It’s no real surprise that Roger Helmer MEP has defected to UKIP, the man becoming known as a right-wing fringe Conservative thanks to his views on, well, take your pick. I’d previously held a certain amount of sneaking respect for Helmer – not for his views, but for his unwillingness to compromise, and honour in fighting for what (he believed that) his party stood for. So much for that, as Chris Heaton-Harris MP noted.
Roger Helmer MEP has just confirmed to me he is defecting to UKIP tomorrow. I honestly thought he was an honourable man; alas I was mistaken—
Chris Heaton-Harris (@chhcalling) March 02, 2012
Interestingly, in Roger Helmer’s 2011 book Sceptic At Large (a copy of which I own but did not pay for!) he lays into Bill Newton-Dunn for defecting to the Lib Dems, calling him Bill Turncoat Dunn (page 61). Whether his colleagues will return the favour to Helmer will be interesting to see – many Conservatives simply seem glad to be rid of the embarrassment…
There’s a wider point to be examined, though, as to what we want from our political parties and what our parties may reasonably expect from us in return. Truthfully, political parties in Britain are not parties so much as clubs, associations for a group of people with similar views. Being a member of a party these days means more in cultural terms than logical ones, many people ‘being’ Labour or Tory because that’s the way they were brought up. It’s something that Liberal Democrats have had to fight for years, blue and red teams seeing us as merely another shade of their opponents. Yet Lib Dems are far from just the middle selection in the British political venn diagram – we have a culture of our own, based around local politics, leaflet-delivering and putting up with attacks from the others! Defections hurt as much personally as politically; you’re not just turning your back on your party and its principles, but also on the culture and friendships that go with it. And whilst people will understand the former (“I didn’t leave the party, the party left me”, etc) they won’t understand or forgive the latter.
As RebelRevell points out, people who stay and fight for what they believe in are far more deserving of respect than those who jump ship. But there’s certainly a feeling of annoyance when sensible people defect – I’m not the only one who’s expressed a wish in the past that the Luke Boziers and Tara Hewitts of this world would join the Lib Dems rather than the Tories. Their claims that Labour are no longer a party of aspiration, that the Tories are the true radicals engaged in small-p progressive politics are hard to hear for us Lib Dems, who see ourselves as forward-looking radicals who believe in both aspiration and fairness – have the Tories really stolen that ground from us? Even if they haven’t and the problem is one of perception, this is a perception that we should be fighting to change. That the most radical figure in the coalition is seen to be Steve Hilton should be cause for concern across our party, from left-wing radicals to radical centrists. We’ve gone from being a radical alternative to being the conservative partner, stuck watering down the ideas of others instead of getting our own radical ideas implemented. Why are we content to be the brake on the Conservatives when it’s them that should be a brake on us?
Sadly, there seems to be a lack of fresh policy ideas in the Lib Dems currently, as Mark Pack notes. Hopefully this malaise will be cured once groups like Liberal Reform get off the ground properly and start to add to the debate. It’s fair to point out, though, that few people join political parties because of the wonderful work they do in watering down other parties’ ideas – if you agree with radicalism, you want to see it implemented in full, if you disagree, you want it rejected in full. Little room is left for the tinkerers and the amenders, and there’s little respect for them from either side. I can’t see many Lib Dems, from Liberal Left to Liberal Vision, disagreeing with the idea that we should be bolder than we are being in government. It’s time we fought for our own party to be radical, time we started attracting a few defectors of our own, and time we started seizing the rewards of coalition – not just with policy passed, but as a serious party capable of doing serious things, one that believes in fairness and aspiration, and one that it’s worth joining.