar fashion? There’s also the consideration of how this might influence possible deselection battles within the Tory grassroots – if MPs have a place to go, might they be more relaxed about alienating their grassroots, or if this project fails might it serve as a cautionary tale, encouraging other MPs to cling tight to nurse for fear of finding something worse?
  • Beware the polls. Finally, a note of caution. Everybody but everybody will be gagging to see what kind of impact this development has on the opinion polls. Will it split Labour’s vote? Will it produce the centrist rebellion which some have been confidently predicting for several decades? Might the seven mimic the SDP and become a second party in polling terms? The pressure on pollsters to explore these questions will be intense. However, I can’t see how it is currently possible to test in any meaningful way. There is no party to list in the polls, no brand nor platform to assess. You can’t realistically add “The Independents Group” into the voting intention questions, and broad brush tests of “would you support a centrist party” don’t really get through the fact that everyone’s idea of the centre is different and we still don’t know much about this vaunted “alternative”. There will no doubt be big headlines in the next few days about the polling success or failure of this new venture, but they don’t mean anything.