The Telegraph suggests that “senior” Labour MPs and peers are considering breaking away from their party in disgust at Gordon Brown’s leadership and fear of a lurch to the left. Talks are apparently afoot to convince them to become Liberal Democrats. As usual with unattributed stories, it is impossible to tell whether there is any basis to the newspaper’s speculation – or whether it is entirely unfounded.
But assuming for a moment it is true, some will be tempted to question whether the party should welcome defectors from Labour. I’ve previously outlined why I don’t subscribe to the view (held by many Labour supporters) that our two parties are needlessly separated, and that the “left” (or “liberal left” as some think of it) should reunite, in coalition or in merger.
There are important reasons why the Liberal Democrats exist as an independent force in British politics, and being a second-rate Labour party or a second-rate Conservative party is not one of them… quite the opposite, in fact. We don’t want to be part of a leftist project, but a liberal one. The Liberal Democrats are clearly an anti-conservative party and a progressive party, but that does not make us a quaint administrative unit within an imagined “liberal left”, embodied by the Labour party and the labour movement.
Yet the Liberal party’s traumatic twentieth century has meant that British liberals have not always seen the party and its successor to be their natural home. The SDP merger saw part of the liberal diaspora come home, but there are still liberals stranded in Britain’s Conservative, Labour and Green parties who we should welcome as we build a broader and stronger coalition within the Liberal Democrats. Clearly, we have an immense opportunity to realign British politics by attracting former Labour politicians and their supporters to help the Liberal Democrats replace Labour as the largest progressive party in British politics.
It would quite obviously be difficult – nay, impossible – for a discontent like Charles Clarke to be offered membership of the Liberal Democrats, unless he wants to recant the entire authoritarian project he pursued as Home Secretary, most notably with ID cards and detention without trial. Quite how the Telegraph intends the term “Blairite” to be interpreted is crucial here. If they refer to MPs who reject Old Labour’s politics of class warfare and statist fundamentalism, then that is one thing – and presumably what Lib Dem sources identified as “moderate”. This would include those Labour MPs who – like Paddy Ashdown and Roy Jenkins – were assured by Tony Blair that he aimed to pursue a project similar to the SDP agenda of the 1980s, and convert Old Labour into a progressive liberal party. It is quite another thing if “Blairite” means those like Clarke who enthusiastically supported the odious Blairite cocktail of attacking civil liberties, abandoning a moral foreign policy and unthinkingly fetishising market forces. (For a critique of the latter, see Our Vince’s excellent pamphlet).
Yet there are a large number of Labour MPs who could sit happily as Liberal Democrat MPs (and many Conservatives, too). One of the only downsides to the recent and healthy flourishing of ideological debate within our party is its tendency to create factionalism. As has been suggested elsewhere, supporters of different traditions within the Liberal Democrats should never take recourse to purging or persecuting their opponents – not least because there is as much division on specific issues within the imagined tribes as between them. It would be a terrible mistake to reject an influx of former Labour supporters into a party. On the contrary, we should court and welcome them.
Political parties are intrinsically coalitions of individuals with varied views but a liberal party – I would argue – is naturally in a perpetual state of coalition. This is because the essence of liberalism is the preservation, in the face of new challenges, technologies and situations, of a balance between liberty and equality. Invariably, no two liberals will agree on quite how the balance between negative liberties and positive equalities stacks up over the hundreds of issues that surface within their lifetimes. While this paradox in our political ideology can often feel like a drawback – for it denies us the safe but deceptive certainties of socialism or market fundamentalism – it is the essence of liberalism as a political creed.
In the 1990s, the Liberal Democrats benefited greatly from former Conservatives who became not simply disillusioned with their Prime Minister, but sure that their principles were more at home within the Liberal Democrats. We would be made not to welcome defectors from Labour in similar circumstances, while retaining caution against those who imagine us to be a bland centrist party as opposed to a radical movement.
The Liberal Democrats should always be the natural home of British liberals, wherever they have been marooned in their careers thus far. Paddy Ashdown’s success at bringing home ex-Conservatives in the 1990s should be enthusiastically pursued by Nick Clegg in today’s climate, welcoming Labour members into our ranks. Tony Blair’s henchmen should be kept at a distance, but liberal Labour MPs would be more than welcome in Britain’s progressive and radical party. They would be at home in a party that champions social justice, civil liberty and opportunity for all.