Ten reasons why Charles Kennedy should not join Labour

From Iraq to class warfare: why Kennedy must stay loyal to the Liberal Democrats.

Charles Kennedy, the former Liberal Democrat leader, has denied the accusation that he has discussed joining the Labour Party. Yet the story has the ring of truth about it; certainly, many disgruntled Lib Dems would sympathise if he has.

And as the news originated in a post by my old friend Mark Seddon, the former editor of Tribune and one-time member of Labour's National Executive Committee, I'm inclined to believe that there's something in it.

But here is why Charles Kennedy should not split the Lib Dems and defect to the Labour Party.

  1. Iraq. The obvious one -- Kennedy was the only party leader to oppose the illegal war in Iraq while, of Labour's leadership contenders, David Miliband and Andy Burnham voted for it, Ed Balls wasn't an MP but says he would have voted for it (though he admits it would have been wrong to do so!) and Ed Miliband says he was against it -- but nobody noticed because he was out of the country at the time. The sole contender to have voted against the Iraq war, Diane Abbott, is the one candidate we know definitely won't win. That's the party Kennedy would be joining.
  2. Tuition fees. In 2001, Kennedy called the introduction of university tuition fees "one of the most pernicious political acts that has taken place. It means that people from lower-income backgrounds are discriminated against." He was right. Who introduced them? And who later added on top-up fees, thereby breaking a manifesto promise? Labour governments.
  3. Civil liberties. Again, as party leader, Kennedy was on the side of the angels, especially against one of the most authoritarian home secretaries in living memory -- David Blunkett, whom he accused of using the threat of terrorism to force through "the abandonment of some of the liberties that generations of Britons have relied upon. Hard-won rights, once lost, may never be regained." Which party did Blunkett belong to? Labour.
  4. Lib Dem votes don't belong to Labour . . . and Kennedy should not encourage the belief that they do. The cries of "betrayal" after this year's general election showed very clearly that many Labour politicians believe that votes for the Liberal Democrats are in some sense "mislaid", and that they really belong to them. They don't. There was no betrayal because there was no promise -- the Lib Dems had the right to form a coalition with whichever party they wanted. In any case, why should Lib Dems turn to Labour, after the way Tony Blair led Paddy Ashdown and Roy Jenkins down the garden path? Kennedy above all knows that. He was the leader who abandoned Ashdown's policy of cosying up to a party that, not so secretly, has always despised Liberals.
  5. He should fight his corner within the Lib Dems. Kennedy is not alone in worrying about the right-wing tendencies of the Orange Bookers at the top of the party, the former Treasury chief secretary David Laws in particular. But their position will only be strengthened if the left of the party defects.
  6. Kennedy is a Liberal, not a Social Democrat. Yes, I know he was a member of the Social Democratic Party -- but both he and his mentor, Roy Jenkins, could happily have found a home in the old Liberal Party. After the merger between the two parties as the Alliance in 1988, neither opted for the continuing Owenite SDP, which prefigured New Labour not only in its enthusiasm for the market, but also in the cult of the leader that surrounded both Owen and Blair. Labour, which always places equality above liberty, is prone to conformist and controlling tendencies -- of a kind that awkward, cussedly individualist Liberals such as Kennedy automatically reject.
  7. Class warfare. New Labour may have had a (very) soft spot for plutocrats and Tuscan holidays, but the party retains an undignified chippiness and weakness for class warfare gestures -- such as the ban on hunting with hounds, which was never about helping foxes but about savaging toffs. Not only has it been completely ineffectual, it was philosophically incoherent, too. If foxes should be saved painful deaths during the course of a countryside pursuit, what about the millions of fish speared through the mouth for sport every year? Kennedy did actually vote for the ban -- but, as a Liberal, he must view Labour's low-politics class gestures with distaste.
  8. Sectional interests. Trade unions provide far too much money and hold far too much influence within the Labour Party. Liberals do not believe in being beholden to any special or sectional interest groups.
  9. Kennedy won't want to destroy the party he once led. The formation of the SDP damaged Labour and was partly responsible for its disastrous showing in the 1983 general election. Could Kennedy possibly want to inflict similar damage on the Liberal Democrats -- or even worse?
  10. He could be the leader again. If the coalition falls apart or the Lib Dems are wiped out in the local elections, the party may wish to be open to negotiations with Labour, especially if the next general election results in another hung parliament. In the current NS, Ed Miliband rules out dealing with the Lib Dems if Nick Clegg is still leader, and whoever wins Labour's contest may well take the same view. Who could they talk to in his stead? Step forward, Charles Kennedy, who, when asked in 2006, refused to rule out standing again for the Lib Dem leadership at some point in the future. Given his opposition to the Con-Lib coalition, he would be the obvious choice.

So don't be a charlie, Charlie: the Labour Party doesn't deserve you -- you're way too good for them.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Show Hide image

Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.