Should the Independent Group’s MPs have abided by the ‘Carswell Convention’?

Since the EU Referendum in June 2016 rumours that a new anti-Brexit centrist political party was soon to emerge have been consistent. Commentators were proved right when on the 18th February 2019 seven Labour MPs resigned and formed the new ‘Independent Group’.

The 11 Independent Group MPs

The founding members were: Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith and Chuka Umunna. They were joined the very next day by Labour MP, Joan Ryan.

Two days later on the 20th February the group was joined by three Conservative MPs: Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen. L

This new Independent Group now has 11 members. This means it is equal in representation to the Liberal Democrats and is the joint fourth largest group of MPs.

One criticism of the new grouping is that they did not resign their seats in Parliament upon their decision to join the Independent Group.

In recent years there has been an emerging convention in the UK Parliament that is known as the Carswell Convention. This dictates that should an MP decide to change political parties, they should resign their seat in Parliament and force a by-election which they can then decide to run in. The logic behind the convention is that if an MP has been elected on the manifesto of a political party then their constituents should be able to confirm their decision to move to a different political party.

MPs ‘crossing the floor’ is not a new phenomena. Winston Churchill left the Conservatives to join the Liberals in 1904 before returning to the Conservatives in 1924.

The Carswell Convention is named after former MP, Douglas Carswell. In August 2014 he left the Conservatives to join UKIP.

He resigned as a Member of Parliament, thereby forcing a by-election in his constituency of Clacton. He then comfortably won this by-election and in doing so became the first member of UKIP to be elected to the UK Parliament.

In September 2014 Conservative MP Mark Reckless followed Carswell’s lead. He joined UKIP and resigned, he then won the the subsequent by-election.

Mark Reckless became the second Conservative MP to defect to UKIP in 2014.

Given the precedent created by these events, members of the Independent Group have been heavily criticised for not abiding with the convention that they should resign their seats. Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell said:

“If you splinter of and are going to another political platform have a responsibility to go back to the electorate “

So why haven’t the Independent Group called by-elections to abide by the newly established convention?

  1. They argue that their values haven’t changed, but their parties have.

Members of the Independent Group say that they have made their decision to leave their former parties reluctantly. They say that they have done so because their parties have abandoned the centre-ground of UK Politics. For the ex-Tories, they believe that the party is now being run in the background by the right-wing European Research Group. For those who are ex-Labour, they lament the radical shift to the left that has been bought about since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour Leader. They therefore argue that it is their parties who have changed their position, not them, and they are comfortable that they will still represent their constituents as their constituents wanted when they were elected in June 2017.

2. The Independent Group is not a political party

The Independent Groups is not a registered political party. They do not have a leader (although Chuka Umunna has been elected as spokesman). As the MPs who have defected have not join another party, and therefore technically sit as Independents, the Carswell Convention does not apply. Many MPs have resigned to sit as Independents before and there has been no call for them to call a by-election. For example, Ian Austin resigned from the Labour Party to sit as an Independent on the 22nd February 2019. However, as he does not ‘caucus’ with the Independent Group the calls for him to resign as an MP have been virtually non-existent.

3. It would be electoral suicide

Perhaps the most important reason why the Independent Group MPs have not forced by-elections is because it would be electoral suicide. Britain’s First Past the Post system is notoriously brutal for third parties. The chances of even half of the Independent Group retaining their seats if by-elections were called is slim. Some, like Luciana Berger, have extremely healthy majorities (29,466) and may hold on. Others, like Angela Smith (1,322) would be obliterated in a by-election.

It remains to be seen what impact the Independent Group will have in UK Politics. However, it does show a clear lesson about conventions in the UK constitution. As quickly as they emerge, they can be ignored. For many, this adds weight to the arguments that Britain should transition to a fully codified constitution.

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