Ukania’s Party Defections

Photograph Source Chatham House

The shambolic meanderings of Brexit took another turn, when 8 Labour MPs and 3 of their Tory counterparts defected from their respective parties to form The Independent Group (TIG).

A ninth Labour MP, Ian Austin, left without joining TIG– the Tiggers want a second Brexit referendum, which Austin opposes.

Ukania’s Labour party has faced constant disruption from its Blairite rump, hell-bent from the beginning on undermining the leadership and policies of Jeremy Corbyn.

The 8 Labour Tiggers and Ian Austin cited Corbyn’s handling of Brexit and alleged mishandling of the antisemitism “crisis” within the Labour party as the primary reasons for their defection.

TIG is not a party, and hence does not have to reveal the sources of its funds. It is conveniently registered as a private company in that notable tax-haven Panama.

Given that at least 2 of the Labour defectors received donations from the UK’s Zionist lobby (though several who remain in the party for now have also been recipients of money from this lobby), there has been media speculation that some of these funds may originate from sources not unadjacent to Tel Aviv.

Even if correct, such allegations are however somewhat tangential to what the Red Tories are doing to undermine Corbyn’s Red Labour.

Their opposition to Corbyn is multi-faceted, but the allegations of antisemitism have above all been weaponized to undermine Corbyn because of his staunch support for the Palestinian cause.

There have been some episodes of antisemitism from Labour’s local councilors and party members, but accusations of antisemitism involve around 0.1% of Labour’s 540,000-strong membership (the largest in Europe). That of course is still too many—as Corbyn himself has indicated, there is no place for this in a socialist party whose basis is fraternity, liberty, and equality.

So who are the 11 Tiggers and Ian Austin?

The ex-Labour Gang of Eight

Luciana Berger (MP for Liverpool Wavertree since 2010), parachuted by Tony Blair into one of Labour’s safest seats, was previously director of Labour Friends of Israel (LFI), and parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement until her defection. She deliberately conflates anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Berger abstained or was not present during the 2016 vote to withdraw UK support for Saudi war against Yemen. She supports the bombing campaign in Syria, and rejects BDS. Berger has faced considerable antisemitic abuse, but most of this comes from alt-right movements, rather than from within the Labour Party (a few exceptions apart). She faced deselection as a candidate in the next election by her Constituency Labour Party (CLP).

Ann Coffey (MP for Stockport since 1992). In 2009 it was revealed Coffey claimed parliamentary expenses of £1000/$1150 per month for the interest on the mortgage of her London home and £160/$184 per month for a housemaid. On top of salary of £60,000/$69,000 in 2007 she claimed £150,000/$173,000 for staff salaries, office costs in and reimbursable expenses. She is opposed to trial by jury, supports the bombing campaign in Syria, and faced deselection as a candidate in the next election by her CLP, who say that Coffey did not attend a CLP meeting in over 4 years and failed to provide regular parliamentary reports for local members.

Mike Gapes (MP for Ilford South since 1992). Gapes voted for the war on Iraq, and abstained or was not present during the 2016 vote to withdraw UK support for Saudi war against Yemen. He supports the bombing campaign in Syria, as well as Trump’s attempted coup in Venezuela. Gates was previously vice-chair of LFI.

Chris Leslie (MP for Nottingham East since 2010, previously Labour MP for Shipley in 1997-2005). Leslie voted for the war on Iraq, and abstained or was not present during the 2016 vote to withdraw UK support for Saudi war against Yemen. He also opposed the “people’s quantitative easing” proposed by Corbyn as a counterpart to the one thrown in the laps of the bankers after the 2008 financial crash, stating that “Marxism has no place in the modern Labour Party”.Leslie is a member of LFI. He faced deselection as a candidate in the next election by his CLP.

Joan Ryan (MP for Enfield North (1997-2010, 2015-2019). Ryan voted for the war on Iraq, and abstained or was not present during the 2016 vote to withdraw UK support for Saudi war against Yemen.  In August 2015, Ryan became Chair of Labour Friends of Israel. She said in her letter announcing her defection from Labour: “I cannot remain a member of the Labour party while this requires me to suggest that I believe Jeremy Corbyn – a man who has presided over the culture of anti-Jewish racism and hatred of Israel that now afflicts my former party – is fit to be prime minister of this country. He is not.”

On 6 September 2018, her CLP passed a motion of no confidence in Ryan. It accused her of acting like an “independent MP in all but name”, of making false accusations of antisemitism, and of fuelling a “trial by media” by smearing Jeremy Corbyn.

Ryan has a vast appetite when it comes to feasting at the parliamentary expenses’ trough. In October 2007, the Evening Standard reported that Ryan had claimed £173,691/$200,000 in expenses in the 2006/2007 tax year, the highest of any London MP. Ryan had been the second-highest claimant in the previous tax year. In May 2007, in line with the saying that we shall know them by their deeds, Ryan voted in favour of a bill which would have kept details of parliamentary expenses secret.

The Daily Telegraph revealed in May 2009 that Ryan had spent £4,500/$5200 of expenses on a second home in Enfield before “flipping” it with her main home, a flat in south London. Between 2004 and 2008, she had designated her Enfield property, which was in her constituency, as a second home. She designated her main home during that period as the south London flat bought in 2004. She had spent £1,045/$1200 on repairs and refurbishment to the second home in 2007/2008, and £3,624/$4170 on it during 2008/2009. Ryan was subsequently asked to repay a measly £5,121.74/$6000 for mortgage interest claims.

In 2017, an undercover Al Jazeera investigation showed Ryan fabricating a charge of anti-Semitism against a Labour member and discussing a propaganda budget of “more than one million pounds” with Shai Masot, an Israeli embassy agent.

The film showed an LFI employee saying that Ryan talked to Masot “most days”.

Masot was expelled from the UK, and while Labour called for an “immediate inquiry” into Israel’s “improper interference” in British politics, the Tory government did nothing about it. Jean Fitzpatrick, the party member Ryan falsely accused, was suspended by Labour. She was later readmitted, but received no apology from the totally shameless Ryan.

Gavin Shuker (MP for Luton South since 2010). Shuker like his fellow defectors has      weaponized “antisemitism” against the Labour left. A Christian pastor (Shuker is vice chair of the Christians in Parliament All-Party Parliamentary Group), he is opposed to gay civil rights.

Shuker faced deselection as a candidate in the next election by his CLP, who passed a (non-binding) vote of no confidence in him. He blamed this on a surge of new leftist members joining the party: “The people who are disconcerted with my performance are disconcerted based on my position within the party, not my performance as a member of parliament”.

Angela Smith (MP for Penistone and Stockbridge since 2005).  A member of LFI, Smith opposed a parliamentary investigation into the Iraq war. She abstained or was not present during the 2016 vote to withdraw UK support for Saudi war against Yemen.  Smith also voted for airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

She was absent for 28% of votes on Tory welfare cuts.

Smith claimed nearly £11,000/$12,600 in expenses in the 2 years after she entered parliament to set up a second home in a one-bedroom flat—her claim included 4 beds for this flat!

Smith is a shill for the water companies, is a fracking enthusiast, and displayed her racist credentials when she said during a recent media interview that blacks, Asians, and other ethnic minorities “had a funny tinge”.

Smith faced deselection, following a (non-binding) motion of no confidence in her passed by her CLP last November, on the basis of her support for fracking and opposition to state ownership of the price-gouging private water companies. She blamed this vote on a “cabal of hard left members” in her CLP.

Chuka Umunna (MP for Streatham since 2010). An ambitious self-promoter, Umunna made an abortive attempt to stand for the leadership in 2015, after Labour lost the general election. He’s changed his position on the need for a second Brexit referendum, having opposed one initially.

A marker of his opportunism was his total inability in a recent interview to list a single policy he disagreed with in the 2017 Labour Manifesto.  A member of LFI, Umunnahas received a donation of £25,000/$32,700 from the Zionist lobby. An unabashed elitist, he described night-clubbing Londoners as “trash”.  Umunna faced deselection by his CLP.

Ian Austin (MP for Dudley North since 2005). A member of LFI, he abstained or was not present during the 2016 vote to withdraw UK support for Saudi war against Yemen. On 1 June 2012, he apologized after claiming that a Palestinian human rights group had denied the existence of the Holocaust. Members of Friend of Al-Aqsa made reference to the fact that Austin had written about the group in an article written on the Labour Uncut website in 2011.

When Jeremy Corbyn apologized for the Iraq war on behalf of the Labour party in the House of Commons, Austin shouted “Sit down and shut up, you’re a disgrace”.

In May 2009, The Daily Telegraph reported that Austin split a claim for stamp duty when purchasing a second home in London into two payments and tried to recoup the cost over two tax years. This enabled him to claim most of the money (£21,559/$25,000, just £75 below the maximum) under his second-home allowance in the 2005/06 financial year. Austin claimed for the remaining £1,344 stamp duty cost in 2006–2007, together with his legal fees. In all, he went on to claim £22,076 (£34 below the maximum) in the next financial year.

The Telegraph also said that Austin “flipped” his second-home designation weeks before buying a £270,000/$310,500 London flat, while claiming £467 for a stereo system for his constituency home, shortly before changing his second-home designation to the London flat. He also spent a further £2,800/$3,300 on furniture for the London flat.

In 2017, Austin received “donations in kind” of £15,000/$18,200 from 2 members of the pro-Zionist lobby.

So: 7 of the Gang of Eight faced deselection (Berger, Coffey, Leslie, Ryan, Smith, Shakur, Umunna), which of course poses the simple question whether they jumped ship before being made to walk the plank by their CLPs?

The ex-Tory Gang of Three

As with the Labour Tiggers, opposing Brexit is, with some qualifications, the purported pivot for the 3 Tories defecting from their party.

“Antisemitism” however is not an issue for the Conservatives (they support Israel to a man and woman), even though from time to time an idiot or two will emulate Prince Harry by wearing Nazi regalia to a fancy-dress party while of course professing absolute fealty to Israel– Nazi fancy dress being the Ukanian equivalent of the southern US politician’s blackface, where you can be photographed in blackface while denying you are a racist. Ditto wearing Nazi glad rags to a party in Ukania while denying you are an antisemite.

It is estimated that 80% of Tory MPs belong to the Conservative Friends of Israel.

Islamophobia is by far the more serious issue for the Conservatives, but in racist Ukania they can let it remain completely unaddressed.

The Tory Tiggers are just as hypocritical as their Labour equivalents, though the essential hinge for their hypocrisy is “our party has left us behind by moving to the right”.

Heidi Allen (MP for South Cambridgeshire since 2015). Allen voted against investigations into the Iraq war, against laws to promote equality and human rights, against a right to remain for EU nationals already resident in the UK, against UK membership of the EU (she is a Brexiteer, albeit opposed to Theresa May’s handling of the Brexit process), against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability, against higher taxes on banks, against removing hereditary peers from the House of Lords, against measures to prevent climate change, against greater public control of bus services, against a publicly owned railway system, for reducing capital gains tax, for reducing the rate of corporation tax, for more restrictive regulation of trade unions, for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits, against more powers for local government, for reducing central government funding of local government, for academy/charter schools, for a stricter asylum system, for mass surveillance of people’s communications and activities, against financial incentives for low-carbon energy sources, and for air strikes in Syria.

This is of course an impressively right-wing record (admittedly there are many in her former party with even more shocking voting records), so it is somewhat surprising that Allen abandoned the Tories.

In recent weeks Allen embarked on a “compassion” tour of Britain’s food banks, with lots of photo ops featuring a tearful Allen, but with no mention of her terrible voting record on the political decision-making behind the massive increase in food-bank use. To resort to that old adage: by their deeds you shall know them.

Anna Soubry (MP for Broxtowe, Nottinghamshire, since 2015). Soubry has a right-wing voting record very similar to Allen’s, though she is more vigorously pro-EU– she wanted the arch-Brexiteers (Boris “BoJo” Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg (the Hon Member for the 18thCentury), and Michael Gove)—to be expelled from the Conservative party!

Soubry is a dyed-in-the-wool neoliberal. In her defection speech she praised the architect of her former party’s austerity policy—the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer/finance minister Gideon George Osborne—for having “got it right”. Has she spoken recently to her colleague Heidi Allen about the latter’s weepy tour of Ukania’s food banks?

Sarah Wollaston (MP for Totnes since 2010). A medical doctor, it is simply astonishing she could belong to a party bent on eviscerating the NHS, which provides universal healthcare in the UK. Here is her ugly voting record:

On social issues Wollaston is more “liberal” than Allen or Soubry, but otherwise her record is similar to both of them: she voted against investigations into the Iraq war, for air strikes in Syria and foreign military interventions, against UK membership of the EU (she is a Brexiteer, albeit opposed to Theresa May’s handling of the Brexit process), against raising welfare benefits in line with inflation, against higher taxes on bankers’ bonuses, against increasing the tax rate applied to income over £150,000/$173,000, against an annual tax on the value of expensive homes (the so-called mansion tax), for reducing housing benefitfor social-housing tenants deemed to have one unoccupied bedroom (the “bedroom tax”), for reducing capital gains tax, for reducing the rate of corporation tax, for raising the rate of VAT (a regressive sales tax), for the privatization of the Royal Mail, for more restrictive regulation of trade unions, for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits, for raising England’s undergraduate tuition fee,against more powers for local government, against greater regulation of fracking, for reducing central government funding of local government, for academy schools (these are charter schools in the US), for mass surveillance of people’s communications and activities, against slowing the drastic rise in rail fares and taking the railways back into public ownership, and for restricting the scope of legal aid.

Given this highly regressive voting record of the 3 Tory Tiggers, it is puzzling why they should bail on the Tory Party. Admittedly there are much worse in that party (rampant tax dodgers, dodgy financiers, racketeering landlords, homophobes, Islamophobes, xenophobes, retro-imperialists, and so on)— indeed for excellent reasons, the Tories have long been called the Nasty Party.

But the 3 Tory Tiggers, like their ex-Labour counterparts, are not going to rock a boat carrying a cargo of deliberate poverty, shredding of the social safety net, planned-for economic misgovernance, and the return of Victorian diseases, rather than work for a society that met the needs of all its inhabitants.

The 12 splitters have been much criticized for refusing to stand for their seats in by-elections: winning these would validate their decisions to defect by showing they have their constituents’ backing. Criticizing the parties they left for “putting their own interest before the national interest” is surely hypocritical when the splitters refuse to risk losing parliamentary positions carrying a £77,379/$89,000 MP’s salary (plus numerous perks).

Despite the media fanfare greeting their defections, the 12 have so far failed to present a policy agenda or platform beyond support for a second Brexit referendum (though as mentioned Ian Austin does not go along with this).

They left their parties over grievances (the handling of Brexit in most cases, a trumped-up antisemitism “crisis” in the case of the Labour Red Tories), but we have no idea what they really stand for, except the status quo. Tellingly, the 11 Tiggers just announced they will back Theresa May in any vote of no confidence.

More importantly, the Ukanian political system has by design always been broken in order to serve the interests of its elites. These defections merely reflect that reality, and do nothing to rectify this eternally grim state of affairs.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.