Sunday, 31 December 2006

Dealing with defections: have the Lib Dems “gone native”?

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.


Iain Dale said...

Excellent post, Jonny. There, that surprised you, didn't it?!

Jonny Wright said...

Yes, but you've put me into a great mood for celebrations tonight. Happy New Year!

Will said...

I've not posted about them because I don't know, and had never heard of, any of them. I'm sure they all had a reason for jumping ship, but I wouldn't too readily assume that the quote assigned to them is necessarily it.

monsterravingloony said...

I have to agree with Iain. A very perceptive post indeed and you've nailed it dead on.

Maybe that's the advantage of youth. You've not grown up with the party so you retain enough distance to see things in perspective.

It would be good if others in the Lib Dems took some notice and acted upon it ... before you and others of your generation become the next defectors.

Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

Yeah youve pretty much hit the nail on the head again johnny but there is the issue of whether or not radical is capable of being electable at the same time.

The party is still very principled and this comes across on issues like tuition fees, the environment, Iraq and ID Cards. However you're also right that we arent perhaps being as innovative as we could, and that radical policies are the way forward.

On the other hand, i can see what the party leadership is doing which is turning the party into something electable. Radicalism is brilliant, but it fuels the typical Labour attack of our policies being "pie-in-the-sky". So while im tempted to say that we need to strike a balance between electability and radicalism, i dont think the balance is over that issue.

I think people are becoming so disenfranchised that we need to show them that we're even More radical, but the key issue being that we are also seen as Pragmatic. That we get results. That Has to be the key to any Lib Dem election strategy, at least to my mind.

David Rundle said...

I like the post, but as I try to explain on my blog, I'm not convinced we can read that much into this minor event. Maybe being seen as 'just another party' is what happens when we're helping the two-party state to crumble. Not, of course, that I'd deny that we need to be yet more radical in our pursuit of social justice...

Steve Cooke said...

I have to say, as an activist, councillor and active member of my local branch, I was somewhat suprised at the comments made by the defectors. Since Ming became leader (and I confess that Huhne was my choice) I have seen a massive improvement in central party organisation and support for local activists. I've also seen and heard a lot more of the Lib Dems in the media (in a largely positive way). I can only surmise those who've jumped ship were not terribly active in their local parties - a little strange for PPCs but there you go.

Sean said...

Have you read

Paul Walter said...

Jonny, unconnected to defections, can you give me some pointers on how to created your excellent header iamge and did it so you can click on it to back to your home page? I have managed to do a header image in beta blogger but for some reason can't get it to link back to my home page. Many thanks. My email is if it is easier.

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