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Labour hit by split as seven MPs form independent group

The Houses of Parliament, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday November 14, 2018. Prime Minister Theresa May will put her Brexit plans to the Cabinet on Wednesday, 874 days after Britain voted to leave the European Union. See PA story POLITICS Brexit. Photo credit should read: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

by Andrew Woodcock and David Hughes, Press Association Political Staff

A group of seven Labour MPs have resigned from the party to create a new Independent Group in the House of Commons, in the most significant split in British politics since the breakaway of the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s.

Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker, Mike Gapes and Ann Coffey are among the MPs from the party's centrist wing who have been the loudest critics of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, his stance on Brexit and his handling of allegations of anti-Semitism.

They issued an appeal to MPs from both Labour and other parties to "leave the old tribal politics behind" and join their new grouping.

In a Statement of Independence, setting out their values and approach, they promised to "pursue policies that are evidence-based, not led by ideology, taking a long-term perspective to the challenges of the 21st century in the national interest, rather than locked in the old politics of the 20th century in the parties' interests".

None of the current political parties in Westminster "are fit to provide the leadership and direction needed by our country", they said.

And they pledged: "As an Independent Group we aim to recognise the value of healthy debate, show tolerance towards different opinions and seek to reach across outdated divides and build consensus to tackle Britain's problems."

At a press conference at London's County Hall to announce their move, Mr Umunna issued an appeal to voters: "For far too long, political parties in Westminster - parties of which we have been a part - have been failing you.

"If you are sick and tired of politics as usual, guess what? So are we.

"If you want an alternative, please help us build it. The bottom line is this - politics is broken, it doesn't have to be this way. Let's change it."

In a call on other MPs to quit their parties, Mr Umunna said: "We've taken the first step in leaving the old tribal politics behind and we invite others who share our political values to do so too.

"You might come from a Labour background but you might come from other political traditions. Yes, it's a difficult decision - make no mistake about that.

"But you don't join a political party to spend years and years fighting the people within it. You get involved in politics, you join a party, to change the world.

"We invite you to leave your parties and help us forge a new consensus on a way forward for Britain."

Mr Leslie - a former shadow chancellor - said that Labour had been "hijacked by the machine politics of the hard left", while Ms Berger said she had come to the "sickening" conclusion that the party is now "institutionally anti-Semitic".

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell called on the seven MPs to do "the honourable thing" and stand down to fight by-elections in their constituencies.

That call was rejected by the MPs, with Mr Leslie telling the BBC's World At One that elections were the last thing needed "at this moment of crisis".

Mr Corbyn said he was "disappointed" at the group's decision.

"I am disappointed that these MPs have felt unable to continue to work together for the Labour policies that inspired millions at the last election and saw us increase our vote by the largest share since 1945," said the Labour leader in a statement.

"Labour won people over on a programme for the many not the few - redistributing wealth and power, taking vital resources into public ownership, investing in every region and nation, and tackling climate change.

"The Conservative Government is bungling Brexit, while Labour has set out a unifying and credible alternative plan. When millions are facing the misery of Universal Credit, rising crime, homelessness and poverty, now more than ever is the time to bring people together to build a better future for us all."

Ms Berger - who accidentally introduced herself as a "Labour Party MP", before correcting herself to "the Member of Parliament for Liverpool Wavertree" - said the decision to quit the party was "very difficult, painful, but necessary".

The MP, who has been the target of anti-Semitic abuse and was provided with personal protection at last year's party conference, said she had become "embarrassed and ashamed to remain in the Labour Party".

"I have not changed. The core values of equality for all, opportunity for all, anti-racism against all and social justice - the values which I hold really dear and which led me to join the Labour Party as a student almost 20 years ago - remain who I am," she said.

"And yet these values have been consistently and constantly violated, undermined and attacked, as the Labour Party today refuses to put my constituents and our country before party interests.

"I cannot remain in a party which I have come to the sickening conclusion is institutionally anti-Semitic."

Ilford South MP Mr Gapes said he was "sickened that the Labour Party is now a racist, anti-Semitic party" and "furious that the Labour leadership is complicit in facilitating Brexit".

The former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said that a Labour government led by Mr Corbyn would "threaten our national security and international alliances".

Stockport MP Ms Coffey, who has represented Labour in the Commons since 1992, said the party was "no longer a broad church".

"Any criticism of the leadership is responded to with abuse and accusations of treachery," she said. "Anti-Semitism is rife and tolerated."

In a statement on Facebook, Luton South MP Mr Shuker said Labour was "riddled with anti-Semitism, it presents a threat to our national security and it's perfectly content to enable the hard Tory Brexit that will directly and negatively affect people in Luton".

The Independent Group is due to hold its first formal meeting later this week, and released its first tweet just moments after being launched.

It said: "Today, seven MPs have left Labour and formed a new, Independent Group. They're from different backgrounds but are united in their belief that we can #ChangePolitics." (PA)

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