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
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Don’t blame young people for not voting – blame the system that fails them

The majority of young people voted to Remain in the EU, but turn out was low. But this is a symptom of an unfair system, not a recent to punish them.

“A Britain divided” – that has been the dominant narrative to emerge in the aftermath of the Brexit vote a week ago. There has been talk of the divisions between rich and poor, the metropolitan and the regional, the Scottish and the English/Welsh, but perhaps the most vehement discussion has centred around the gulf between generations. Polling indicates that 75 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted Remain, while Electoral Commission data showed that, in urban areas where the average age was 35 and under, there was overwhelming support for remaining in the EU.

Older people, meanwhile, voted to leave, which is why the morning after the result, social media erupted in fury at the baby boomers and their parents accused of cocking up our futures (for it is we who will live longest with the fallout, after all). Rarely have I seen such vehemence directed at the old by the young.

There was, of course, the inevitable backlash. Generation Y, boomers argued, just couldn’t be arsed to wrench themselves away from their screens to go and vote. We don’t know the turnout figures for certain, but Sky data indicates it may have been shockingly low – 36 per cent for 18-24 year olds, and 58 per cent for those between 25-34. There was more than a whiff of disdainful superiority in the air from some of the older generation – many of their criticisms amounted to “shut up and stop whining”, or, “you’ll come crawling back when you need cash from the bank of mum and dad”. Worst of all was being told to bow down and respect our elders in their infinite superior knowledge.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that young turnout was as low as estimates suggest. Can this really be said to be an indictment of young people, or is it really an indictment of a system that alienates them utterly? There is a whiff of blaming the victims to all this. As Ben Bowman, a researcher on young people’s politics from the University of Bath tells me, “turnout and ‘low engagement’ are symptoms of an illness, not the illness itself. The illness is politics done at a distance from young people.”

Something else Bowman says resonates particularly with me, as someone who took part in the 2010 student protests against tuition fee rises and cuts to EMA, and then sunk into political disillusionment and disgust that our voices had meant nothing to the politicians implementing policy. “I can’t overstate the extent to which young people feel politics is about people needing things and being told ‘well, we haven’t got the money.’ The Iraq war, tuition fees and austerity have really shrunk the horizons of what young people consider possible. They are just trying to get by, to play by the rules and navigate increased risk in transition to adulthood.”

For this reason, as well as many others, it is unfair to heap derision on the young who didn’t vote (and for what it’s worth, some experts have said they actually think turnout may have been up). Dr James Sloam from the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway university points out that public policy decisions have generally been against our interests. While rich pensioners keep their winter fuel allowance, their free TV licences and travel passes, we face the highest tuition fees in the western world, the closure of youth centres, a living wage that only starts at 25, and cuts to housing benefit. Why participate in a system that hates you?

Of course, the easy rebuttal to this is the fact that, unless you participate, the politicians (and the policies they create) will continue to ignore you. There’s an element of truth to this, but it fails to take into account several things. Firstly, thanks to our first past the post electoral system, there is a perception that, even if you do vote, that it doesn’t really count, and certainly doesn’t change anything. Secondly, there is the mantra, one you’ll hear again and again, that all politicians are the same. As Kelly McBride from The Democratic Society says:

“To large numbers of people the political system, party politics, the institutions of statehood seem like immutable objects. You cannot change the way that politics is done, or upheave centuries of tradition, or fight against what you consider the overwhelming social power of Oxbridge politicians and their friends running international business ventures.

“Why bother to swap one boring suit for another when nothing has got better for you or your family? As the old adage goes, “no matter who you vote for, a politician always gets in.”

These are words worth bearing in mind to those in the establishment still baffled by the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, who at the time of writing is refusing to budge as Labour leader, amongst younger people. McBride tells me that my generation’s disenfranchisement is not just from the political apparatus of state, but from ideology, too. While older people can remember what it was like to have a political party formed on the basis of ideology, “young people today can probably count the number of politicians who seem to act out of principle or ideology on one hand, and such figures are roundly ridiculed in the press for being high-minded or weak leaders”. Sound like anyone we know?

If we are to get young people voting, it’s clear we need a wider range of politicians. A Demos/Vinspired report found that 56 per cent of young people would be more likely to vote if there were more local working class MPs. We also need more women, more candidates from diverse backgrounds, and younger representatives (just look at the 21-year-old SNP MP Mhairi Black, whose maiden speech went viral). The EU referendum campaign on both sides reflected this paucity perhaps more than any campaign that I can remember. Where were the women, the young people? It was basically just grey-haired men in suits arguing. When there was a debate for young people, it portrayed the sides as evenly split between leave and remain, thus giving a distorted view of how younger people felt about the issues involved.

I’m also not convinced that – despite the valiant efforts of campaign groups such as Bite the Ballot – was entirely made clear how important it was that young people registered to vote in this election. Many seemed unaware that their vote could have been a game-changer until afterwards. Plus, young people are notoriously peripatetic, and many will not have been at their term-time addresses. The registration system saw 1m people fall off the register. It fell by 40 per cent.

Before the referendum, an article for UKandEU argued that young voters are rarely anti-EU; they just don’t understand it. To my mind, the campaign did not help to clarify the already-murky waters. The impression I get from friends and acquaintances is that the EU debate led to a lack of confidence in terms of knowledge and understanding of the issues at hand that was not helped by politicians' statements or media coverage of them. “I don’t feel I know enough” was a phrase I heard again and again. It’s not something you hear so much from the older generation.

And if this referendum made anything clear, it was that not understanding the issues at hand didn’t put older people off voting. Perhaps it is the young who are truly wise. As Richard Bronk, a Visiting Fellow at the European Institute at LSE wrote in a recent blog post:

“The world has changed so fast that the Platonic idea of respecting the greater wisdom of the elderly is out of date . . . it is most of us over fifty who have no idea how social and economic life really operates in the interdependent, fluid and digital age in which our children live.” 

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.