Updated: Tuesday, 7th April 2020 @ 8:10am

The Party Formerly Known as Change UK: A chronicle of omnishambles

The Party Formerly Known as Change UK: A chronicle of omnishambles

| By Dan Haygarth

On 18th February, citing dissatisfaction with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour party’s Brexit policy and its handling of anti-Semitism; seven Labour MPs left the party to form ‘The Independent Group’.

Built around the slogan “Politics is broken, let’s fix it”, the group eventually registered as a party under the name ‘Change UK – The Independent Group’ and set about becoming a centrist, pro-European Union alternative to the two main parties.

Fast forward to December and the party, now known as ‘The Independent Group for Change”, is only fielding three candidates for the forthcoming general election and the only change they’ve managed to bring about has been to their own name.

So, what happened to Change UK?

Well, things didn’t exactly start well. Mere hours after announcing that she had left Labour and was part of this new group, Angela Smith, MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, had to apologise after appearing to refer to people from a BAME background as being of a ‘funny tinge’ on BBC 2’s Politics Live.

Smith’s apology overshadowed the group’s glitzy press conference reveal, which had drawn praise for its speeches and led some to declare that a new political force was born.

Liverpool Wavertree MP Luciana Berger condemned Labour’s handling of anti-Semitism in a passionate and uncompromising speech, saying that she was: “leaving behind a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation”.

Chuka Umanna, MP for Streatham, dismissed comparisons with the Liberal Democrats, stating that the group wanted to “build a new alternative” and dismissed any possibility of a merger with the party. More of that later.

After initial excitement, the group increased in numbers. Joan Ryan joined from the Labour party the following day, before Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston left the Conservatives to join a day later.

Despite receiving criticism for no longer representing the parties with whom they were elected, the group was seen by some as the answer to their Brexit-related prayers and the future of centrist politics - a modern equivalent of the SDP. Others weren’t so keen, criticising the members’ respective voting records and their problems with technology.

With tinge-gate behind them and their glossy reveals garnering support, the group set to work on changing politics. They decided not to stand in the May local elections, instead focussing on the European elections later in the month. This was where the fun really began.

The group’s registration as a political party under the name “Change UK – The Independent Group” was confirmed by the Electoral Commission in April. However, they ran into trouble after their emblem, which contained a hashtag the use of the acronym TIG, were rejected by the commission. Fortunately, the party’s bar code-style logo was eye-catching and inspiring enough. Who needs a hashtag?

Having cleared that hurdle with relatively little fuss (by the group’s standards, at least), they began to announce their candidates for the elections. Former BBC journalist Gavin Esler, writer Rachel Johnson (sister of Boris) and former Polish Prime Minister Jacek Rostowski were their big hitters and were joined by some former Conservative, Lib Dem and Labour MPs and MEPs.

Just a day later, scandal hit again. We had a short-awaited sequel to the tingegate moment. MEP candidates Ali Sadjady and Joseph Russo decided to stand down after The Independent uncovered offensive tweets of theirs.

In November 2017, Sadjady posted: "When I hear that 70% of pickpockets caught on the London Underground are Romanian it kind of makes me want Brexit.", while a post of Russo’s from 2012 stated: “black women scare me”.

Russo, who was the party’s lead candidate in Scotland, was replaced by David McDonald. Unfortunately for Change UK, it didn’t take long for McDonald to become the first high-profile defector from the party established by defectors.

He encouraged people to vote for the Scottish Liberal Democrats and appeared to start a trend of Change UK members trashing their own party.

Five days before European polling day, Rachel Johnson described herself as the “rat that jumps on the sinking ship” in an interview in The Times, before lamenting Change UK as a “terrible name”.

Campaigning wasn’t exactly going to plan either. After registering as a political party, Change UK switched their Twitter handle from @TheIndGroup to @ForChange_Now. However, they had failed to shut down the former account, meaning it was hijacked by an online prankster, who renamed the account to “Cringe UK” and set to work.

Upon announcing their new Twitter page, Change UK stated: “Sadly our former handle has been hijacked by someone making mischief. Our message is clear - politics is broken, we need to change it.” Good thing they were such great communicators.

If you’re beginning to think that this isn’t the best way to prepare for an election, things were about to get a lot worse. Three days before polling day, interim leader Heidi Allen revealed that the party may not exist by the next general election and two days later she stated that she wished to urge remainers to vote for the Lib Dems in the European elections. She did, however, deny that she had considered defecting to the party. Again, more of that later.

Polling day came around and Change UK prepared for their big moment. Was this their chance to become the centrist, progressive force that Britain was apparently pleading for? Were they about to become the third party, that would keep our politics in the nice, sensible and grown-up centre-ground?

In a word, no. The party claimed 3% of the vote and failed to win a single seat. The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, won 15 new seats and finished second nationally to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party – Change UK’s ideological enemies.

The fallout from the election performance was staggering. Needless to say, Anna Soubry wasn’t too happy with the result and lambasted Allen’s previous comments. She told the Today Programme: “I think it is rather bizarre for an interim leader on the eve of poll to tell people essentially not to vote for their party.” She has a point.

Soubry’s mood was reflected among the party’s MPs, six of whom defected again after a meeting at the start of June. Five of them subsequently formed a non-party group in parliament called “The Independents”, just to make sure there wasn’t any homogenisation of centrist politics. God forbid people with similar views might work together.

Chuka Umunna, however, made a straight transfer to the Liberal Democrats, reneging on his previous statements. He stated that the idea that Britain’s politically homeless wanted a new party was misguided and that he underestimated how difficult it was to create one.

A previous critic of the Liberal Democrats’ role in the coalition government, Umunna seemed to start a trend. Allen, Berger, Wollaston and Smith all followed suit to join their third political party of the year. Change UK was all but dead.

Change UK was, in fact, dead, but out of the ashes rose “The Independent Group for Change”. The party was forced into another name change by the behemoth of petitions website Change.org. They had said that the party had hijacked their branding and they had a point. Soubry had once slipped and referred to the party as Change.org in parliament.

What had started with the best intentions and had excited many has crashed and burned. 10 months of shambles have led to the party only contesting the seats of Broxtowe, Ilford South, and Nottingham East at this general election, with Soubry and former Labour MPs Mike Gapes and Chris Leslie battling on.

I’m sure the people of those three constituencies cannot wait for their broken politics to be fixed.