Why the defection of Brian Sedgemore is still relevant

It’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 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, the party unveils a high profile defector from the Labour party – sitting MP (though not restanding) Brian Sedgemore.

All that has since faded 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 wasn’t a case of “here’s a new liberal, hooray!”. It was a case of “here’s a leftwinger unhappy with Labour, hooray!” Yet being left-wing 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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