Saturday, January 15, 2011

Southwark Lib Dems' Dilemma

I have been pondering what the result in the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election means for Southwark, and in particular for Southwark's LibDems. It seems clear that many of those who voted LibDem in Oldham in May 2010 switched their votes to Labour's candidate Debbie Abrahams in this by-election. And it seems equally cleat that many of those who voted Conservative in May 2010 moved their votes to the LibDems. There is no other logical explanation for the collapse of the Tory vote and the maintenance of the LibDems share of the vote.

So what does this mean in Southwark? At the moment I get the feeling that Simon Hughes and the Southwark LibDems are trying to carry on as if nothing has changed since last May. They are trying to oppose Government policy when it doesn't suit them, and then try to blame Labour's administration in Southwark for any difficult choices which we are obliged to make as a result of the Government's cuts.

But the difficulty for them is that things did change last May, and changed very significantly. Whether they like it or not the national LibDem Party chose to enter into a coalition with the Conservatives, and thereby indicated that the LibDem Party nationally preferred a right-wing solution to the dilemma posed by the election results to a left-wing or progressive solution. A formal coalition with the Conservatives was not an inevitable choice for the LibDems - they chose 5 years of what they hope to be guaranteed power with a right-wing party, rather than any more pragmatic solution. And no decision since May 2010 would seem to demonstrate that Nick Clegg's LibDems are not prepared to sign up whole-heartedly to the Conservative's approach.

At the end of the day national political parties are just that - national. They are led by a single Leader who sets the policy tone and framework and becomes the living embodiment of what the Party represents and offers to the electorate. Even the Green Party has recognised the need for a single identifiable Leader. And in national political parties other senior elected representatives "toe the party line" and demonstrate their support for what the Leader and senior figures say and do. Both the Conservatives and Labour know what happens when that does not occur! What the leadership of the Party does is important. Sometimes you can disagree with a particular policy approach, but it becomes impossible really to retain credibility as a Party member or supporter if you disagree with the national leadership's fundamental direction of travel.

So the point I'm making is that Southwark Lib Dems do have to recognise that their party's direction of travel is to the right. And that direction looks set firm. They also have to recognise that the Southwark Lib Dem party does not exist in isolation from their national party - after all Simon Hughes is the national Party Deputy Leader.

I have no doubt that many Lib Dem councillors, members and supporters in Southwark are extremely uncomfortable with this lurch to the right by their Party. And there will be many who recognise that if the electorate in Southwark behave as the electorate in Oldham have, Southwark's Lib Dems face real electoral difficulties.

Labour remains the only party of the left and centre-left, and all that we do in Southwark will be true to our core political beliefs and principles, representing the best in progressive politics. So I say to all Lib Dem councillors, members and supporters in Southwark - if you still wish to be part of the progressive politics of our country and our borough there will always be a place for you with Labour. It is your national party which has moved - not you or your beliefs. If you want to be a relevant part of the debate going forward don't think you have to put yourselves through the agony of pretending to defend Conservative policies - but join with Labour in fashioning a real alternative.


James said...

I'm not clear why you think the residents of Southwark would benefit form the diminished opposition voice that would come from such defections. I'm inclined to think that it would actually harm local democracy.

If there are disgruntled Lid Dem councillors, they would better serve their constituents by acting as independents in line with the manifestos on which they were elected.

Peter John said...

A fair point - but what happens in 2014 at the next local elections if the current trend persists? Some good voices of principle could be lost from Southwark politics because of a fundamental detachment between themselves and their national party. It is a pious hope to think that the Lib Dems may ever be regarded as a party of the centre left again for a generation - if ever. So the fundamental dilemma remains.