Last December, three Lib Dem PPCs defected to the Tories, sending little ripples across the blogosphere. With only a formulaic press release from the Tories, and a brief quotation from each of the runaways, it was hard to understand their reasons for leaving. Now, Richard Porter, one of the defectors, has written an article in Pink News, explaining why he made the switch.
He focuses on the changes that have taken place in both parties. He argues that the Conservatives have “changed their spots”, and these changes are “sincere” and “substantive”. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats have been “stuck firmly in reverse gear”, and are “trying to be all things to all people”.
I’m not convinced. How can Richard Porter, or anyone else, talk about substantive changes? Until we see some detailed policy, it’s impossible to judge. It’s ironic that he accuses the Lib Dems of being all things to all people, at a time when his new party is trying its level best to avoid saying anything weighty, for fear of offending someone.
It’s standard practice, almost a cliché, for defectors to claim that their views have stayed exactly the same, whilst the political landscape has rotated under their feet. Nobody likes to look inconsistent, especially if they’re standing for public office. Porter’s analysis might help smooth his own personal transition, but it isn’t a serious, balanced take on recent events.
Porter is clearly very dissatisfied with Ming Campbell's leadership, but with due respect to him, I think it’s crazy to choose your political party by its leader, rather than its ethos. To Ming's credit, he presents himself as the head of a team, rather than as a cult of the personality. People who join the Lib Dems under Ming will feel equally included when he’s no longer in the job. But the next time a Michael Howard-type is in charge at Central Office, will Richard Porter really feel at home?
What worries me even more, however, is Richard Porter’s approach to the politics of gay rights. He was very involved in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender politics within the Lib Dems, and even wrote up the party’s LGBT “mini-manifesto” for the 2005 election. He has joined the Conservatives because he’s convinced that the days of Tory homophobia are over. But gay equality shouldn’t be an issue of left or right. I was at a student debate last year, where Peter Tatchell was speaking. After the talk, a Conservative friend, who is gay, explained to me how frustrating it is that Tatchell, a left-winger, has become the most recognisable face of LGBT people in Britain. On purely gay issues, my friend can identify with Tatchell – but on almost everything else, they’re miles apart. We’re going down a very dangerous route, if gay and lesbian people are stereotyped as coming from a particular political direction, purely because of their sexuality. Sexuality shouldn't be an issue, any more than right- or left-handedness, so why should it affect somebody's choice of political ideology?
It would upset me a great deal if it turned out that Porter had always been a Conservative at heart, and was just waiting for the party to take a more supportive stance towards gay people, before he filled in his membership form. Much as I disagree with the Tories, I can’t see any contradiction, in principle, between gay rights and conservatism. Conservatism is a political ideology concerned with economics, and with the social model. It doesn’t take a position about homosexuality, either way. If Porter is a Conservative by conviction, he should have been brave enough to join the Tories. He should have been brave enough to say, out loud, that homophobia is not a fundamental part of conservatism, and that Tories who oppose gay rights are misguided. If he really joined the Liberal Democrats, despite us not reflecting his own views, purely because he agreed with our support for gay rights, then he’s let himself down badly. He’s also helped to reinforce stereotypes about LGBT people in politics. And he’s betrayed all of us within the Lib Dems, who mistakenly backed him for Parliament, thinking he was one of us.
I don’t know if Richard Porter was in the wrong party to start with, or if he started off right, and had a sudden change of mind. If it’s the former, he was dishonest to join the Lib Dems in the first place; if it’s the latter, he should come clean about the fact that it’s his political views that have changed, and not ours.
Either way, I’m not particularly impressed.