Should Lib Dems want Labour defectors to join us?

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.

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  • The telegraph article just looks like Tory trouble making eh?

    However seeing “the curious death of Labourite Britain” would be f@cking fantastic

    Without wanting to sound overly partisan I can’t actually think of anything particularly positive they’ve ever done

    Maybe not joining Vietnam?

    Most of the social security stuff could have been done much better by liberal means as opposed to the socialist ones they employed,

    ie the original liberal idea of negative income taxation

    asides from that, they destroyed our manufacturing industry by nationalizing most of it then propping it up with protectionism until it was so inefficient it was a burden on the rest of society

    Essentially the Oxford manifesto still makes sense today,

    If you read an old Labour manifesto it looks like something out of pravda

  • If, as seems likely at the moment, Labour lose the next election badly, then they face a long period of probably anguished debate about what they stand for and how they can make themselves relevant again. Their problem is that in order to make them electable in 1997 Blair pretty well filleted all elements of ideology from the party and replaced them with the spin and media manipulation which over time has corroded the public’s trust in politicians. There may well be people in the Labour Party who feel that the process of redefining the party’s purpose and strategy might be drawn-out, bloody, and the outcome uncertain, and who therefore feel that we would be a more congenial path for continued political activism. Power does corrupt: it also saps.

  • Martin Kinsella 2nd May '09 - 8:26am

    The Party is not an exclusive club, it is already full of people who were on the right of the old Labour Party, these Blairites are their natural successors.

    People move from Party to Party all the time based on ideological movements. I would be surprised if Blairite Labour MP’s wanted to join us as we are to the left of them anyway.

    Frank Field would be welcome.

  • Ian Stewart 2nd May '09 - 8:53am

    usual problem with defectees……
    viewed with hate from the place they have left:
    viewed with suspicion from the place they have moved to.
    having said that, I’m for bringing people together.

  • I’m very much for letting them in. These are moderates who think politics should be organised around something other than class. They’re also largely pro-European. People like Byers and Milburn have been extremely supportive of the localist agenda.

    If Charles Clarke is coming round to a liberal way of thinking, I think we should be grown-up enough to welcome him and his experience. We’re a party formed around a broad concept of liberalism, not an ideological sect like the Hague-era Conservatives. And we shouldn’t forget that even Roy Jenkins, as home secretary, passed a Prevention of Terrorism Act that introduced exclusion orders and extended detention-without-charge.

    Also, aren’t we the party that supports the rehabilitation of offenders?… 😉

  • Richard Huzzey 2nd May '09 - 5:10pm

    Jock – would you have resigned from Oxford East Lib Dems in c.2002 when Labour party member Stephen Tall defected?


  • I think it does all depend on who these “Blairites” were.

    If they are more of the socially-liberal, electoral-reform-promising early years of Blair type then come on over. If they were cheerleaders for Iraq, ID Cards, detention, rendition and all that jazz then no.

    Overall though, we as a party membership need to reconcile ourselves to the fact that over the years a great many people who might otherwise classify themselves as “liberal” have gone to the Tories because they believed in the market and talked about individualism – or to Labour because they talked about equality and social progress – and ignored the Lib Dems because, even though we might be more authentically liberal, they judged one of the other parties as a better vehicle for actually achieving their aims.

    As this party grows and strengthens – and I hope no-one is still labouring under the tragi-romantic idea that we will always remain a rump third party, ideologically pure but useless – we will inevitably accumulate people who have been with other parties. If they are genuine in their belief in liberalism and honestly want to work with us to acheive our gommon goals then we must welcome them with open arms, give them a bunch of Focuses and send them on their way.

    On these particular rumours, with all the above provisos, I would urge the Party leadership to be as open as possible to MPs and Lords wanting to cross the floor from whatever direction – the more hits we can score against Labour, the Tories, the SNP or whomever else, the more it will help us in the country.

    One word of caution if anyone at POLD is reading – before anyone gets given a gold rosette and a press conference, I want their expenses gone through with the finest of fine tooth combs!

  • “ideologically pure but useless”

    I ‘d say ideologically pure would be a terrible way to describe the Lib Dems

    at least from an economic perspective

    just look at the posts on any thread on this site

    Keynesians, Libertarians, Geo-liberals Classical liberals, American style social democrat liberals, Georgists, geo-libertarians

    Its all good to see but the Lib Dem party is like trying to herd cats

  • David Allen 3rd May '09 - 11:11pm

    “The market is infinitely superior to any sort of planned or mixed economy.”

    After the total collapse of the free market economy, this is simply world-class lunacy. It’s on a par with Kim Il-Sung, Osama bin Laden, Arthur Scargill, David Icke, and Ozymandias!

    We used to boast of being the party of common sense, the party that didn’t get blinded by crazy ideologies, etcetera. My, how we’ve degenerated.

  • Steve Travis 3rd May '09 - 11:39pm

    After the total collapse of the free market economy, this is simply world-class lunacy. It’s on a par with Kim Il-Sung, Osama bin Laden, Arthur Scargill, David Icke, and Ozymandias!

    We used to boast of being the party of common sense, the party that didn’t get blinded by crazy ideologies, etcetera. My, how we’ve degenerated.”

    Hmmm. I don’t think we’ve got the total collapse of the market economy happening at the moment.

    And Tom’s argument still stands – a properly regulated market economy is still infinitely superior to a planned or mixed one. You’re confusing the means of exchange with the type of ownership. There’s no reason why a market economy can’t function with mutuals and co-operatives as well as share-holder funded companies.

  • There should be a clear rule – any Labour MP defecting should have to go through the party’s standard procedures on candidate selection and face a ballot of local party members as anyother candidate would do. No ifs, no buts.

  • Personally, although I disagree with Charles Clark’s tendancy towards authoritarianism, I wouldn’t have a problem with him joining the party. The reason? We don’t exactly hide our anti-authoritarian streak under a bushel, so in the (highly unlikely) event he chose to defect he would be coming to us clearly in the understanding that he would have to accept our policies – including ID cards.

    As far as anything pre-election was concerned, where there is a candidate in situ then the defecting MP would have to accept that and either stand down or find another seat.

  • Richard Huzzey 4th May '09 - 6:12pm

    Tom – Yep, “mad” not “made”. 😉

    On your bigger questions, where my non-libertarian personal preferences came through despite studied non-intra-partisanship:

    I will always defend the party being a broad tent, but I’ll also aim to make sure the ideologies I describe as democratic socialism and economic libertarianism are opposing guide ropes rather than the tent’s frame. (Wow, that metaphor is tortured even by my cruel and unusual standards, but I quite like it so I’ll let it stand).

    Now, I understand very well that we have different definitions of what those ideologies are. And you’d probably consider *me* a democratic socialist and your libertarianism to be authentic liberalism. But let’s leave aside the “I’m the only real liberal in the village” argument as we’ve all been through that one before. 🙂

  • David Allen 4th May '09 - 7:25pm

    Steve Travis,

    A “properly regulated” market economy is one where Government has seen enough sense to introduce an element of planning and external governance. If that’s what you support, then you’re not the kind of crazy fundamentalist neocon free-market loony I was aiming my comments at! But there are far too many of them out there, and phrases like “infinitely superior” do rather give them away.

    “I don’t think we’ve got the total collapse of the market economy happening at the moment.”

    OK, OK, I did overstate things. A little!

  • David Evans 5th May '09 - 1:31pm

    Yes, if they are prepared to start again near the bottom, deliver their ward Focus etc and not expect any special treatment becuase they were influential once in a previous bad existance. If they want to get a safe seat or have a peerage given out of our gratitude to them, forget it.

    Let’s not forget almost all of these guys and gals supported the invasion of Iraq, ID cards, increased detention without charge etc etc. Any that opposed most or all of these issues consistently – yes we can consider them.

  • “Then there came from the darkness, false prophets, pretending to be “left” but really knowing themselves to be secretly of the “right”, calling themselves “socialists”, who did deceive liberals and the poor and disposessed into believing men of small mental stature and large self-regard could plan such relief better by mainforce, thievery and “redistribution” of what was not theirs to sequester. And by these means Liberals were indeed degenerated and threwn into great long exile for an hundred years and more.”

    Pure deed brulliant! Best post I’ve read for a long time! 😀

  • Painfully Liberal 6th May '09 - 11:42am

    I’ve heard various things about Labour MPsjoining us but I’ve yet to hear any genuinely viable names mentioned.

    Have there been any concrete suggestions of people who’d consider us who’d we’d actually want to have?

  • rantersparadise 7th May '09 - 12:49am

    Well who cares?

    As long we are neatly happy in our insular protective self righteous intellectual hubs? Who cares about the real issues which are how to govern an effective society?

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