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Defecting or coming home?

September 24, 2015 7:25 PM
By Mark Argent - PPC for North West Leicestershire in Liberal Democrat Voice

Jeremy Corbyn's election has brought speculation about people on the right of the Labour party switching to the Liberal Democrats. Some of those comments make sense, but others don't.

At its best, there are times when a genuine change of conviction makes a change of party into a home-coming. I think of the authenticity of Jacob Whiten, writing in Liberal Democrat Voice on his move from UKIP to the Liberal Democrats, and the enormous contribution of people like Shirley Williams, who came into the Liberal Democrats by moving from Labour to the SDP.

But defections can backfire, and the language of encouraging them can play badly, as in the case of a recent spoof email from Tim Farron to Chuka Umunna encouraging him to switch, written by Amol Rajan in the Evening Standard.

With Labour and Tories both apparently moving away from the centre there is sense of pressure on the people towards the middle ground in both parties. But we should be wary of making a grab for the disaffected. Both parties have strong centralising tendencies: that is a long way from Liberal Democrat culture. We'd be in danger of playing along with the myth that we are a bland hybrid of left and right when the preamble to our constitutional points us in a much richer direction which is not quite on that scale. In a party which affirms the "fundamental values of liberty, equality and diversity" there is bound to be a lively debate on how the preamble translates into specific policies, here are four pointers to distinctive territory:

"no one shall be enslaved by poverty…"

This is not "trickle-down" or "wealth re-distribution", both of which have the nasty habit of preserving the inequalities they claim to address. It offers ways of enabling opportunity and change, such as pointing a path to both sides of industry working together for everyone's benefit, rather than one side being favoured over the other.

"… or conformity"

Equal opportunities are much better than unequal opportunities, but not being enslaved by conformity takes that to a new level, embracing and cherishing diversity (even if we have further to go to achieve this).

"enable all citizens… to take part in the decisions which affect their lives…" and "…the promotion of a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom"

Embracing diversity and possibility offers huge benefits. It is a million miles from a "vow" grudgingly-given to bribe the Scots into voting for the union. The survival and prosperity of the UK both need fair and effective devolution.

"Within the European Community we affirm the values of federalism and integration…"

This is much more than campaigning for a "yes" vote. It is about joining the long list of people with the vision to seek to improve the European Union from the inside. It is the polar opposite of Cameron's half-baked and short-sighted "renegotiation".

It's great to welcome people who realise their natural political home is the Liberal Democrats, but it would be bad if we allowed ourselves to be painted as the sanctuary of those who have had a short-term falling-out with their own parties. Both Labour and Conservatives are likely to undergo big upheavals in the near future. It is essential that we remain faithful to our own core because it is something that will be needed - both by the UK and the EU.

* Mark Argent was the Parliamentary candidate for North West Leicestershir