Opinion: The Liberal Democrats must welcome disaffected Blairites and One-Nation Tories

Campaigning alongside a Lib Dem councillor recently, I mentioned the several recent high profile defections of Blairites to the Conservatives. I was a little disappointed they’d felt that the obvious choice was to go to the Blues.

People that liked Tony Blair more than they liked the Labour brand in general are precisely the kind of people that handed the party thirteen years of office. Their exodus from Labour, a backlash fuelled by the anti-New Labour revolution that put Ed Miliband in power, was a sign that the party was letting an election victory slip out of its sights.

To my surprise, the councillor that I was speaking to disagreed that we should be the natural home for Blairites. Of course, most Labour supporters wouldn’t really fit into our party, but we should still be extending a hand to those that feel Labour no longer offers a vision they can relate to.

In the century since the Liberals were an election-winning force nationally, we’ve lost many of our strains of thought, much to Labour and much to the Conservatives. If we are to build on our success in Government, we must attract people back.

A Lib Dem that had defected from the Conservatives told me recently “I’d always been a liberal Conservative, now I’m a conservative Liberal”. Many One Nation Tories may find themselves in a similar position to Blairites. I saw recently how frosty a reception people like Ken Clarke get from typical Thatcherite Tory activists. They don’t believe those types belong in their party. Much of the left of the Tory party evolved from those Liberals that historically chose ever closer co-operation with the Conservatives. Michael Heseltine fought his first election as a National Liberal, by the time he got elected, the party had merged with the Conservatives.

By 2012, pro-European Conservatives have been reduced to an obscure fringe, Cameron’s leadership distracting from the real right wing nature of its grassroots, most of which will remember little of the pre-Thatcher party.

Many Liberal Democrats reading this may well think ‘But One Nation Tories aren’t Liberals and nor are Blairites!’. That’s a fair point but it’s only through widening our membership that we can become a better party than we are currently.

There’s been a disturbing trend of members advocating ideological purity recently, a slow reaction to the accusation that our typically centre-left party has been hijacked by a gang of centre-right ‘Orange Bookers’. That’s nonsense but that won’t stop people towards the right of the party calling themselves ‘real liberals’ and those on the left ‘the mainstream’.

It gets more ludicrous by the day with new factions left, right and centre. To mature as a party, we need to hold on to our ability to work positively with people with similar but different views. If that means taking on people that we have historically fought against in elections, I say that we should be prepared to welcome them.

Otherwise, we risk conceding the lion’s share of the centre ground to the Conservatives.

* Rich Clare is president of Sheffield Hallam University Lib Dems and writes on the blog 'A brief history of liberty'. He is standing for England Convenor in the Liberal Youth elections.

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23 Comments

  • Sensible until the last few paragraphs, when it gets paranoid and shrill. Though the last paragraph (and the end of the penultimate one) pull it back on message a bit.

  • mike cobley 20th Feb '12 - 4:13pm

    “… If that means taking on people that we have historically fought against in elections, I say that we should be prepared to welcome them.”

    The problem with try self-consciously to be a centrist party is that in the attempt to be inclusive you will find yourself trying to include or incorporate views and policies which you find aborrhent. Centrism has been shown up for the logical and political absurdity that it is. As for why former Blairites went straight across to the Tories, not us, well, doesnt that say something revealing about Blairism?

  • David Evans 20th Feb '12 - 5:07pm

    @Rich

    I think you need to increase your time horizon a bit, as I don’t think many people who have memories of the party in the longer term would agree with your comment “Decades of opposition have, in my view, narrowed our church.” Compared to the 1950s and 60s we are much, much wider with involvement from urban areas with Social Democrats key in this. The thing that has narrowed our church is more likely to be losses in urban areas over the last year or so. If I had to choose between “Blairites and One Nation Tories” from the Home Counties or Social Democrats in the Urban areas, I know who I would choose.

    Perha

  • You should not read anything into the fact that Michael Heseltine fought his first election as a National Liberal; it was simply a historical accident in a seat for which he, as a Conservative, was chosen as the candidate.

  • It’s a historical fact that livery elements that departed both left and right in the interests of power and pragmatism. There is no shame in encouraging those elements return home.

  • Malcolm Todd 21st Feb '12 - 10:57am

    “Most of the electorate are not rabid Blairites or rabid One-Nation Tories.”
    And as Rich’s post doesn’t use the word “rabid” or anything that could be paraphrased as that, I don’t see the relevance of this comment to the debate. Nobody’s suggesting trying to attract rabid anything. (I’m pretty suspicious of rabid liberals, come to that.)

    And of course “Most of the electorate are not X” will always be true, so long as “X” doesn’t represent “human”, “adult” or “British”. The point (I think) is to pull in people who don’t all think exactly the same or identify as the same group, but who may be attracted by the positions our party adopts, if they are presented in the right way.

  • Interesting and welcome discussion here, in that we are all looking in the same direction for once! Such wisdom from Richard Clare, I hope you go on to greater more influential things. I also hope that within our Parliamentary Party we have work going on to persuade members of other Parties to defect to us, – a couple of defections, one from each side, would be a most powerful message to the voting public (media permitting).

  • David Allen 21st Feb '12 - 1:54pm

    Getting bigger is, of course, a great idea. The problem lies in its execution!

    It is a moot point whether you do better to blur and broaden your appeal with an all-things-to-all-men approach, or to sharpen up a message which might deter some but attract others.

    It’s a highly moot point as to whether migrating across the political stage from one side to the other is a great idea. We could, of course, decide that Ed Miliband’s weakness presents us with a key tactical opportunity, and that we could pick up a lot of soft left support by emphasising things like our social democrat heritage and our commitments to fairness, justice, and a more equitable world. Now, what makes me think that the author of this posting might be surprisingly resistant to our growing by taking on that kind of supporter?

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Feb '12 - 10:29am

    Geoffrey Payne

    The most noticable characteristic of “Blairism” was that it was anti-liberal. Consider the attacks on civil liberties, international law, the top down marketisation of public services, the cosy relationship with Rupert Murdoch. So why on earth do we want to recruit these people?

    Indeed. In some ways I have found Blairites the hardest people of the lot to work with when it comes to working with people of different political opinions. It’s because they assume they are similar to us, and yet that assumption comes from having such a lack of understanding of liberalism and democracy that they can’t see the barriers. With its cult of the leader, its basis on The Party, its obsession with being “modern”, its mixed-market economy involving cosying up to the big business leaders and tight regulations imposed on the public sector, Blairism is to me half way to the political movement that first came to prominence in 1920s Italy. I’ve always found “One Nation” Conservatives and centre-left Labour Party people much more on my wavelength than “Blairites”.

  • Excellent article. On Blairism, if Labour had lost in 2001 would Blairism be the swearword it is now ? The first Term did some good things, it was after that that things went so badly wrong.
    I strongly feel we lack confidence & ambition. I want to see us replacing Labour as 2nd Party in 2015 & I believe thats entirely possible. That will inevitably mean defections to us & some of them will be people we dont trust or like. We should treat all “conversions” as genuine until they prove otherwise. Big hugs all round.

  • Hi,

    This article is quite helpful. I am one of those people that are stuck in the middle. I describe myself as a Post-Keynesian, and a conservative liberal. So by default I’m a social democrat I suppose, and I am contemplating joining the Libdems but I’m not sure it is indeed apt for me.

    I don’t want to join Labour, because some of the groups are far too left wing, and the Tories have their dreadful Thatcherism to which I am not keen in the slightest. I don’t intend to feel juxtaposed within such parties. I know the Libdems are liberal, and I can tolerate civil libertarianism quite well, it’s the economics of the other two that can make me cringe.

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