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Vince Cable: Tory and Labour MPs are considering defecting to the Lib Dems over Brexit

“It is important people do believe Brexit can be stopped.”

There was no luxurious suite for Vince Cable when he checked into the Ramada Plaza in Southport for his party’s Spring conference, but a cramped standard double that he shared with his wife, Rachel. If this was a man on his political uppers – on just nine per cent of the vote, according to the latest Survation poll – he presented good reason to be quietly confident when I squeezed in to see him yesterday.

“I have a historical perspective and I remember we were on about that percentage when we went into the 1997 election, which turned out to be a breakthrough year for us,” he tells me. “We surged to 16 per cent and doubled our number of MPs and became a major force in Parliament. Obviously, I would like us to be further ahead in the polls now, but I don’t panic about opinion polls and my sense is genuinely that things are beginning to move our way.”

In his typically unshowy, under-stated way, Cable had minutes earlier made the kind of political speech you all too seldom hear these days: it was idealistic. The BBC may have run a headline saying there was a “backlash” against him over what he had said about racism being a factor in the vote for Brexit  – this “backlash” came, unstartlingly, from Tory MPs – but it struck a chord and won him a long standing ovation in the conference hall.  

Cable’s talk of a “breakthrough” year may well not be wishful thinking. Over the past few weeks, there has been feverish gossip in Westminster about high level defections to his party and even a fundamental realignment of British politics. “I get individuals from both the Tory and Labour benches coming up to me in the Commons, maybe after a late vote when it is possible to talk discreetly, to tell me they feel their positions in their respective parties are completely untenable. I take that to be coded language, but I am not pushing it and I am happy to leave it to them to come on their own terms and in their own time.”

He believes the point of departure for them – to use the title of the late Robin Cook’s book – is most likely to come in the autumn, when Theresa May will ask them to either accept or reject the deal she has come up with to leave the European Union. “It is possible if some Tory MPs vote against their party line their position could be made impossible and they will find themselves in limbo within their party.

“I think for members of the Labour Party it is a different matter. For the moment, Corbyn is being given the benefit of the doubt. They had a reasonable election – they didn’t win, of course, even if they sometimes give the impression they did – but there are a great many Labour MPs I know to be desperately worried about where their party is going in the longer term and they may well jump or be pushed. Obviously I don’t know precisely who or what or how.”

Cable chooses his words with care, but the names in the frame have included Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry. “I know both of them reasonably well and they would be welcomed with open arms if they did choose to join us. They are, however, instinctively loyal to their own people and I respect that. I’m not waiting with membership cards for them, but if they come I would be delighted.”

Although he is aware that such speculation excites journalists, he has more immediate concerns. Before the Summer recess, he says his party is co-ordinating the efforts in the House of Lords to get through amendments toning down some of the more extreme aspects of the Brexit legislation, which he anticipates will be passed with big majorities.

“The more important issue is the customs union, and, given that Labour have changed their position a bit, that provides an opportunity for a Tory rebellion in the Commons. We are promised one. I am not holding my breath, but it could happen. If it did it would give Mrs May the sense that she is on the skids.

“After the Summer, we will have, of course, what is called the meaningful vote. I think that, too, will be important, but not decisive. It is certainly important that MPs from all sides of the House heed John Major’s advice and do what's right. Even more important for us will be getting agreement that there will be a popular vote on the final deal. Without that, there will be a danger of ill will for generations. We need a popular vote to unite the country.”

Cable is aware of, and welcomes, the legal action being mounted by Best for Britain to try to compel Mrs May to hold a second referendum. “I think it is quite useful to have these legal challenges. We saw how Gina Miller completely changed the weather by the case she brought against the government so I think it is helpful to see that they act within the law and the constitution. I would say though that at the end of the day it will have to be for parliament, rather than the courts, to decide if we as a country drop Article 50. Similarly, having a popular vote on the final deal would be a decision of Parliament, rather than the courts’.”

In the meantime, scarcely a week goes by without a new party being set up to challenge Brexit – something that Cable clearly finds tiring. “The fact there is a multiplicity of them says it all. They obviously don’t understand how the British voting system works. They are mostly, so far as I can see, driven by one or two rich individuals who are doing it as some kind of vanity project. They are not serious. It is not helpful as instead of having a highly focused single united force a lot of energy is being dissipated. I think there is more coherence among the various campaigning groups, but, again, I would rather we all came together under one umbrella as we don’t need what I call the Narcissism of small differences. Still, there is a co-ordinating group I sit on with Anna Soubry, Chuka, Dominic Grieve and Chris Leslie, among others, and they are a good group and they are workmanlike so we have at least got to that stage.”

For a man of 74, Cable has extraordinary energy – he was back in London and in the Today studio for just after 7 this morning to he hectored by Humphrys over the “white faces” line in his speech – and he remains at heart optimistic that Brexit will soon be consigned to the ashcan of history. “The polling on that shows people are coming around to our way of thinking, slowly but surely. I think it is important people do believe it can be stopped because the biggest problem we have now is the slightly fatalistic view that nothing can be done. It can be done and it will be done, believe me, because Brexit is simply wrong.”

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I'm not going to be General Secretary, but the real fight to change Labour is only just beginning

If Labour gets serious about a new politics, imagine the possibilities.

For a second time, I was longlisted for the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party this week. For a second time, just as in 2011, I was eliminated in the first round. The final shortlist now consists of two veteran trade unionist women leaders, Jennie Formby of the Unite union and Christine Blower - formerly of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Party. I met them both yesterday at the interviews; I congratulate them, and look forward to hearing more about their ideas for Labour party renewal.

Last week in both the New Statesman and LabourList, I explained why I thought we needed a General Secretary “for the many”. I set out a manifesto of ideas to turn Labour into a twenty-first century campaigning movement, building on my experience with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Momentum, Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and other networked movements and platforms.

I called for a million-member recruitment drive, and the adoption of the new “big organising” techniques which combine digital and face-to-face campaigns, and have been pioneered by the Sanders movement, Momentum, Macron and the National Nurses Union in America. I set out the case for opening up the party machine in a radical but even-handed way, and shared ideas for building a deeper party democracy.

I noted innovations like the Taiwanese government’s use of online deliberation systems for surfacing differences, building consensus and finding practical policy solutions. Finally, I emphasised the importance of keeping Labour as a broad church, fostering more constructive internal discussions, and turning to face outward to the country. I gladly offer these renewing ideas to the next General Secretary of the party, and would be more than happy to team up with them.

Today I am launching, a new digital democracy platform for the Labour movement. It is inspired by experience from Taiwan, from Barcelona and beyond. The platform invites anyone to respond to others’ views and to add their own; then it starts to paint a visual picture of the different groupings within the movement and the relationships between them.

We have begun by asking a couple of simple questions: “What do we feel about the Labour party and movement? What’s good, and what’s more difficult?” Try it for yourself: the process is swift, fun and fascinating. Within a few days, we should have identified which viewpoints command the greatest support in the movement. We will report back regularly on this to the media.

The Labour movement is over 570,000 members, thousands of elected representatives, a dozen affiliated unions and millions of Labour voters. We may disagree on some things; but hopefully, we agree on far more. Labour Democracy is a new, independent and trustworthy platform for all of us to explore our differences more constructively, build common ground, and share ideas for the future. I believe Labour should be the political wing of the British people, as close to the 99 per cent as possible – and it will ultimately only be what we make of it together.

Yesterday I spoke over Skype with Audrey Tang, the hacker and Sunflower Movement leader who is now Digital Minister of Taiwan. Audrey is a transparent politician, so she has since posted a video of our conversation on YouTube. I recommend watching it if you are at all interested in the future of politics. It concludes with her reflections on my favourite Daoist principle, that true leadership leaves the people knowing that they have made change themselves.  

This General Secretary recruitment process has been troubled by significant irregularities, which I hope the party learns from. The story is considerably more complex and difficult than is generally understood. I have spent considerable time in the last week trying to shine greater light on the process in the media and social media, and encouraging the national executive committee, unions and politicians to run a more open and transparent process. I even started a petition to the NEC Officers group, calling for live-streamed debates among the candidates for this crucial and controversial party management role. I very much hope that there is no legal challenge.

Most importantly, the last week has exposed a significant fault line in Labour between the new left and the old left. When Jon Lansman of Momentum entered the contest against the “coronation candidate” Jennie Formby, many people read this as a fight between two factions of the old left. But Jon’s intent was always to open up a more genuine contest, and to encourage other candidates – particularly women – to come forward. Having played the role only he could play, he eventually withdrew with dignity. His public statements through this process have been reflective of the best of the new politics. And despite our very different political journeys, he kindly agreed to be one of my referees.

There has been plenty of the old transactional machine politics going on behind closed doors in the last couple of weeks. But out in the open, the new left movements and platforms have shown their strength and relevance. Momentum emailed all its members encouraging them to apply for the role. On Facebook Live, YouTube and podcasts like All The Best, the Novara Media network has been thoughtfully anatomising the contest and what it means for the future of the left. Even the controversial Skwawkbox blog finally agreed to cover my candidacy, and we had a constructive row about the leaked memo I wrote for Corbyn’s office back in December about how to win the next election using data, organising and every new tool in the box.

I am worried about the old left, because I feel it is stuck in a bunker, trapped in a paradigm of hierarchical power and control. The new left by contrast understands the power of networks to transform conversations and win hearts and minds.

The old left yanks at levers, and brokers influence through a politics of fear and incentives. But this tired game is of decreasing relevance in this day and age. The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it. 

I am keen to help. So are many others. I hope we can start to have a more constructive and equal conversation in Labour soon. Otherwise an exodus may begin before long; and no-one wants that.

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is a co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011.