In normal times, last week’s announcements by Luciana Berger and Angela Smith that they were joining the Liberal Democrats would have dominated the headlines. As it was, these were just the latest in a series of defections which show how our party system is falling apart.
Seven months ago, Berger left the Labour Party in the face of a torrent of jaw-dropping antisemitism. In solidarity with her, seven fellow Labour MPs, including Smith, left the party and founded The Independent Group. I saw Berger’s commitment to the values of that group up close as a senior adviser to it; and her belief in the possibility of a better politics found expression in the statement the MPs issued on that day.
I’ve written about what happened afterwards, and how the combination of the European election results and internal politics caused the split in Change UK. Of those who left the nascent party, first Chuka Umunna, then Sarah Wollaston, and now Berger and Smith have chosen to make the hop along the benches to the Lib Dems. I suspect they won’t be the last.
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These arrivals have of course been a fillip to Jo Swinson, who has seen her parliamentary party grow quickly since she took up her role as leader. They’ve also given rise to some of the critiques with which I am wearily familiar: these MPs weren’t elected as Lib Dems; they should submit themselves to by-elections. The fact that we are most likely weeks away from a general election – and that we send representatives to parliament, not party delegates – just doesn’t hold water for some.
There is the question of whether any of the defectors would hold their seats at the coming election in any event. Berger seems to have indicated that she will not stand again in Liverpool Wavertree, and while I wouldn’t bet against Wollaston being able to hold Totnes, Smith will face a big challenge in Penistone and Stocksbridge. Umunna has already taken the decision to move from his Streatham berth to the Tory-held Cities of London and Westminster, where the Lib Dems did well in the European elections. For all the defection sound and fury, the cadre of Lib Dem MPs could look very different after a poll.
Still, there is undeniable momentum with Swinson’s party – and for those, like me, who have found themselves rendered politically homeless by the march of Corbynism through the Labour Party and who could never back the Conservatives, we have to reassess whether the Lib Dems could be the ones who win our votes. For my money, they’ve still got a way to go.
Of course, I’m coming at this with plenty of personal biases. Some date back several years; some are a bit more recent.
The bruising experience of TIG/Change UK is undoubtedly one. When we were planning the jump, I think everybody asked themselves the question “why not just join the Lib Dems instead?”
The truth is firstly that at the time, as many had noted, there was no sign that the Brexit crisis was leading people to turn to the Lib Dems as the natural home of Remainers. Their polling numbers were still in single fingers, Vince Cable’s leadership seemed to be making little headway, and there weren’t many indications that there was going to be a revival. We talked about our “broken” political parties – and to all intents and purposes that included the Lib Dems, whose brand still seemed toxified. For a time – albeit brief! – after we launched TIG, we outpolled them.
The second reason, I believe, was a more ingrained one. We are all shaped by the times in which we became politically aware. For me, that meant the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Lib Dems were positioning themselves as the left-wing opposition to Tony Blair’s government. As a Labour activist, to me that made them soft on crime, weak on public sector reform, and occasionally dubious on foreign policy. Getting over your view of other parties is difficult … and it’s made more so when you’re not being given a lot of evidence to help you make the switch.
Here’s the rub. What do the Liberal Democrats represent now? Are they still a repository for left-wing protest votes? Or are they a conglomeration of homeless voters from the left and right? Tens of thousands of members left during the coalition years, but tens of thousands more have joined since the party became the most coherent opposers of Brexit. Are they the same tens of thousands, or different people? What do the Lib Dems now think about the economy, education, anti-social behaviour, foreign affairs?
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These questions matter because, although I am most motivated at the moment by the prospect of what Brexit will do to the country and am prepared to consider giving the Lib Dems my vote, it’s not and can’t be the be-all and end-all. The Brexit vortex has consumed debate and progress on some of the most fundamental issues facing our country, from the social care crisis to the climate emergency.
This absence is part of what motivated us to found Change UK and try something new. With the Conservatives mutating into a writ-large Brexit Party and Labour’s policy off the far-left deep end, there are millions of us in the middle desperate for a home, but unconvinced that beyond Brexit the Lib Dems are the right place for us. Swinson and her team have a serious job of work to do if they’re to convince those who want evidence-based policy, a strong national defence, devolution of power and a vision for 21st century Britain that they’re the ones in whom we should place our trust.
Rob Newman is a former Labour political adviser and senior staff member of the Independent Group for Change