Labour’s turmoil presents the LibDems as the home for those with centre-left progressive values

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Quoting Labour’s Harold Wilson might stir some feathers to our LibDem audience, but amidst the political whirlwind, it’s fitting to recall our famous working man’s pipe-smoking ex-Prime Minister who seemed to be born into a trench-coat, rather than a birthday suit. His famous quip was “a week is a long time in politics.” And my goodness, what a week it has been.

We witnessed Natalie Elphicke, one of three former Conservatives who have recently joined Labour. Whilst the previous two defections might have surprised some and been welcomed by all within Labour, Elphicke’s departure was one that surprised everyone and was not welcomed by some from within Labour. Honestly, if you had asked me personally, I would have put better bets on her throwing herself into the coast in her constituency in Dover, to help toe a boat of Refugees onto British shores, than this. We are still yet to see the full political fallout of this choice accepted by Labour, given her right-wing views on immigration, culture wars, and, not too long ago, unflattering remarks she made about the Labour leadership. And this is only scratching the surface, given the comments she made about her husband’s victims that got caught up in his sexual misconduct trial and her attempts to influence it.

Meanwhile, Suella Braverman’s call to drop the two child cap on benefits felt rather odd coming from someone who heralds from the right of her Party. These sudden role reversals feel weird. In fact, had she been in Labour today I am sure her lambasting the single biggest policy to cause child poverty would have her branded by the current Labour leadership and Tory client news media of stoking up a “dangerously Corbynist militant agenda that is politically out of touch; only appealing to the neo-Marxist social justice warriors that parade of mass popular appeal”. We can never know these days with the recent Tory defectors if Keir would take her call if she did decide to defect to Labour; but given that Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting went on the defence on how Labour opposed her idea of scrapping the two child cap, it sounds like Sir Keir would refuse her call just purely based on the Child Benefit statement alone.

These peculiar times evoke a scene from a topsy-turvy political tale, akin to Little Red Riding Hood with roles reversed, leaving audiences puzzled over who the real “big bad wolf” is. This spectacle of political wardrobe malfunctions underscores the fluidity of political identities, where a Tory dons Labour’s garb and vice versa.

Introducing Harold Wilson earlier does serve a purpose beyond nostalgia. Wilson, lauded or lambasted, is often regarded as the last political leader with a genuine connection to the working class, contrasting with the elitism of the then Conservative front bench team. – The last political leader who came from modest means, a Midas touch with the ordinary working classes and in tune with the common people. This was despite, speaking of theatrics earlier, the theatrics of his image; as that pipe-smoking, raincoat-donning leader with his thick vowels. He was, on a personality and presentational level, a rather skilled performer. His upbringing was rooted firmly to the Middle-Class, he graduated at the prestigious Oxford University in 1937, had a secret fondness for Cuban cigars and preferred red wine to beer.

Yet, despite the artificiality of his “humble” background it never let him compromise over substance in policy in his attempts to see better opportunities and a better life for those from more poor or modest backgrounds. Policies such as the Open University, introduction of more supplementary benefits to help the poor, an increase in pensions, introduction of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), implementation of regional development policies aimed to reduce regional inequalities, and pushing through the civil rights agenda such as: decriminalisation of homosexuality, abortion reform, divorce liberalisation and removing the last of the war time censorships,  have all proven long-lasting and successful for a fairer, just society.  It would be rude not to remind LibDem readers that the civil rights agenda was aided by then Labour Home Secretary and future leader of the SDP and liberal darling, Roy Jenkins. While Wilson never managed to fully modernize the economy and quell industrial strife, these policies were significant steps toward promoting social mobility, reducing poverty, and advancing civil rights. Underscoring his reputation as the “man of the power” as my mum would say.

And this is where Labour have now come to a crossroads with recent events. As someone from a working-class background and a strong liberal (social) democrat, and having been a Labour (now ex-) member, I can’t help but state amongst these recent developments that this could be the Liberal Democrats’ golden opportunity to realign as the new political home for people of my background in the commitment to progressive centre-left values and offer a credible alternative to this political turmoil.

I was a member of the Labour Party for nine years, driven by my unwavering commitment to the social democratic side of the party. – Even during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, when I found myself at odds with his approach and politics. Despite differences with my Corbyn peers, I always believed that Labour, with its core values and principles, remained a place where diverse voices could be heard. However, under Keir Starmer’s leadership, I witnessed a significant shift in the party’s mood. It seemed to prioritize winning at all costs, even if it meant aligning too closely with the Tory agenda. The once vibrant atmosphere of debate and discussion was replaced by a singular focus on victory, leaving little room for dissent or civility. It was this that lead to my departure. Labour likes to remind us of Sir Keir Starmer’s working-class heritage when people unfairly paint him as an aristocrat due to his ‘Sir’ title. But in a twist with the Harold Wilson analogy, whereas Keir Starmer had real roots to the working class unlike Wilson, Labour lost its heart.

I  was eventually won over by the LibDems in the recent 2024 local elections. Noticing candidates that would speak on what I thought can only be traditionally Labour policies such as building more council homes, reforming right to buy, supporting anti-poverty initiatives, tenant housing rights, and bringing bus services into local authority ownership – to name a few. I was also proud to see the diversity of people from all backgrounds, particularly people from humbler backgrounds. We should also be proud of a social liberalism history from Lloyd-George to Kennedy, from the Old Age Pensions Act to the Pupil Premiums.

This is why I think it’s more imperative and important now that these voices of a more fair society are heard louder within the party and the people that come from humble backgrounds are championed. Let’s make the LibDems a new political home for the working class.

* Andrew Chandler is a former Labour member turned Liberal Democrat Member in Stoke-on-Trent

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32 Comments

  • Social Democrats have been on the retreat on the continent for sometime now …In the recent Spanish regional elections they were nearly wiped out ..
    ‘I always believed that Labour, with its core values and principles, remained a place where diverse voices could be heard’
    The trouble with the modern progressive left is that they’ve become intolerant to diverse voices they disagree with – in doing so they have fell into the culture war trap laid out for them …They hide their intolerance under the mask of inclusivity.
    Whatever you may think of Corbyn – at least he offered hope to many in 2017…Sadly the LP with it’s disregard to those that voted leave cost them dear under fptp in GE19 – 60 seats lost – 52 of them leave seats .. Nothing fundamental will change for those that are struggling – just more of the same under Tories or Labour…Come the GE – on the doorstep you’ll be hearing plenty of opinions expressed that doesn’t fit a progressive narrative – mainly from voters with ‘humble backgrounds ‘….

  • Mary Fulton 14th May '24 - 2:12pm

    I think James Callaghan is the most recent PM who was truly working class. As I recall, he left school at 16 and was thereafter educated in the school of life.

  • Chris Moore 14th May '24 - 2:30pm

    Good article. You are right. There is an opportunity.

    @Martin: The Socialist Party is the main vehicle of social democracy in Spain. They form the national government and at the weekend had their best result for many years in the very important region of Cataluña. Prior to that, they also did well in the Basque Country elections.

  • Charley Hasted 14th May '24 - 2:43pm

    As a former Stoke on Trent resident it’s good to see new members in the area- spent 5 years there and they were some of the best! Welcome to the party 🙂

    Also there are lot more of us working class people in the party than I think a lot of people realise and I think you’re absolutely right that we could and should be working to offer more to working class people and shouting about things we’ve done to increase class equality and social mobility.

  • David SHEPPARD 14th May '24 - 6:21pm

    Yes I get it too coming as I do from a working class family in Dudley and a failed 11 plus background i’ve always believed that we could attract more people if we talked about social mobility. And the benefit of further or life long self education and building businesses, and trading with our European neighbours.

  • Nigel Jones 14th May '24 - 7:26pm

    Welcome Andrew; I’m in neighbouring Newcastle under Lyme. I like your vision of a left-wing progressive movement targetting the ‘working-class’. However, in numbers this means including people like myself, ex-working class but now middle class; e.g. I remember my mother going without meals so that I and my sister had enough to eat and the house kept warm. It will also take some campaigning to persuade those who currently either lean to Labour or to right-wing Tory views, but it should be possible over time. Those 2 parties and Ukip are examples of how such people have been deceived by political campaigning based on lies and fear.
    See how Sunak is now using fear, Keir pretending they can progress with Tory lite tax, benefit and economic policies and Tice stirring up prejudice against foreigners and trying to say Climate Change is not a big issue. If only we can get our message across to enough people there is a gaping hole we can plug.

  • Nigel Jones 14th May '24 - 7:52pm

    Sorry, in my comment I should have said centre-left progressive movement, not left-wing progressive movement.

  • Andy Chandler 14th May '24 - 8:06pm

    Hi everyone, it’s Andy here, the author. I want to thank you all for your insightful comments and contributions. It’s great to see such lively discussion and diverse perspectives. I wish we could all gather in person for an open debate, but for now, I’ll share some brief responses.
    Firstly, I agree that as liberals, we must allow space for differing views while balancing freedom of speech with preventing harmful hate speech. Social media echo chambers can exacerbate this challenge, but I believe many extreme views stem from fear and dissatisfaction, banning rainbow lanyards won’t help people’s pocket.
    I appreciate the emphasis on social mobility from fellow working-class individuals like David. It’s an essential aspect of the conversation.
    Thanks, Charley, for the Stokie welcome, and Mary, for highlighting the significance of image in politics, exemplified by figures like Wilson.
    And Nigel I also completely agree. I wouldn’t know where I would call myself these days. I was born in a council house. I spent years in low-skilled and low paid jobs when the financial crash happened and it became a competitive jobs markets. But, now I am a Data Engineer and Analyst and earn a good wage and on a mortgage – wish the house I would want is bigger but yes I agree it will take campaigning, building narratives and stories and get that message across.
    Anyway, thanks again and keep well.

  • Tristan Ward 14th May '24 - 10:05pm

    Given that (i) the whole drift of politics over the last 45 odd years has been towards the right (ii) there seems to be little appetite from the electorate for traditional left wing politics (see Corbyn) and (iii) our target seats are almost exclusively conservative facing, portraying ourselves as to the “left of Labour” seems poor political tactics to me.

    Indeed of we want to extinguish the Conservative Party completely (and why not – an historic opportunity may be approaching if the polls are to be believed) taking the votes of those liberally minded Conservatives digusted with the current government who want a business friendly, internationalist party concerned by environmental degredation and defenders of human rights looks like an easy win to me.

  • Tristan Ward 14th May '24 - 10:07pm

    Given that (i) the whole drift of politics over the last 45 odd years has been towards the right (ii) there seems to be little appetite from the electorate for traditional left wing politics (see Corbyn) and (iii) our target seats are almost exclusively conservative facing, portraying ourselves as to the “left of Labour” seems poor political tactics to me.

    Indeed of we want to extinguish the Conservative Party completely (and why not – an historic opportunity may be approaching if the polls are to be believed) taking the votes of those liberally minded Conservatives digusted with the current government who want a business friendly, internationalist party concerned by environmental degredation and defenders of human rights looks like an easy win to me.

    Let’s face it Tunbridge Wells doesn’t want excessive radicalism.

  • Andy Chandler 14th May '24 - 10:24pm

    @Tristan Ward
    I don’t think over the past few years the country has shifted to the right in a very linear succession as you described. Most opinion polls and British Social Attitude Studies show people are quite broadly centre-left on economic issues (in fact their is lot of support on some quite left wing things like nationalisation etc but I mostly people want to just have policies that seem fair and work) and liberal on social issues with immigration being one people tend to lean right on, especially working class people.

    I think what most people want is simply policies that work, yes free trade but without it compromising on consumer protection and people feel the benefit of it.

    And I came into politics to support those who don’t have a voice and I think we are probably being too wishful thinking here. We tried the orange liberal approach, look what it got us. We are 9 or 10% in the polls when the Tories are at their most unpopular but in 1997 we were averaging 20%.

    I feel like even more now we could be reduced to a protest vote. People simply don’t want to vote for us because of the tuition fees, cuts, austerity etc. I know this because I had friends who voted LibDems in 2010 when I voted Labour and they still have not forgiven us and are backing Labour not out of any passion because they want the Tories out. Also, pretty sure Liverpool where we are second Labour isn’t a Tory heartland.

  • Martin Gray 15th May '24 - 4:43am

    ‘offer more to working class people and shouting about things we’ve done to increase class equality and social mobility’….

    It’ll be good if we ever see the day PPC candidates are not university educated – to think tank – to parliamentary asst to PPC etc..
    It seems you have to be a state middle management EU luvvie type to get on a PPC list …The LP is no better…What about a shelf stacker , road worker , builder , warehouse op, shop asst, care worker etc – someone who knows what it’s like to do a triple shift on or just above the minimum wage, & going to a paypoint to top your electricity up..The party has been captured by a metropolitan middle class mindset…

  • Chris Moore 15th May '24 - 7:47am

    Hi Martin,

    We do have candidates from the working class in winnable seats. Eastbourne and Carshalton are just two examples.

    Whether they are currently shelf-stackers I doubt. No party seems to have people currently in the sort of job you describe as candidates.

    Do you have any ideas as to how the party could rectify that?

  • @Tristan what makes you think politics has drifted to the right over the last 45 years? I would say the opposite:

    If we compare the state of politics with 45 years ago, Government spending has risen from 42.9% in 1981-2 to 45.6% in 2022-3 (https://www.statista.com/statistics/298478/public-sector-expenditure-as-share-of-gdp-united-kingdom-uk/) – and this reflects that we generally expect the Government to do far more than previously. Acceptance of sexual minorities has become mainstream, and racism is no longer acceptable (As an example, remember how 60 years ago, it was not uncommon that ads for rooms to let would explicitly say ‘no blacks’); we have a minimum wage, extensive equality legislation, massively more protections for workers/regulations for businesses; meanwhile human rights principles are much more embedded in society; Scotland and Wales have devolved Governments: All these are things the left campaigned for and the right generally opposed. Over the last 50-ish years, in almost every social aspect of how the UK is organised, the ‘overton window’ has moved massively to the left. It’s only really in economic matters that it’s moved to the right: We no longer accept mass nationalisation or trade unions trying to bring down Governments; the closed shop has gone, income tax rates are lower, tax-and-spend is less popular, and thanks to Ukraine, there’s less controversy about the need for strong defence budgets. (And I suspect most of us would see all those changes as good things).

  • I should have clarified those Government spending stats were as the % of GDP

  • I agree with Tristran. Given that most of libdem target seats are against the tories, tacking to the left makes little sense. There’s heaps of centre right voters homeless at the minute.

  • David Warren 15th May '24 - 2:54pm

    I made a call for more ‘blue collar liberals’ some years ago but little progress has been made.

    There are many barriers to becoming an activist and I experienced them during my working life. Being on shifts made it very difficult to attend meetings, if i was on lates it was impossible.

    There is also a financial barrier. Attending conferences is very expensive and campaigning to even become a candidate costs money.

    If the party is to widen its base it needs to address these issues urgently.

  • David Allen 15th May '24 - 4:55pm

    Labour’s topsy-turvy political behaviour is certainly dismaying. However, the Lib Dems haven’t exactly been a model of consistency and principle, either. Charles Kennedy tacked to the left of Labour, while Nick Clegg tacked a long way to the Right. Under Davey, the Lib Dems have become the voice of bland centrism. Given an opportunity to be distinctive, Davey unerringly passes it up. His logic seems to be that, if you declare a distinctive policy (e.g. “reverse Brexit”), you lose the votes of those who disagree, while probably failing to win many votes from those who might agree.

    Meanwhile, the planet is burning up, public services are in crisis, Trump wants to scrap democracy, while Putin and Netanyahu both see endless war as their personal salvation.

    But hey, why should the Lib Dems bother their heads about any of that? The blandness strategy is working. Pink Tories all over the Home Counties are turning Orange. If what you are in politics for is simply to get a few more bums on seats in the Commons – Then it’s all going fine!

  • Andy Chandler 15th May '24 - 5:16pm

    @David Warren
    I certainly agree we definitely the need for more diversity on “blue collar liberalism” I like that terminology. Definitely goes beyond just policy and the Party need to have more initiatives on help people who can’t afford travelling to campaigns or conferences. I have seem they do have a fund to help pay for people who can’t attend, does need to be improving. Sadly, it’s a question of funding as we don’t have places we can go to get good cash flows unlike the Tories or Labour. I have no idea how we can achive that apart. I’ve always been a fan of some donation reform like in Australia where you can get state support based on money per vote from last elections…not sure how we can make that work.
    @David Allen
    Yes I do agree. There is that issue of consistency, that does happen in every party. I do think we need to be border and just have some kind of eye catching, distinct policy. The EU question I don’t know why we are so timid on that but it’s a complex subject but it needs debate. Remember we were once named the Social and Liberal Democrats so perhaps we need to reimagine that. And also champion and say we were once seen as radical before Labour took over as the second main party. Definitely think we need to be more ambitious.

  • Alex Macfie 15th May '24 - 6:11pm

    We were able to win seats from the Tories even when appearing to be “left of Labour” in 2001 and 2005. The example of Corbyn isn’t very relevant to the Lib Dems — even supposedly “left-wing” Lib Dems are far from the embittered, partisan, always fighting yesterday’s battles type of left-wing politics represented by Corbyn and his supporters, both in presentation and policy. It’s a myth that we have to tack to the right to win over soft Tories — look how that panned out under Nick Clegg!

  • Chris Moore 16th May '24 - 3:11pm

    https://www.bbc.com/news/articles/c19d9zz3ee3o

    Here’s one for you, Martin Gray. LDs choose former HGV driver as PPC.

  • I don’t know why Mr Chandler should think mentioning Harold Wilson should ‘stir feathers’ with any Liberals.

    During Mr Wilson’s government, capital punishment was abolished, homosexuality was de-criminalised, abortion was legalised, the Open University was set up and good progress was made with comprehensive education. Mr Wilson also had the good sense to keep us out of the Vietnam war. He also ended thirteen years of Tory rule and sorted out the mess left by the Heath government.

  • I’m a bit late here but welcome to to the party Andrew.

    I too joined in part because we were more progressive than labour, that was in the 2000s. The party sadly lost its way after and have only ended up back on labour’s left by accident.

    I fear right now that whilst many are looking for an alternative to labour, these people are not moving over to us like the 2000s but instead to the Green party (probably without knowing about their more insane policies).
    You can see this in urban council wards that neither party has targeted, the green vote share is consistently higher than ours and is growing whilst ours stagnates. They even beat us in the GLA election. The big danger is that we win a bunch of seats from the Tories but fall behind the greens many of the labour facing seats where we could have had potential to grow/regrow.

    I’m sure our local parties are doing what they can, but we’ve not given them allot in terms of progressive policies that really stand out; unlike the 2005 and 2010 elections when we had a few big ones.
    We therefore need to be putting more pressure on the leadership and policy committees to propose such ideas once again, even if it has to be done by bringing policies to the conference floor and voting for them in defiance of the leadership, I hear we did that to Paddy over the minimum wage so it can be done again!

  • Andy Chandler 17th May '24 - 8:24pm

    @David LG
    Hi there. Andy the author here. Wasnt going to comment again so as not to invade the comments but I had to jump in because you made some good points.

    I completely hear you there. And from what I learnt from being a member and hearing from them is that the membership is by far more asking the kind of politics that I described in the article. There seems to be a disconnect with what we are doing nationally compared to our members and what we are doing through our local councils/councillors.

    I also nearly feel into the trap of going Green. I then read into their policies which again it’s just not being focused on, it might be if they get more national attention it will do but that is a weakness we need to tackle.

    Stoke where is a traditional Labour area. Its a tired former industrial town thats been forgotte. Both Labour in government and in its local authority took advantage of these “easy wins” so the areas feeling was that is not listen to became a Leave area and now we have three Tory MPs. Before 2015 we were building a movement getting a decent third in Parliament elections at 25% and had 9 odd councillors. Now we are in single digits in constituency elections and got no councillors.

  • Andy Chandler 17th May '24 - 8:26pm

    @David LG
    Finally, yes, we do need grassroots power.

    I think Ed Davey is doing OK. He’s a safe pair of hands and I’m sure we will do better but I do think after the GE we need to question and like you said be motioning at conference to see movements after the election.

  • Andy Chandler 17th May '24 - 9:28pm

    @David Raw
    David have you read my article. I praised those achievements that you just stated. It’s within the text.

    I am just saying that this goes beyond party politics and we should be unashamed of embracing such policies. I think we can all agree that Labour adopting in 1945 the NHS and extending the welfare state in Liberal William Beveridge’s report was a good thing.

  • Tristan Ward 20th May '24 - 1:39pm

    @David Allen

    “If what you are in politics for is simply to get a few more bums on seats in the Commons”

    If you get enough of them you can do stuff that changes people’s lives. One of the primary aims of a political party is (shock horror) to get power.

  • David Evans 20th May '24 - 2:10pm

    Hi Tristran,

    I think you missed one here in your response to @David Allen. If you look at it a bit closer, I think you will find that David was using Irony.

    David and I well know that the biggest mistake our party made in coalition was to forget that in order “to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society” you need MPs in place fighting for that cause year after year, after year, after year etc etc etc ad infinitum.

    Sacrificing nearly 90% of your most important troops defending David Cameron to the very end against Jacob Rees Mogg and his Brexit wing was never a good idea, but such is life as a Lib Dem.

    All the best

    David

  • David Evans 20th May '24 - 2:12pm

    Tristan,

    … and apologies for the mis-spelling of your name.

    David

  • Mick Taylor 20th May '24 - 2:19pm

    @TristanWard. Well, yes, but if you gain power with no reference to principles and then try to implement the principles you didn’t mention, it usually goes tits up. Viz. Liz Truss trying to introduce far right policies on the economy without bothering to mention them in her leadership manifesto. Quite unlike Mrs Thatcher who made her principles very clear and people voted for her believing she wouldn’t implement them.
    I DO want more LibDem MPs in the Commons but also want a manifesto that actually offers radical solutions to the UKs current problems. I believe, strangely enough, that many voters want a different approach to government and governmental services. The biggest omission in our current policy documents is a clear commitment to join the EU., but we do now have better green policies than Labour, a clear policy on the war in Gaza, a commitment to the NHS and a determination to do something to prevent sewerage dumping. Not enough, but Mr Waller, unfair to say we ‘re saying nothing.

  • “Unfair to say we ‘re saying nothing”

    Up to a point, yes. However, being against sewage dumping isn ‘t exactly sticking your head above the parapet and bravely declaring what fundamental political principles you stand for!

    Labour and the Lib Dems are both running scared. Labour do at least have excuses. They have seen what happened when Kinnock, and later Brown, stood up for their principles and got steamrollered by Tory “Labour’s tax bombshell” nonsense. Starmer doesn’t want to give the Tories the slightest opportunity to repeat these tactics.

    The Lib Dems have no similar excuses. Ashdown and Kennedy used the freedom of their third-party position to take some clear stances and attempt to influence the political direction, with a mixture of success (e.g. “penny in a pound”) and failure (e.g. Iraq war). Davey isn’t doing likewise.

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