Lots of people in the Lib Dems are talking about what we should do after the Labour leadership election, especially if Corbyn wins. Many of them are very excited about the prospect. I am not so sure and not so keen! My understanding is that it is all so long ago that only about 5% of our Party were either Liberals or Social Democrats. I suspect I speak for the few us around now who were front line activists then. The split in Labour was energising but in many ways depressing. We spent many wasted hours in meetings with people who did not really either understand or care about what we were talking about.
A comedian characterised a Liverpool man about a decade ago as having a moustache and saying, “calm down, calm down, calm down”. That is precisely what I am saying today. In Liverpool we have lived through two extremes.
1. Three of Liverpool’s seven Labour MPs (the none-Labour MP was David Alton) joined the SDP. Frankly they were largely useless. Their ideas about how to be a politician and an activist were very different from ours. Hardly surprising as they had spent most of their lives in another tribe. None of them effectively engaged with us or tried to understand what we meant and did by way of community activism. This was not true of all the defectors. I had and have nothing but admiration for people like Shirley Williams, Bill Rogers and Bob McLennan. Not only did most of the big name defectors disappear quickly but also so did most of the people who poured into the SDP.
Of course some really good people came; stayed and joined the merged Party. These include people locally like Norman Mills, Flu Clucas and Barbara and Harry Collinge. Most did not stay. The people who stuck were those who were instinctively liberal. Those that did not were the opposite!
2. We experienced left wing extremism in full force with the Militant tendency. Many of the people who have joined the Labour Party in the past weeks were the type who joined Militant. People who did not understand the complexity of dealing with long-term issues and trends often outside the control of politicians. Those people will not go away in the short-term and will pour onto the streets in parts of Liverpool and similar cities. They will shore up the Labour vote in large parts of the city but scare off the vote in the areas that are the target seats in both local and parliamentary terms for us.
I believe that deserters will be a slow burn. Most will try and stay in and make the new situation work. After 18 months of dreadful and introverted meetings they will quit. As Militant did none-Corbynites will be excoriated as class traitors and Tories! Some of them will come to us. Some might establish a new party but many of the more capable people will just disappear from politics.
Of particular interest will be those 8% of members who seem to be backing Liz Kendall. I really cannot see how any politician of honour who supported Kendall can stay in the Party that will be morphed into existence soon after Corbyn gets his hands on power. But in many ways it is now irrelevant who becomes the Leader. Labour Parties at levels with the exception of the Parliamentary Labour Party will be dominated by inward looking disputes. In the Parliamentary Party the Corbyn faction will be in such a small minority that it is hard to see how they will function with most capable politicians (flip flop Burnham being an exception) saying that they would not join the shadow cabinet. Stand by for a shadow cabinet of none-entities who will remorselessly picked off by the Press and Tories.
I am basing this prediction on hind sight. I base my view on how Lib Dems should react should react on practical experience.
If some people want to come over to the Lib Dems we should not welcome them with open arms. We should ask ourselves two related questions. Are WE sorry that they have been in another party because we failed to attract them? Will THEY fit into our Party in a constructive and empathetic way?
If the answer is yes to both – let them in. If no to both do not. Not all defectors are worth having.
Whatever happens the Lib Dems are gaining strength. We should be confident enough in our own principles to watch whilst the Labour Party implodes but not depend on it as a way forward.