Labour should (within reason) welcome defecting MPs with open arms

November 26, 2012 9:41 am

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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

    One of our Labour councillors in the neighbouring ward is a former Tory. He stood for parliament under Tory colours. He joined the Labour party because he said that he felt that his views were closer to ours and that he had changed many of the ways he used to think. He is a very good Labour councillor, not least because he both knows how to fight LibDems, but also because he knows how the Tories think. I do believe people can genuinely change. He switched to us knowing that he would not hold his own ward under our colours and after losing, was selected for a LibDem held marginal in an open selection – which he went on to win with a thumping majority

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

    One of our Labour councillors in the neighbouring ward is a former Tory. He stood for parliament under Tory colours. He joined the Labour party because he said that he felt that his views were closer to ours and that he had changed many of the ways he used to think. He is a very good Labour councillor, not least because he both knows how to fight LibDems, but also because he knows how the Tories think. I do believe people can genuinely change. He switched to us knowing that he would not hold his own ward under our colours and after losing, was selected for a LibDem held marginal in an open selection – which he went on to win with a thumping majority

  • http://twitter.com/allanholloway Allan Draycott

    I think the acceptance of Sean Woodward & Quentin Davies into the ranks of the PLP (as well as in the former case the Cabinet) really undermines Labour MPs’ reactions as far as Ms Teather goes. Labour’s recent history is that of an ideological pawnshop wiling to accept any old relic dumped on its doorstep so why jib at Ms Teather?

    • AlanGiles

      It was interesting that people like Woodward only have these volte-face conversions. AFTER their party has been well and truly trounced at an election, or they realise their party face extinction in a forthcoming election. I can’t recall anybody leaving the governing party when they have just won a convincing majority.

      I think Allan and Joe are absolutely right in what they say.

      • http://about.me/woollymindedlib Kevin McNamara

        there was an mp in 2009, who defected from tory to labour, i believe.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Dan.Filson Daniel Filson

      Personally I think we were right to welcome Sean Woodward who has proved a good minister and I understand that Quentin Davies wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. as he is a little bit of a toff for some tastes. Sarah Teather would be a completely different kettle of fish (I write as a constituent). She undermined, in leaflets etc, the sitting Labour MP by claiming to be Brent’s MP, not clarifying that she was NOT the MP for Dawn Butler’s constituents, and has implemented the coalition’s policies with gusto. She is a poor minister and slippery MP and I for one would NOT vote for or campaign for her if she was foisted upon us as “the sitting MP”. If she switches to simpy become a Labour Party ordinary member, having been beaten in 205 as she deserves to be, so be it. But if she switches in the hope of staying an MP, she will find we all slip elsewhere to work for Andy Slaughter, Steve Pound or Karen Buck, and I cannot see who would then work for her.

  • aracataca

    Not much to disagree with here.

  • Daniel Munday

    a great read, agree with everything

  • Joe Caluori

    When I was working for Harriet, around the time Gordon had just become PM I spent some time with a selection of Tory defectors ‘backstage’ before they were hailed on the Conference floor to coincide with Quentin Davies platform speech (I think that was the deal, but it was a while ago).

    I was struck by how reluctant they were to say that their beliefs had changed – they were far more likely to say that their views had stayed the same whilst their Party had moved away from them. I saw this as problematic, as it suggested that the main Parties are merely centrist franchises; cyphers for personal ambition which you can flit between without issue. Despite what cynics say, that just isn’t the case with the Tories and Labour, and increasingly isn’t the case between the Lib Dems and Labour.

    My view is that a defection from one of the three major Parties to another is almost always a matter of personal ambition. If you felt you could no longer stomach being a member of the Tories or the Lib Dems, why does it naturally follow that you would have to join Labour, rather than simply not being a member of one of the main three parties? It’s a hell of a leap to be a Lib Dem or Tory on Monday, and a Democratic Socialist on Tuesday.

    Perhaps it’s best that people in that position resign membership and the Whip from their Party and sit as an independent in Parliament, as their application to join the Labour Party is considered. They may need to recant previous beliefs and positions to be compatible with our values, and yes, our ideology.

    If MPs can move between parties at will, then it may reinforce the idea in the mind of a cynical electorate that ‘they are all the same’, that it’s all a big game, musical chairs, and in private MPs pat each other on the back and mock the intentions of the poor saps that vote for them.

    Just a thought.

    • Serbitar

      With so much political convergence between the three main parties defection from one party to another isn’t what it used to be.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=36910622 Edward Carlsson Browne

    I know some defectors who fit extremely well with Labour. I have no necessary problem with accepting defectors.

    But it simply isn’t true to say that, “the party rejoices each time a Lib Dem councillor defects to the party.” Before a defector is accepted, the council group has to decide it’s willing to accept them, as does region and the CLP exec. Even then, I’ve known GCs that were decidedly conflicted on whether or not to take the defector in.

    Some defectors fit in fine. Some defectors defect because they’re impossible to deal with and have already alienated everybody in their existing party. It’s not always possible to tell and that’s why there’s some discomfort.

    What’s more, we’re a lot less willing to accept them when we stand to win their seat. I’ve heard of cases in some heavily Labour local authorities where Lib Dems have asked about defecting and been rejected because Labour expected to win their ward with 80% of the vote at the next election. And whilst as Westminster we need the extra MPs more, the calculation does not disappear.

    You can call for an open selection as a condition of defection, but that’s just not how the party or the defection process works and pretending we live in the best of all possible worlds won’t cut it. Few defectors would accept such a deal and plenty who did would renege, which leaves you open to questions about why you were stupid enough to take them in in the first place.

    In cases where we won’t win the seat, I have no problem with accepting the defector (though I have a lot of problems with parachuting them into St Helens South). In cases where we ought to win it, we should tell the would-be defector to go independent if they want to harm the government.

  • Dave Postles

    Labour may, of course, do as it wishes. Since I am no longer a member, I don’t expect my suggestion to be taken seriously. In any respectably democratic ‘system’, the MP should not join another party as s/he was not elected on that platform. I agree with Joe that the person should act as an independent member for the remainder of the Parliament.

  • https://mikestallard.virtualgallery.com/ Mike Stallard

    ROTHERHAM

  • Dave Postles
  • NT86

    “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 …

    …She is a contradictory bundle of contradictions that suggests, at its
    heart, a very politically confused individual.”

    Sounds a lot like Hazel Blears. Hypocrisy has no political colour, as we’ve seen it come to fruition across all the main three parties.

    There’s more chance of Clare Short coming out of retirement and returning to Labour than Sarah Teather defecting TBH. Her inevitable defeat in 2015 will be one of the finer moments of the election (as well maybe Danny Alexander and Jo Swinson going too).

    • Visual

      A bit over the top to only name women as hypocrites…

  • http://twitter.com/220_d_92_20 David Boothroyd

    Yes, ‘within reason’, but I for one can’t be confident which side of ‘within reason’ Sarah Teather falls. Note that the PLP refused to accept Paul Marsden back in April 2005.

  • uglyfatbloke

    Problem is..as far as the electorate are concerned, there really is n’t much to chose between Labour and the tories. Neither favours democracy much because FPTP gives them a huge advantage. Actually, neither of them really likes or trusts the people and all three parties engage in a good deal of collegiate back-scratching and a pathetic cowardice when it comes to the Daily Mail, hence hardly any prosecutions for stealing on their expenses, general acceptance of trident, replacing a useless tank with another useless tank at huge expense, protecting bank shareholders who could n’t be bothered to ensure that the businesses were being run properly, persecution of cannabis, an abject failure to protect and encourage businesses that provide jobs,,the insulting level of the minimum wage, low taxes for the wealthy – a group that certainly includes MPs on £1300 per week – and a tradition of making the very worst off just that little bit worse off yet.

    What does it matter if one MP defects from one party to another? They can largely do so without compromising themselves since they mostly don’t really commit to anything in the first place.

  • Serbitar

    After publicly calling the benefit cap “immoral” I doubt that Sarah Teather would feel able to defect to a party that not only approves of such a cap but actually wants it lowered in the poorest regions of the country. Even if Labour offered to warmly welcome Ms. Teather to its fold how could she possibly walk across the floor to join an opposition seemingly intent on treating benefit claimants even more harshly than the Coalition?

    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/11/18/sarah-teather-benefit-cap_n_2154483.html

  • OweniteAdam

    Values have to be a key criterion to party membership, especially following a defection by a high profile individual, and doubly especially if it results in automatically representing Labour at any level.

    I’ve often wondered:

    how can we, with any certainty, identify any values as being truly held (rather than being a smokescreen for opportunism and ambition)?

    …which begs a further question:

    Should we be drafting (simple and flexible) criteria for potential defectors? E.g.

    1.) Demonstrably holds Labour values and agrees with existing policy positions (e.g. has campaigned previously on a stance that Labour would approve of/not disapprove of)
    2.) Demonstrably rejects a part or parts of previous party’s values and policy positions
    3.) Can articulate benefit of defection to the party being over and above the benefit to the individual hoping to defect
    4.) Can confidently and purposefully sing the Red Flag without support of a song-sheet and/or backing track… ;-)

    (The first three are more serious than the last! Honest!)

  • Daniel Speight

    If I had the choice of allowing either Sarah Teather or Salma Yaqoob into the Labour Party, it wouldn’t be Teather.

    Then again if I had a choice of Nick Clegg or George Galloway to have a drink with, it wouldn’t be Clegg.

  • Pingback: Useful criteria for defections from the Liberal Democrats | South Tottenham Review()

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