Defecting or coming home?

Jeremy Corbyn’s election has brought speculation about people on the right of the Labour party switching to the Liberal Democrats. Some of those comments make sense, but others don’t.

At its best, there are times when a genuine change of conviction makes a change of party into a home-coming. I think of the authenticity of Jacob Whiten, writing in Liberal Democrat Voice on his move from UKIP to the Liberal Democrats, and the enormous contribution of people like Shirley Williams, who came into the Liberal Democrats by moving from Labour to the SDP.

But defections can backfire, and the language of encouraging them can play badly, as in the case of a recent spoof email from Tim Farron to Chuka Umunna encouraging him to switch, written by Amol Rajan in the Evening Standard.

With Labour and Tories both apparently moving away from the centre there is sense of pressure on the people towards the middle ground in both parties. But we should be wary of making a grab for the disaffected. Both parties have strong centralising tendencies: that is a long way from Liberal Democrat culture. We’d be in danger of playing along with the myth that we are a bland hybrid of left and right when the preamble to our constitutional points us in a much richer direction which is not quite on that scale. In a party which affirms the “fundamental values of liberty, equality and diversity” there is bound to be a lively debate on how the preamble translates into specific policies, here are four pointers to distinctive territory:

“no one shall be enslaved by poverty…”

This is not “trickle-down” or “wealth re-distribution”, both of which have the nasty habit of preserving the inequalities they claim to address. It offers ways of enabling opportunity and change, such as pointing a path to both sides of industry working together for everyone’s benefit, rather than one side being favoured over the other.

“… or conformity”

Equal opportunities are much better than unequal opportunities, but not being enslaved by conformity takes that to a new level, embracing and cherishing diversity (even if we have further to go to achieve this).

“enable all citizens… to take part in the decisions which affect their lives…” and “…the promotion of a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom”

Embracing diversity and possibility offers huge benefits. It is a million miles from a “vow” grudgingly-given to bribe the Scots into voting for the union. The survival and prosperity of the UK both need fair and effective devolution.

“Within the European Community we affirm the values of federalism and integration…”

This is much more than campaigning for a “yes” vote. It is about joining the long list of people with the vision to seek to improve the European Union from the inside. It is the polar opposite of Cameron’s half-baked and short-sighted “renegotiation”.

It’s great to welcome people who realise their natural political home is the Liberal Democrats, but it would be bad if we allowed ourselves to be painted as the sanctuary of those who have had a short-term falling-out with their own parties. Both Labour and Conservatives are likely to undergo big upheavals in the near future. It is essential that we remain faithful to our own core because it is something that will be needed — both by the UK and the EU.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at

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  • paul barker 24th Sep '15 - 4:17pm

    As someone who went on a long jouney from The Far Left to The Libdems I dont see a contradiction between sharpening our distinctive Liberal vision & actively encouraging people to move from other Parties to us, each will help the other. Of course we should be honest about how big a cultural shock joining us would be but a lot of Labour people share some ideas & values with us. The process of change in Labour hasnt finished with Corbyns election, new members influenced by The Far Left are flooding in & the centre of gravity within The Party continues to shift Left & towards a neutral or hostile attitude to The EU, NATO & The USA.

  • Mark Blackburn 24th Sep '15 - 5:34pm

    I don’t often agree with Mark Argent, but he’s spot on here. And maybe that’s the great hope for so called social liberals and Orange Bookers – that we don’t triangulate and maroon ourselves on the shifting sands of the centre ground but unite behind and espouse the much needed and too often unvoiced values of genuine Liberalism.

  • Sensible article there are liberals in other parties but also ‘centreists’ who are not liberals. The Lib Dems need to be clear that they are about being liberal not just being ‘centre’ of a perceived spectrum.

  • George Kendall 24th Sep '15 - 9:17pm

    @Psi “Sensible article there are liberals in other parties but also ‘centreists’ who are not liberals. The Lib Dems need to be clear that they are about being liberal not just being ‘centre’ of a perceived spectrum.”

    True. But I do wish we could talk about being Liberal Democrats rather than just liberals.

    The party was formed from two parties, the Social Democratic Party, and the Liberal Party. There must be many members of the Labour party, who regard themselves as social democrats, and are contemplating the move to us (in the private members forum I was just talking to one who has recently made the move). So it seems a great shame that too often we use language that erases that social democratic legacy.

    They’ll know that moving from Labour to the Lib Dems will be hard. I was a member of the SDP who had never been in a political party before. When I went canvassing, a few Labour supporters would assume I had defected, and to see their outrage at my ‘treachery’ was astonishing. Thankfully, they were few, but I’m sure that that tribalism will make leaving the Labour party a massive emotional wrench. We shouldn’t make it harder.

    If you’re worried about Labour members who are not liberal-minded at all joining us, don’t be. They just won’t. Our name, Liberal Democrats, will prevent them.

  • ‘.If you’re worried about Labour members who are not liberal-minded at all joining us, don’t be. They just won’t. Our name, Liberal Democrats, will prevent them.’ I admire your optimism The SDP attracted many looking for a life boat from Labour ., as have the Lib Dems from Labour & Tories over the years. A number have never been Liberal (or Social Democrat)….I’m sure we can all name a number . I would love us to demand that ‘defectors’ if they hold an elected position stand for re-election under their Lib Dem new colours………

  • Talking of liberal values, Amol Rajan is doing an excellent job of destroying the Independent newspaper.

  • Don’t worry. There simply isn’t going to be a long queue of people wanting to join the Lib Dems. From any party.

  • Peter Watson 25th Sep '15 - 11:36am

    @Iain Donaldson ” There are two axes in politics, yes one is left to right but the the other is liberal to authoritarian … it is that Liberal ground that we need now to occupy, for that is in reality where most people in this country are politically”
    I can’t help but feel it is more nuanced than that.
    I believe that people do want themselves to be treated in a liberal manner, but want “others” to be controlled in a more authoritarian way. Perhaps some of the success of the Conservative and Labour parties comes from them being able to define “others” who should be treated illiberally.

  • Iain Donaldson

    We should also separate the common ground strategy fron the centre ground strategy.

    Centre ground strategy is basically a status quo plus strategy (I’m not too far from, where we are but have a couple of minor tweaks to make). We could call this the LibDem 2015 strategy.

    Common ground strategy is one that recognises that there are elements of every political philosophy that the voters like and looks to pick out the part that is most important to their philosophy and push it as the most important to the voters. For Labour one aspect is people’s dislike of inequality of outcome, for the Tories one aspect is the desire for Security, (note these are perceived, so you don’t have to accept that parties policies actually deliver them).

    The LibDems are very bad at setting out why their key attributes aren’t well looked after by other parties (both of whom claim to look after things like civil liberties while trampling on them) and even worse at pushing why they should be most important.

  • Peter Watson 25th Sep '15 - 1:41pm

    I am not convinced that a liberal-authoritarian axis is sufficient to define a political position for the party.
    I think that it reflects a significant problem in that although Lib Dems might start from similar “liberal” principles, some are drawn towards policies that are the same as those promoted by the Tories and some are drawn towards policies that are the same as those promoted by Labour, despite those other parties coming at it from different directions. This leads to Lib Dems accusing each other of being in the wrong party.
    My gut-feeling is that self-interest drives voters and that Lib Dems need to show how their policies will directly benefit voters. And although life is not a zero-sum game, often where there are winners there will also be losers. Other parties appear to have identified particular groups who they want to represent as “us” versus “them”, and I don’t believe that “liberals” is a sufficiently well-defined “side” for Lib Dems to target, not least because a liberal approach in one area is often accompanied by an illiberal approach in another (see for example discussions about same-sex marriage and religious tolerance on this site).

  • Bill le Breton 25th Sep '15 - 3:55pm

    Iain is right that more than one axis is required.

    The great social anthropologist Mary Douglas produced a two axis model based on ‘group’ and ‘grid’. Rayner (1992) explains ‘A “high group” way of life exhibits a high degree of collective control, whereas a “low group” one exhibits a much lower one and a resulting emphasis on individual self-sufficiency. A “high grid” way of life is characterized by conspicuous and durable forms of stratification in roles and authority, whereas a “low grid” one reflects a more egalitarian ordering.’

    This gives four quadrants or four competing ways of life, including interpretations of risk: high stratification / grid + high group = strongly incorporated groups with complex structures =eg hierarchical cultures, supporting tradition and order. Low stratification and low group or weak structure / weak incorporation are individualistic = competitive individuality and a strong belief in markets with no belief in tradition for its own sake. High group low stratification eg egalitarian enclaves and sects with a commitment to equality maintained by elaborate rules. And finally low group and high grid = isolates in complex structures or as Douglas (1998)writes, ” anyone who avoids alignment and does not intend to lead, persuade or organise, highly fatalistic types.

    Each type for example sees nature in a different way. Controllable by those who know how ie manageable. Capricious and uncontrollable. Tough and resilient. Vulnerable and unstable.

    It is a very interesting way of analysing different political philosophies and of course it suggests there is no was of bringing about harmony. Recent ideas wish to explore ‘clumsy solutions’ that try to include the four perspectives.
    Although this has been the last 50 years for those outside of academic anthropology an obscure area of thinking over, the RSA has been looking at this in recent years, Notably Matthew Taylor its CE had been campaigning on its behalf.

  • Stick to liberalism, apply the philosophy of the preamble – simple, distinctive, principled. Easy!

  • Richard Underhill 25th Sep '15 - 9:34pm

    What happens too easily is that some people leave or become inactive because others have joined. May 1000 flowers bloom.

  • We should treat potential MP defectors precisely the way a local council group would treat an approach from a couple of previously Tory-leaning independents. Do these people share our values? What can we learn from what they say now and what they’ve done in the past? If they don’t seem to share our values, we should politely turn them down: in the last five years we’ve suffered heavily because people were confused about who we were and what we stood for. Welcoming in right-wing Labour we-know-best centralists or Blairites would renew the confusion.

    Quite a lot of people in other parties do share a lot with us, of course. Probably the proportions are higher outside Parliament than in. And if such people do join us, they should be welcomed, encouraged and trusted.

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