Why the defection of Brian Sedgemore is still relevant

13 January 2013 , , ,

Charles Kennedy and Brian SedgemoreIt’s a few days before polling day in the 2005 general election. Charles Kennedy has secured high personal ratings during the election campaign so far and the Iraq war has opened up a huge opportunity to eat into Labour’s vote. But the party is usually only a couple of points up on its 2001 result in the opinion polls. As one of its final attempts to grab the national news headlines before polling day and eat into the Labour vote, the party unveils a high profile defector from the Labour party – sitting MP (though not restanding) Brian Sedgemore.

All that has since fading into historical obscurity. The defection didn’t shake up the national competition. Sedgemore joined the party, stepped down as an MP and slipped into quiet retirement. All three of the parties now have new leaders. So save for those interested in the details of political history, why does the defection still matter?

For two reasons – both related to Nick Clegg’s comments about how he sees the Liberal Democrat position on the political spectrum relative to Labour and an interview he gave back in September 2010. It’s often referred to, most usually by people saying that it shows Nick Clegg is taking the party to the right and doesn’t want Labour-leaning voters.

Here’s what he actually said:

There were some people, particularly around the height of the Iraq war, who gave up on the Labour Party and turned to the Liberal Democrats as a sort of left-wing conscience of the Labour Party.

I totally understand that some of these people are not happy with what the Lib Dems are doing in coalition with the Conservatives. The Lib Dems never were and aren’t a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was.

It’s the Sedgemore defection in 2005 which gives the context to those comments. First, because look at what Charles Kennedy said in 2005 on the day of the Sedgemore defection:

Mr Kennedy also rejected suggestions that the defection of such a long-standing leftwing critic of the government as Mr Sedgemore proved that the Liberal Democrats were now to the left of Labour.

Disillusioned Tory and Labour voters were equally attracted to the party’s commitment to scrap university tuition fees and provide free long-term care for the elderly, he said.

Clegg certainly rejects the idea that the Liberal Democrats should simply be viewed a left-wing alternative to Labour. But then so did Charles Kennedy.

Disagree with them both if you wish, but what’s deeply misleading is to say that Clegg’s taken the party to the right on the basis of comments such as the ones in The Independent interview – as they are in tune with comments like those from 2005 which Charles Kennedy gave when leader himself.

What’s also misleading is to say that such comments from Clegg means he was rejecting support or membership from those on the left of the political spectrum – unless you’re also willing to hold the same charge against Kennedy. (And good luck with arguing that one.)

Second, because it is the reactions to the Sedgemore defection which illustrate why Nick Clegg made the sort of comments he did. Why did the party accept the defection of an MP such as Brian Sedgemore who had been firmly on the left of the Labour Party and a cheerleader for Tony Benn, who passionately disagreed with Tony Blair and agreed with Charles Kennedy over Iraq but otherwise had a pretty limited record of supporting Liberal Democrat causes?

Perhaps all parties should be grateful for just about any high profile support offered shortly before polling day. But perhaps too accepting someone in the highest profile way should only happen if they are a convert to your values.

Certainly one of the criticisms of Kennedy’s time as leader, as expressed at the time including in places such as the ‘leader columns’ in Liberator (hardly a right-wing publication), was that the Kennedy leadership was too reluctant to self-confidently argue for a liberal party, based on liberal values and instead at different times simply went chasing after whatever disillusioned Labour or unhappy Tory support was on offer. In that Sedgemore epitomised the problem. It was a case of “here’s a new liberal, hooray!” it was a case of “here’s a leftwinger unhappy with Labour, hooray!” Yet being leftwing and unhappy with Labour doesn’t in itself make you a liberal.

The idea that the Liberal Democrats should simply be a nicer form of the Labour Party appeals to some (and I suspect is what Polly Toynbee, for example, was hoping for in 2010). Rejecting that view isn’t about taking the party to the right, it’s about believing the Liberal Democrats should be a liberal party.

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5 comments
Jim Bowen
Jim Bowen

Mark, I'd agree that we were probably never as left wing as we were perceived pre-2005, but many of our social policies since 2010 seem to demonstrate an overarching distaste for being perceived as ever having been left wing in the first place. I get the party's in coalition, but national perception now is that we're "as bad as the rest of them" and that we'd do whatever it took to get our hands on one or two levers of power (no mater how small and insignificant).

Nicola Prigg
Nicola Prigg

The problem with your logic is that Charles Kennedy when he was talking about the Labour defection, he mentioned both the left and the right and that they were both attracted to the Liberal Democrats over specific policies. Clegg said his with disdain for those people who thought we are a Labour-lite party but depending on your viewpoint, it could be seen as disdain for people on the left. What annoys me most is that it is Clegg that has said over and over again that the LibDems are not a party of the left or a party of the right but we have our own label, liberal. He also according to his biography told two girls who defected from Labour as he was being shown around Sheffield Hallam that the LibDems were not just a party for disillusioned LibDems. What annoys me is that now as leader and in government, his new strategy is to appear as the Conservative-lite, Labour-lite party and not arguing the case for Liberalism.

Nicola Prigg
Nicola Prigg

I agree that his commitment is to the centre but the recent "Stronger Economy. Fairer Society" line attacking Labour on the Economy and the Conservatives on building a fair society is trying to market us as a Conservative-lite, Labour-lite party.

Tracy Connell
Tracy Connell

"What annoys me is that now as leader and in government, his new strategy is to appear as the Conservative-lite, Labour-lite party and not arguing the case for Liberalism." Don't think I agree with that. I think the quote where he says we are not left or right but liberal was whilst in coalition. After reading his biography (especially about his family background) I believe he is liberal through and through and I believe his commitment to the centre. I did think it a mistake when he said we are not the party for the disgruntled left and he shouldn't be alienating any one set of people. We could end up in coalition with Labour, or again with the Cons or have nothing at all, but I'm sure we can have some pull for people from all sides if they look at what we are trying to do. It's important to appeal to both left and right on a certain level.

Peter Reisdorf
Peter Reisdorf

One thing that I noted particularly from what Charles Kennedy said was that he rcognised the importance of the party’s commitment to scrap university tuition fees!

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