In the House of Commons there are currently 20 independent MPs. The only difference amongst them is that Lady Sylvia Hermon was elected on an independent ticket in the General Election in 2017. All the rest are the result of leaving the party whose platform they got elected on. So apart from Lady Hermon all of them have got no constituency association, no history of fighting an election as an independent and very probably no chance in the next General Election.
So what makes eleven of that twenty, Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry, Sarah Woolaston, Anne Coffey, Angela Smith, Chris Leslie, Mike Gapes, Luciana Berger, Gavin Shuker, Joan Ryan and Chuka Umunna so newsworthy? They’re in the papers, on the TV and Heidi Allen and Luciana Berger got on the Marr show on Sunday. (I’d say the BBC kicked the third party in the House of Commons off the show to make way for them but that wouldn’t be true as the SNP are invisible to the BBC anyway.) The Independent Group are surrounded by speculation and they’re a big news story.
Whether or not you support Corbyn it’s fair to say the media attack on him has been pretty relentless and the media fuss about the Independent Group is more about the hope Labour is disintegrating as much as it is about the formation of a new party or about whether this will have an impact on Theresa May getting her Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament.
In reality the Independent Group are a loose collection of independent MPs who have formed an informal group inside the House of Commons. It doesn’t have any official standing and all the MPs in the group are listed as independents on the House of Commons website. Today the Independent Group elected Gavin Shuker to be their convenor which of course is just a courtesy title in a group which has no official or legal standing. It’s a good choice as Gavin Shuker is the sole director of Gemini A Ltd (Company number 11770529) which is the company which was set up to handle the fund raising donations which are being solicited on the Independent Group website. Since the Independent Group is simply an informal group of independent MPs in it is difficult to make any legal connection between the Gemini A Ltd company and the group and as far as I can see there is none, Gavin Shuker being the sole director and shareholder of the Gemini A Ltd company.
The Independent Group have plans to be a party but they aren’t in any hurry to become one as the deadline set by Chuka Umunna is by the end of 2019. So without being a party what rights do they have in the commons?
As an informal group they have no right to Short Money, the money given to opposition parties to help fund their activities in the House of Commons, and unfortunately for them that also applies even if they do form a new party. The example of the SDP confirms that Short Money is only paid to parties who get their MPs elected at a General Election. This was referred to in House of Commons Research paper in 1993:
“(2) the case of the Social Democratic Party set up in 1981. A group of sitting Members swiftly joined the new party and by 1982 the SDP had a total membership in the Commons of 29 and two Members elected under that label (Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins). But it did not qualify for aid because none of its Members was elected under the SDP label at the May 1979 General Election. Following the June 1983 election, the SDP became eligible in its own right to Short Money”
This was also confirmed in the Members Estimate Committee report of 2018 where it was stated:
“Explanatory note: This precludes the provision of Short money to parties which only meet the two Member threshold as a result of a by-election or a Member defecting from another party.
It would also prevent payment of Short money to a new political party, if it was established in the middle of a Parliament;
and if a Member leaves a party during the Parliament, Short money would be stopped if the 2 or 1 Member condition is no longer met.”
House of Commons Members Estimate Committee Consolidated list of provisions of the Resolutions of the House relating to expenditure charged to the Estimate for House of Commons: Members as at 16 July 2018 First Report of Session 2017–19
The rules on third party status appear more convention than any formal set of rules. Despite searching on the Parliament website and generally on Google I couldn’t turn up anything which formalises the role of the third party in Westminster. By convention, written or otherwise, the leader of the third party gets two questions at Prime Ministers’ Questions in comparison to the Leader of the Opposition’s six and this is what would be the prize if the Independent Group got to be the third party. They won’t get that unless they form a party but although the rules on Short Money and new parties are clear the rules on third party status and new parties are much more opaque. If the Independent Group formed a new party and got more than 35 members even though they hadn’t stood as a party in the last General Election would they then be considered as the third party?
Probably yes, but that’s not clear.
From a Scottish perspective all eight of the Labour members of the new group campaigned for No in the independence referendum and all (except Joan Ryan who campaigned by phone) actually travelled to Scotland to campaign. It’s an interesting aside that Labour MPs were much more active for No in the independence referendum than Tory MPs and that Labour provided the footsoldiers for David Cameron in Scotland in 2012-2014. Any hope that this new grouping might be more accepting of a second Scottish independence referendum is doomed to failure.
Since the Independent Group has not created a new party the word, “defection”, used by the media to describe the resignation of the Labour and Tory MPs is incorrect. To defect you have to join the other side and since the eleven MPs have simply resigned from their respective parties to become independents it doesn’t fit what they’ve done as they’re not defectors, they’re resigners. The failure of the Independent Group to form a party is a double edged sword for them. They don’t have to come up with policies or a manifesto and that saves internal arguments in the group but that means other MPs in the Labour and Tory parties can’t actually jump ship as all they can do is jump in the water and hope that there is a new party to provide them with a lifeboat at some future date. This lack of a lifeboat may be part of the reason other MPs haven’t resigned to join the group.
Until the Independent Group form a new party then their official status is that each individual member is an independent MP with no affiliation to any party. As independents they don’t get third party status even if they get their informal membership over 35 and the certainly don’t get any Short Money. It remains to be seen if they have any impact on the current Brexit impasse and whether they can form another party before the next General Election. They’ve got the website, the name and the fundraiser, all that’s missing is that very important bit, the party organisation.
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