Conservative and Labour bloggers have been having a field day with the story of three Lib Dem PPCs defecting to the Tories. Kerron Cross says “This is clearly conclusive proof that the Lib Dems are all lying cheating scumbags with no principles.” Iain Dale says “The Lib Dems are going to lose lots of votes, and we'll see a return to two-party politics.”
Most of us have been pretty silent on the subject. Iain Dale scratches his head, and wonders why on earth we’re not talking about it.
It’s not really difficult, is it, even for a Tory A-list candidate. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, sheep don’t vote for Eid, potato latkes don’t vote for Hanukkah, and Lib Dem bloggers don’t make a huge fuss about embarrassing desertions.
But I don’t think we should be scared of looking this problem in the face. One Lib Dem blogger has already done so: Leo Watkins, a floppy-haired young activist from London, has made a valiant attempt at suggesting a response. He argues that there are three standard approaches a party can take: firstly, to discredit the individuals involved; secondly, to try and spin things to make the defections look insignificant; or thirdly, to shut up and hope nobody notices. We seem to have gone for the third option. Leo suggests a more direct approach, where we look at the reasons given by the defecting PPCs, and try to argue that they’re based on flawed logic.
But are they really? Richard Porter kicked off his Conservative career by saying “Ming Campbell is a has-been, and since he has been in control of the party, they have been stuck firmly in reverse gear.” Fledgling Torylet John Barstow chipped in with “The Liberal Democrats are bland, formulaic and out of touch with real life.” I don’t agree with either of them, but these opinions haven’t come out of thin air. What’s behind it?
Well, the way we dealt with these defections, by going for one of the three “standard approaches”, is symptomatic. We behaved like just another political party, rather than the distinctive, creative party that inspired most of us to fill in the membership form.
Yesterday, Hot Ginger and Dynamite (from personal experience, gingers are very hot) posted a Liberal/SDP Alliance broadcast from 1987. It was very interesting seeing the way the Alliance presented itself – as an antidote to the immature grind of two-party politics. I wasn’t really old enough to take much notice of politics in the late 1980s, but watching the video, there was a real feeling of adventure in the party; that it was out to smash up the whole political landscape, and replace it with something much more grown-up and relevant.
My theory behind these defections is that the sense of adventure has started to cool down. As the Lib Dems have grown more popular, and started to acquire a bigger core vote, we’ve started to “go native” – instead of trying to replace the two-party system, we’ve tried to become part of it, and make it into a three-party system. We’ve tried to get the other parties to accept us as part of the “club”. Three is the new two, but it’s starting to backfire.
We’re still by far the most progressive and radical party on offer, but somehow, we’ve allowed voters and activists to get the impression that we’re “just another party”. That’s why activists are peeling away, saying that we’re “bland and formulaic”. We may have better policies than the others, but we’re no longer the creative, daring outsiders. Cameron can give people that sense of an exciting journey into a brave new world.
I’ve always argued that the Lib Dems need to step up a gear in terms of professionalism and consistency, if we’re going to take our policies to the next level. The challenge now is to be able to do that without losing our creative streak, and without losing sight of the radical targets we’ve always aimed at. We need to learn how to be mature without being boring. We need to look directly at these embarrassing and unpleasant defections, and take some lessons home.