Adam Harrison: Why have MPs stopped defecting?
With the Conservative modernisation project having failed, Labour whips should be circling Tory MPs such as Dan Poulter.
Isn’t it about time for a good old-fashioned parliamentary defection? It is getting on for a decade since we had the last straight Tory-Labour switch – the most delicious defection of all – when Quentin Davies walked the two swords’ length to sit as a minister under Gordon Brown.
After Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last autumn Tory whips stalked the corridors of Westminster for Labour MPs they thought might be susceptible to persuasion. Those whips might have thought it was ‘their turn’ – since Reg Prentice’s defection in 1977, no Labour MPs have crossed the floor, while four Tories have travelled the other way.
Why might a Labour MP defect now? Let us count the ways. The presence of a leader who few Labour MPs had even met prior to last summer, let alone nominated, is one. The impending boundary review, the deliberate disappearance of Labour voters from the electoral roll, the hopelessness of Scotland – all of which currently could lead to up to 10 years more in opposition.
But shadow minister Toby Perkins’ online outburst in September – ‘You Tories never understand how much we hate you’ – was perhaps a tiny hint that Labour MPs are party people above all. The sheer extraordinariness of the present situation and unknowability of even the near-future are also inducements to stay.
Even so, the paradox is that when one party starts motoring off towards the outer edge of British politics, an attractive alternative party dominating the political scene should be ready to turn heads. Both Labour’s lurch to the left and the Tories’ failed modernisation project leave the parties far from each other, but equally distant from the centre-ground that would guarantee them success.
Less noticed than it should have been this month was former Tory minister Dan Poulter’s intervention in the Guardian. It bears a bit of ‘what might have been’ contemplation. In describing his reasons for getting involved with the Conservatives in 2006 his tone sounds sincere, and his desire to build a better society one not far from what drives Labour members.
Were their party readier to take power, it should be Labour whips circling the member for North Ipswich. The 2015 intake of Tory MPs is also thought to be closer to Poulter on social issues and keen to soften the image of the Conservatives after eight years of austerity. Pickings should be richer for a modern, centre-left party facing a government split on Europe and already faltering in office.
The Tories’ failure to reassure on the social as well as the economic dimension of British politics means they remain vulnerable. At last year’s general election voters were sufficiently content to vote for competence first, and compassion only a distant second. The Conservatives have escaped punishment for this from Labour because the party has carefully nurtured its own equal and opposite weakness. From the bedroom tax to the trade union bill to junior doctors to ‘pay to stay’, the Tories’ failure to be generous in the right places as well as efficient at the right time has meant there is nothing attractive in a potential switch for an opposition MP.
No Tory would even think of heading into the Labour den right now. And, despite everything, no Labour member will be taken with the prospect of life under Cameron, as Poulter once was. His words reflect the ongoing desire in British politics to marry competence with compassion. Whoever next successfully does that will reap the rewards, and not just in terms of parliamentary swapsies.
Adam Harrison is a writer and Labour councillor. He tweets at @adamdkharrison.