The Lib Dems and Labour need to remember why their activists go into politics

Activists shouldn't be dismissed as 'naïve' or 'immature' for expecting politicians to deliver on party policy.

While everyone else got irate about Kim Howells kicking off a 'unions vs. Blairites row' in his The World this Weekend interview (and I’m not about to intrude on private grief), I was shouting at the radio for a whole different reason. I appear to be in a minority of one, but why is it acceptable for senior politicians to say stuff like this about their own activists:

There are a lot of people inside the Labour movement who hate being in government because it means making very difficult decisions. They’d rather be a ginger group outside, they’d rather be calling for what we used to call ‘impossibilism’ because it sounded good and they fitted their rhetoric. It’s a nonsense of course…

Is it really a nonsense? And is it really "impossibilism"? I only ask because the progressive wing of politics seems to be terribly good at telling the folk who’ve been traipsing up and down the streets, banging on doors and shoving leaflets through letterboxes, that expecting their politicians to deliver some elements of party policy when they’re in power is 'naïve', a sign of political 'immaturity' or 'wishful thinking' and that we need to 'get real'. It was only a couple of weeks ago that Lib Dem councillors were told that:

If we try and turn back the clock, hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition, seeking to airbrush out the difficult decisions we have had to take, we condemn our party to the worst possible fate - irrelevance, impotence, slow decline.

Now, I don’t think anyone expects their party to go into government and not make tough decisions. But it's not the tough decisions that get the activists irked. It’s the decisions that appear to be the diametrical opposite of either party philosophy or party policy that get everyone worked up. And if we didn’t, you fear that the Snooper's Charter would now be on the statute books and the original NHS white paper might have gone through on the nod.

It does seem odd to me that politicians can’t see that one of the reasons their stock is not so much in the gutter as several layers further down is exactly because they duck the difficult philosophical decisions in favour of 'what they can get through'; and why, when backbenchers from all parties refuse to knuckle under and back the party principle, they get applauded by activists and the electorate alike.

Lest we forget:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Or to put it another way, Mr Howells: you may be happy to have "pragmatism over principle" etched on your gravestone. But it’s not why most activists go into politics.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Party members listen to a policy motion at the Liberal Democrat conference on September 25, 2012 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.