For discontented Lib Dems, Tories offer the right home

Analysis shows that defectors find happiness with Conservatives, not Labour. Simon Baker reports

January 6, 2011

Liberal Democrats thinking of defecting to Labour in protest against the party's divisions over tuition fees would do well to heed the lessons of history, according to an academic.

Research by Alun Wyburn-Powell, a lecturer in the School of Historical Studies at the University of Leicester, found that the Liberal and Liberal Democrat politicians of the past 100 years were more likely to settle if they joined the Conservative Party than if they moved to the Labour Party. Of the 47 MPs or former MPs who defected to Labour, 24 later regretted their move and many subsequently left, whereas the 34 who switched to the Conservatives all stayed and remained happy within their new party, the analysis suggests.

Dr Wyburn-Powell, who investigated the plight of defecting MPs for his PhD thesis - a subject he chose long before the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was born - said social and cultural similarities between Tories and Liberals was a major underlying factor.

Liberal politicians had often come from legal or business backgrounds, he said, and were less likely to be familiar with the stricter culture and procedures of organisations associated with the Labour movement, such as trade unions.

"Culturally a lot of Lib Dem MPs have quite a good affinity with Conservatives, and that was certainly borne out by Nick Clegg and David Cameron getting on well together," said Dr Wyburn-Powell, who has written a biography of post-war Liberal leader Clement Davies. "If you are going to swap parties, it is probably a lot easier to settle into a party where you are comfortable and socially accepted even if the policies are not entirely to your liking."

The findings may come as a surprise given the increasingly fiery relationship between some in the coalition, which in recent weeks has been exposed by a sting operation in which undercover reporters recorded Lib Dem MPs strongly criticising their Tory colleagues. Among them was Vince Cable, the business secretary, who told Daily Telegraph reporters posing as constituents that being in the coalition was like "fighting a war".

Dr Wyburn-Powell said that MPs defecting for reasons of policy almost always ended up disappointed because they were unlikely, as individuals, to be able to influence their new party's direction, but those changing sides for career reasons did usually get rewarded.

Liberal Democrat MPs might want to bear in mind such historical precedents in light of the overtures made by Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, to the 21 Lib Dem rebels who voted against the coalition government's plan to raise the tuition fee cap to £9,000.

Dr Wyburn-Powell, whose thesis was coincidentally approved the day the coalition was formed, added that although the Lib Dems had not handled the tuition fees split "entirely well", they had managed their differences in a transparent way that would not lead to bitterness in the long term.

However, this was mainly because a split on the fees issue was forecast from the beginning of the coalition, he said, predicting that the true test of party unity would be how unforeseen disagreements were handled.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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