Last week rumours circulated (briefly) that Lib Dem MP and stand-up comedian Sarah Teather was considering defecting to Labour. There was nothing to it, of course. Like the Charles Kennedy defection rumours in 2010, it turned out to be hot air. Most defection rumours are just that. No-one in their right mind would publicise plans to jump ship. What if things go wrong? You’d be forced to return to your party, tail between your legs, tainted forever. Despised by those who you once fought alongside. Because there’s nothing politicians (and activists) hate more than a traitor.
That Teather’s “defection” turned out to be a non-event isn’t very surprising then. But what was a surprise, and something of a disappointment, was the reaction of some Labour members. “We don’t want her”, some said. “She’s tainted”, said others.
The latter is undoubtedly true.
Teather, whose first speech in parliament was about the terrible impact of tuition fees, went on to vote for trebling them. Her credibility is shot. As a Lib Dem, she will find it incredibly difficult to retain her Brent Central seat. But is this how Labour must be? That only those who have always been ideologically pure, and have always been Labour, are allowed into the tent? That doesn’t seem to be the case normally – the party rejoices each time a Lib Dem councillor defects to the party. So are the rules different for an MP?
Surely a high profile MP wanting to defect to Labour would be a greater scalp, not a lesser one. A morale boost to Labour and a body blow to the Lib Dems. And yet the idea of Teather sitting on the Labour benches was greeted by some Labour supporters as the political equivalent of a cup of cold sick.*
I should be clear at this point that I’m no fan of Sarah Teather. Quite the opposite. I think she’s a hypocrite. I think she has put her determination to succeed politically ahead of the needs of her constituents, only to claim that her constituents were paramount when the time came for her to be bumped off the front bench to allow David Laws his chance to return. She is a contradictory bundle of contradictions that suggests, at its heart, a very politically confused individual.
But if she’d defected to Labour, I’d have been pleased – because it would have edged us closer (maybe only a little) to bringing down this dog’s dinner of a “coalition” government.
Ed Miliband has said before that, given the chance, he didn’t want to wait until 2015 for an opportunity to unseat David Cameron. By chipping away at their majority, he hoped to see an election happen quicker, and a Labour government in power sooner. Those of us who believe that a Labour government is inherently better than a Tory one (i.e. most of you reading this) would surely believe that’s a better course of action than simply sitting tight until 2015, by which time the hole the nation is in – socially and economically – could be far deeper.
Defections are one way of bringing that reality closer. Sapping the morale of the opposition, boosting the standing of Labour as a potential government, and altering – albeit only slightly – parliamentary arithmetic.
That’s not to say that Labour should accept any MP onto the Labour benches. A genuine belief in Labour values is necessary, as is a willingness to disown previous party affiliation and accept where mistakes have been made. I’m not sure that Teather would pass either test, althougha willingness to defect might suggest so. Merely, wanting to be Labour should not mean de facto acceptance though. Recently I argued that Labour would be wrong to accept Salma Yaqoob as a party member – at least in the short term – because it’s not clear that she does hold Labour values, or would be willing to disown her previous attacks on the party. That’s a bridge every deefector must cross, and it’s a crossing many are unwilling to make. For similar reasons, the idea of George Galloway ever rejoining Labour even if he might want to, is beyond laughable.
But we must never forget, when discussing potential MP defections, the size of the prize. The opportunity to decrease the size of the government’s majority and the opportunity to make a Labour government come around faster. These are not small matters. And for those of us who want to bring about a Labour government, they should be worth the discomfort of embracing an MP with whom we’ve had past disagreements – if the sinner repenteth – because the prize is worth holding your nose for.
* – some of the discomfort about MP defections is because Labour member fear that they’ll have the defector imposed on them as the Labour candidate at the next election. I’ve always believed that MPs who defect should be forced to take part in an open selection of party members if they want to be the Labour candidate next time round. That might mean there a fewer defections of course, but defecting shouldn’t be an easy option.