Has Labour misplayed its defections game?
Itâ€™s well known that Charles Kennedy was not happy with the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition deal when it was put together and by all accounts, remains so. Thatâ€™s been reinforced by a spate of newspaper articles today that suggest that he might be, or might have been, considering defecting to Labour.
As Nick Palmer notes in this morningâ€™s thread, the mere fact that the storyâ€™s come out without a simultaneous defection indicates that itâ€™s not going to happen. When defections happen, theyâ€™re worked out privately to enable maximum positive publicity for politician and incoming party. Announcing that talks took place leaves Kennedy in an awkward position which is something Labour wouldnâ€™t want to do if they still anticipated a defection or defections (the stories mention â€˜around half a dozen of his colleaguesâ€™ as Labour targets but the names appear to be pure speculation).
Leaking the story of talks isnâ€™t risk-free for Labour either. For one thing, it raises expectations of defections in the future while simultaneously making it more difficult to achieve – MPâ€™s who might be considering defection are likely to more reticent if they know discussions will be leaked should they not work out.
For another, it reinforces the impression of an attitude within Labour that Lib Dems are really just besandelled Labourites at heart. It fails to ask the question of why such politicians joined the Lib Dems rather than Labour in the first place, never mind answer it.
The attitude developed most strongly during the Ashdown years and was in the main a failure to distinguish between an anti-government, oppositionist, stance and a specifically anti-Tory one. The closeness in policy between early New Labour and the Lib Dems also helped to mask the distinction. Despite the Iraq War, Lib Dem criticism was seen as a one-off (and in any case, many Labour MPâ€™s and supporters were also opposed), and anti-Tory was still assumed to be pro-Labour. It wasnâ€™t. The parties come from different traditions and have different values which overlap in places but also have significant areas of disparity, particularly around libertarianism. Labour is much more socially authoritarian.
The Labour whips might also be making the mirror-image mistake in canvassing for defections as if the Lib Dems are mini-Tories. For whatever reason, Conservative MPâ€™s have been much more prone to defecting than Lib Dems (or Labour, for that matter). There have been some defections at local government level but that can be a whole different ballgame.
Thereâ€™s also another conundrum to answer: timing. A defection now would be a blank cheque. What would the person be signing up to? We can assume that a Miliband will win Labourâ€™s leadership but we donâ€™t know which and we donâ€™t really know the direction Labour will be taken in, nor how effectively.
The lesson of Quentin Daviesâ€™ defection ought to have been learned – though it should have been learned before then as well.
Itâ€™s natural that some Lib Dems will be unhappy with the current situation, especially those who – like Kennedy – joined via the SDP route. The partyâ€™s polling is well down on the election and many of the governmentâ€™s policies are not ones they like. The polling may well recover if the government turns the deficit and the economy around, for which theyâ€™ll be able to take some credit, where Lib Dem policies have been implemented and when they regain more visibility as a party and a more distinct identity: at an election.
As for Kennedy, his political career looks to be heading into a rather sad tailspin. As the most prominent opponent of the deal, he might have been a king-over-the-water were he to be seen to have resolved the difficulties in his private life. Not now. The suspicion that he went into negotiations to defect will further damage his political reputation within his party and among his colleagues which already had â€˜unreliableâ€™ writ large across it. Where he goes now is an open question but there has to be a strong possibility that heâ€™s contested his last Westminster election.