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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.