Seven pro-EU Labour MPs on Monday resigned from Britain’s main opposition party in a major challenge to its leftwing leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The seven MPs — Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Ann Coffey and Gavin Shuker — said they would call themselves the Independent Group and would attempt to seize the centre ground of British politics.
They represent the first co-ordinated departure of Labour MPs since Mr Corbyn became leader in 2015.
Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, warned that more MPs would resign if the party did not change.
“I love this party — but sometimes I no longer recognise it,” he said, calling on Mr Corbyn to do more to reflect the “balance of opinion” among Labour MPs.
The resignations by the seven Labour MPs are not expected to trigger an immediate change in Mr Corbyn’s ambiguous Brexit policy, or alter the daunting parliamentary arithmetic facing prime minister Theresa May as she struggles to secure approval for her withdrawal agreement.
But the formation of the Independent Group highlights growing unease with the Labour leader, who has been at odds with party members pushing for a second Brexit referendum.
Previously, moderate MPs have left Labour one at a time. Calls for a new centrist movement in the UK, inspired by French president Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, have been stymied by Britain’s electoral system, which makes it hard for small political parties to win parliamentary seats.
Mr Corbyn said he was “disappointed” by the MPs’ departure. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said they had a “responsibility” to resign their seats and fight by-elections.
But the seven MPs rejected that course, saying that by-elections would be inappropriate given the political upheaval over Brexit.
Mr McDonnell has argued that a Labour split would be “like the 1980s”, saying that the formation of the Social Democratic party in 1981 had enabled Margaret Thatcher to stay in power as Conservative prime minister.
Unlike the founders of the SDP, the seven Labour MPs do not have significant ministerial experience or a high public profile.
They said that they lacked major funding or party infrastructure and would be operating initially as a separate group in parliament, rather than as a new party.
“What happens now will be determined by who comes forward and supports us . . . This really is it, guys,” said Mr Shuker, calling for people to make small online donations.
The Liberal Democrats, the pro-EU party which has 11 MPs, said they were “open to working with like-minded groups”.
The Independent Group delivered a broad critique of Mr Corbyn’s leadership, saying that his Labour party had failed “to provide a strong and coherent alternative to the Conservatives’ approach” to Brexit, “threatens to destabilise the British economy in pursuit of ideological objectives” and “would weaken our national security”.
Mr Umunna, Ms Berger and Mr Leslie have faced threats from Labour party members wanting to deselect them as their MPs.
Mr Umunna, the MP who is the most likely to emerge as leader of the group, said he and his six colleagues had “exhausted our ability to persuade” Labour to back a second Brexit referendum.
Ms Berger said that she could not stay in a party that had become “institutionally anti-Semitic”.
Other Labour figures were more scathing. Manuel Cortes, head of the TSSA union, which supports a second Brexit referendum, said the seven MPs “will rightly be judged very severely by history”.
Young Labour, the party’s youth arm, called the MPs “cowards” and “traitors”.