Iain Dale has highlighted a number of recent defections from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives, mentioning that no Lib Dems have since commented on it. Well in my case, I read it first on Iain Dale’s website, although I notice that a few people have now responded but not so much on the defections but on how we should respond as a party. From my point of view it is simple – we don’t want to promote bad news. Instead though I do want to look at why people defect. Forget the reasons the people give publicly, there seems to be four main reasons:
- Policy principles: they think that their views are now better represented by another party (the more honourable one, but also the reason that virtually ever defector gives).
- Ambition: they can move their career forward more by joining another party instead.
- Anger: they are pissed off with their own party for one reason or another and so they decide that to give them a bloody nose they will defect even if it is to a party that they also hate.
- Madness: they are just unhinged.
So should Lib Dems be bothered about these latest defections? To some extent, they shouldn’t as there are always defections back and forwards between parties. Even at the darkest hours of a party there are always some people who will swim against the tide and go and join a party that in the polls is a lot less popular than their own. But in this case, that argument doesn’t apply. We are at a time when the Conservatives are doing well in the polls, David Cameron gets high poll ratings and the impression is that the Liberal Democrats are doing less well.
I don’t happen to believe these polls tell the real story as I think that we might simply be switching back to a time when the Lib Dems always dip dramatically between elections but it doesn’t give an indication of how the party will do at the general election. My prediction is that Ming will still be leader at the end of 2007 unless Gordon Brown calls a snap general election before then. Anything could happen after an election depending on the outcome.
It is very rare for defectors to be high profile and so I would usually dismiss a low profile defection as meaningless. But in this latest set of defectors, all of the people defecting are recent parliamentary candidates. Interestingly none of them say that the Lib Dems have moved away from what they believe, it is simply that they think the Conservatives are better. That should be reassuring as it does not suggest a big disagreement with the party’s political stance. What I think they do reflect though is a concern with the image of the party at the moment. I do not share this concern as I think the party has actually moved on a long way in terms of its campaigning recently, and with the party having now appointed a new Director of Campaigns and Elections it will be interesting to see if anything else changes. What I think the party is not achieving so much is presenting this well on a national basis. The Lib Dems however rely far more on their local image than their national one to achieve electoral success. That is why I do not worry about the poll ratings.
I do not know any of these defectors, but I do know of Richard Porter and John Barstow. I had never had a positive opinion of the latter, but the former is far more significant. Particularly because of his high profile role with helping to write the party’s LGBT manifesto and within the party in Southwark. To go back to my reasons for defections, I don’t see that his defection could necessarily be thwarted ambition as he had been selected for Camberwell & Peckham, which is a decent long-term prospect by Lib Dem standards, and I had not noticed that he was unhinged. Which leaves me with the other two – one positive and one negative – and it is difficult to decide between the two without knowing more about him.
With Liberal Democrats though I believe there is an additional factor with defections, which is a bit of a combination of all four reasons I gave before, and this factor is almost exclusive to the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats have achieved a lot of success through it’s community politics. That is actually listening to local residents and campaigning on issues that really matter to them and trying to get action for the local area. It is this campaigning that has pushed the party forward and led them to great success in some parts of the country. But the side effect of this type of campaigning is that you end up building up a coalition of the disaffected. That is great when you are trying to win power, but when the party actually then has power and put things in to practice, the coalition can start to fall apart. It may not be that the party is doing a bad job in power, but when you make some of the unpopular decisions that are inevitable in power, you lose those people who were never really Lib Dems but just didn’t like whichever party was in power. I have never seen an analysis of the number of defections between parties and whether there are any trends, but if there is an increase in defections from the Lib Dems, the biggest reason could simply be down to its increasing success leading to the party taking more stances on issues that don’t play well with those who were never Lib Dems anyway.
IAIN DALE: Three more Lib Dem candidates join the Conservatives