1) The Resignation log doesn’t include defections to the Labour party, but here are three recent examples: Andrew Duffield (Hexham cllr and parliamentary candidate); Elizabeth Shenton (Staffordshire cllr, and parliamentary candidate in the 2008 Crewe and Nantwich by-election); and Rosie Jolly (Liverpool cllr).They all offer fairly standard explanations. They criticise the national Liberal Democrats for the government’s failures in social justice and public services. Since 2010 many other Lib Dem-to-Labour defectors have made similar points. That isn’t to belittle them. On the economy, the NHS and social welfare, Lib Dems in government and parliament have certainly supported some unjust and ineffective measures, even within the narrow room for manoeuvre of a coalition. (And of course Lib Dem members haven’t been shy in saying so.)
But while I understand why people might leave the party on this basis, I’m bemused that they should switch to Labour. The Labour Party hasn’t offered any distinctive alternatives, hasn’t even committed to reversing many of the measures they claim to reject. And the Labour government was hardly just or sensible, or even very distinct from the Conservatives – especially with the Private Finance Initiative, their support for the house price bubble, and for the financial sector’s irresponsibility. All this is even before we get on to wider issues: the Labour Party remains centralising and managerial, with a good dose of authoritarianism. How can someone who’s been involved in the Liberal Democrats overcome these worries?I’d like to understand rather than condemn, partly because I try to be a generous soul, but also because I don’t want to underestimate our opponents.
So, why might anyone move from the Lib Dems to Labour?
Ambition? Elizabeth Shenton acknowledges that she has national political ambitions, and Rosie Jolly had been deselected as a Lib Dem candidate, but I suppose will remain a councillor with Labour. Ambition is a standard accusation against political defectors. But (as someone who has no political ambitions myself) I don’t think it really works. Ambition is an essential part of democratic political culture. I’m glad that some liberals have personal political ambitions, or we’d have no councillors, MPs or MEPs. Of course ambition on its own isn’t enough, it can always slide into selfishness or egoism. But I can’t see it as a reason for condemning or dismissing defectors.
The value of party politics? Perhaps it is better to be in a national party than none at all. I’m sympathetic to this. Not being a member of a major party can seem like ‘opting out’ of serious political participation. It is all too easy to be right all the time, and cultivate a sense of smug moral superiority, if one isn’t part of a national political project. Similar criticisms can be made of joining a tiny group such as the Liberal Party or National Health Action. But even here, the Green Party seems much more satisfactory than Labour for someone with liberal instincts. (Not that I advocate joining them, by the way, as I’ve explained before!)
Being part of a club? Politics isn’t just about national positions, especially for local councillors. It can good to be part of a local club, and being a lone independent councillor must be pretty isolating, especially for someone elected in a party campaign. If Labour offers the most welcolming club on the council, that must be a temptation. Lib Dems have certainly benefitted from this over the years, too.
Either/or culture? Labour and the Tories define themselves by not being each other. Many people in Britain define their politics as anti-Tory before anything else. This politics of anger seems rooted in popular culture as much as specific policies or philosophy. (I’ve devoted more energy than most to defeating Conservative election candidates, but still don’t really get it.) Liberals have done a lot to challenge either/or political attitudes, but perhaps defectors to Labour have been sucked into it. It seems a pity they don’t have more confidence in being liberals, but then they’ve not been helped by our national leadership – not only policy decisions since 2010, but in the failure to cultivate a core constituency for the Liberal Democrats (as Simon Titley and others have said for a long time).
Hmmm… so perhaps joining Labour shows a certain lack of imagination in a former Liberal Democrat, but I’m still puzzled…
2) Fred Carver (a former Camden councillor) has also resigned from the Lib Dems, although may continue to vote for us. He explains on his blog:‘So I suppose this is my letter of resignation from the Liberal Democrats. It is not really. I’ve read a fair few letters of resignation from Lib Dems over the last few years and artistically they have been disappointing…’
He doesn’t disappoint at all, in an insightful and very funny analysis of the Liberal Democrats’ culture, and British political life more generally. Some of it might seem rather too close to the bone (‘Fact: most normal people don’t know what a Riso is. Most Liberal Democrats have a thorough understanding of how to maintain and repair an RA4200’). It’s already received a lot of attention among Lib Dem blogs, but worth having a look if you haven’t already. My one observation, though, is that it is a little London-centric. For him Brent East may be part of the founding myth, but down my way Newbury still has a certain resonance…
3) For consistency’s sake I should also note a new member of the Liberal Democrats: Aberdeenshire councillor Fergus Hood has joined from the SNP.