Saturday 2 May 2009

Defections nonsense

Shall we count the ways in which today's Telegraph front-page is talking tosh. The story speculates that "up to a dozen Blairite MPs have discussed leaving the party" and may join the Lib Dems.

But they won't, of course.

Firstly, defections which happen don't tend to get gossiped about. The cloak and dagger operations which took Alan Howarth to Labour and Emma Nicholson to the LibDems as told in the Campbell and Ashdown diaries respectively. Defections which don't happen - look at Tory attempts to woo David Laws, Frank Field or Kate Hoey - are endlessly discussed. Nobody can blame Paddy Ashdown and another unnamed LibDem source for engaging in some Labour destabilisation and LibDem boosting at the end of a good week for Nick Clegg. All I am saying is that, if they thought there was any serious prospect of it happening whatsoever, they would not have put it in the newspapers. (The question for the Telegraph is why it is on the front-page, rather than in a political diary, or highly speculative 'what if' column or blog).

Secondly, there is simply no evidence that Labour is going to lurch left, even if those of us advocating the mildest of lurches into gradualist social democracy, such as articulating that Labour stands for a fairer and more equal society, may make some further progress. Phillip Cowley has demonstrated very clearly that the fear that a heartland PLP would lurch left is entirely baseless. (Largely because many of those safe heartland seats have gone to the Miliband, Balls and Cooper). Once again, the spectre of past nightmares seems to prevent clear thought.

Thirdly, if there are a small group of 'keep right' uber-Blairites, I am not sure they would naturally find themselves in the Liberal Democrats.

There has been one Labour defection to the LibDems: Brian Sedgemore MP.

[Update/Correction: Two: I forgot about the strange trajectory of Paul Marsden. Technically, the first MP to re-cross the floor of the House since Winston Churchill no less! Rather reinforces the point though).

Bizarrely, The Telegraph cites the decision last week of Daniel Clarke, Labour PPC for Eastleigh, to join the LibDems as a Chris Huhne fan as evidence of what may be afoot. Clarke is quoted as saying Labour is "“no longer committed to realising the dreams of people like me”. But Daniel Clarke was protesting what he called New Labour's "right-wing reactionary" policies over Trident, ID cards, civil liberties and Europe, insufficient radicalism on poverty and inequality, especially at the top. (Several other contributors on LabourHome had found Clarke somewhat erratic prior to his defection, particularly around class and his attack on Georgia Gould as a 'spoilt little rich girl')

So Daniel Clarke has lurched left out of the party, in protest at New Labour. The story suggests that a group of uber-Blairites lurch right to join him, presumably to continue that argument somewhere else?

It is somewhat amusing to read that "Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, has privately authorised secret approaches to unhappy Blairites, trying to persuade them to join the Lib Dems instead of forming their own breakaway party". I would give you 10,000 to 1 on a New Party being attempted or coming to anything. It would fare just as badly (and even worse) than various left splinter projects, though perhaps that might form the emotional appeal to some New Labour evangelists who spent their political youth on the sectarian Hard Left. (If there was going to be a right splinter away from New Labour itself, at least it could not be called the Social Democratic Party this time around!)

Still, the piece could remind us of some more serious thinking which Labour needs to do.

Many Labour supporters believe that being the largest party in a hung Parliament would be a pretty good outcome at the next election.

Whatever the chances of that, it would clearly not be entirely stupid for the Labour Party to consider how many flagship policies it wants in its manifesto which would prove a potential veto to cross-party cooperation afterwards.

The added bonus is that this involves ditching policies which make it difficult for Labour to mobilise its own supporters and activists, or reunite an electoral coalition - which depends on maintaining sufficient appeal to its working-class base, middle-class liberal progressives, and swing voters too.

I identified a few in my New Statesman piece advocating Lab-Lib cooperation, and looking at what would need to change to make it possible. It is hardly difficult. Electoral reform. ID cards. Heathrow.

Now, there are people in the Labour Party for whom these are absolute 'red line' political issues, but I am never certain there are many more than two dozen of them.

Most "Blairites" could certainly make such 'concessions' for 'the project' of centre-left realignment. In effect, I have been calling on them to make precisely the same concessions to the political centre which they habitually refuse to make to their own party's soft centre-left.

And, whisper it: there are some so-called Blairites who believe in these issues, particularly the younger variety; and who may even retain a hazy memory of how Blairism in its 1994-2001 variety was a rather broader church project, involving the attractive promise of political pluralism, a confident pro-Europeanism, and not only an obsession with the mechanics of choice and contestability in reforming public services.

That is why I rather agree with Charles Clarke that the label "Blairite" is increasingly meaningless as a guide to future issues and debates, though a splintering of his parliamentary colleagues of that persuasion probably do not, and so continue to help frame political and media discussions around the politics of a decade ago).

So, who knows. Perhaps empty threats of defection should be taken as a sign of progress.

It might well be in Labour's interests to engineer the mildest of lurches to the liberal centre-left after all.

Even if there is no need at all for our Blairite friends to go so far as to join the Liberal Democrats to achieve it.


_______ said...

The Blairites are actually to the right of the Tories on certain issues to do with public services.

Blairism has become a dogma of it's own, a regressive free market dogma

Doktorb said...

They could call it the Social Democratic & Labour Party...

Oh, wait....

Tom Stoate said...

What was it Blair said in his press conference at the time?

"The Liberals, yes. The party of Gladstone, Lloyd George... and Brian Sedgemore"

wozza said...

not sure the Lib-Dems would welcome them at all, there has been a lot of hard work done trying to balance left and right in the Liberal party and the Blairites would tip the balance too far rightward.

Also - they are utterly illiberal - so why they would choose a Liberal party is beyond me.