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British Parliamentarians Form New Centrist Group


Brexit is just weeks away, but Britain's government still can't agree on how Britain will exit the European Union. And now several members of Parliament - so far, 11 - have exited both the Conservative and Labour parties in recent days to form a new centrist political faction called the Independent Group. Chris Leslie, a former member of Labour, an MP for Nottingham East, is part of this group and joins us. Mr. Leslie, thanks so much for being with us.

CHRIS LESLIE: Oh, thank you for having me.

SIMON: And why did you leave Labour?

LESLIE: Well, I mean, these are political parties in the U.K. that have been existing for many, many decades. And I've been in the Labour Party for over 30 years. And so it's been very heartbreaking, actually. A bit like in other parts of the world, the grip of populism has taken some of our traditional parties a little bit more to what you might call the political edges, the fringes, a little bit more on the extreme. And it's left a big vacuum in the mainstream middle ground of politics.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, you seem especially put out with Jeremy Corbyn's leadership.

LESLIE: Yeah. And it's not just about the individual character of Jeremy Corbyn, although there are issues there as well. What happened when Labour lost one of the general elections back in 2015 - I think people were so despondent that they fell into the kind of comfort zone of what you might call traditional, more hard-left politics where there's a sort of purity that people were seeking rather than the sort of difficult decision-making that you have to do in terms of balancing priorities. And that meant that many of us MPs, members of Parliament, who'd been around were under threat, were finding the culture within the Labour Party quite intolerant and abusive. Anti-Semitism started rearing its head because on the left in the U.K., there's a very anti-West, anti-Israel, anti-American sentiment. And this was massively depressing to many of us. So we just felt enough was enough, and that's why we left.

SIMON: How will the Independent Group handle the Brexit process?

LESLIE: Well, we are really worried about Brexit as a disaster, which will affect the livelihoods and the jobs of our constituents. So the idea that you can cut yourself off from the global economy, that you will end up with new tariff barriers, that you won't be able to move goods freely across the nearest neighboring countries - we've had such a great relationship with the European Union. In the last 40 years, that's really benefited our economy. And so if you suddenly put barriers around that - also maybe even jeopardizing the peace process in Northern Ireland because you're putting a new barrier there - this could be politically and economically disastrous. And we will try our best to say, let the people of Britain have a fresh decision; if they want to back out of Brexit, they should be allowed to do that.

SIMON: But there's already been one referendum on Brexit. Do you risk defying democracy if you force a second referendum? 'Cause it seems like you just want referendums until you get a result you like.

LESLIE: Well, my own advice to my constituents and many of the people in Britain - and the polling even shows this - is that they are now very worried and very wary of what Brexit would do now that they've seen the actual facts, now that they know what it would entail. And so I think it's a bit like a doctor in a, you know, surgery sort of going back to the patient just at the right moment, saying, can I have your informed consent; are you sure you want to proceed with this? And I think so, too, with Brexit, we should give the public a say in whether they really want to proceed knowing that it will make our economy poorer and that there will be job losses as a result. That's all we're looking for, I think. But sadly, the main political parties haven't had the guts and the bravery to offer that to the public. And that's one of the reasons I couldn't continue in the Labour Party.

SIMON: Charles Leslie (ph), a member of Parliament and a member of the Independent Group. Thanks so much for being with us.

LESLIE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIDO SONG, "GIRL WHO GOT AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.