Paris Gourtsoyannis: Tribalism trumps Lib Dem dreams

Nick Clegg admitted the British party system isn't going to realign itself in the six months until Brexit day. Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Nick Clegg admitted the British party system isn't going to realign itself in the six months until Brexit day. Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
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Labour MPs are the key to a new centrist force in politics, but it may never happen, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.

There aren’t going to be many Labour MPs at this weekend’s Labour Party Conference. Most of them will be staying at home.

True, the abuse they get from their own party members and supporters, with the typical bravery of the bully, is usually from a distance and anonymous: cards and letters sent to their offices, or threats on social media.

Die-hards on the left might band together to shout at people going into a meeting of the party executive on anti-semitism, or force a constituency motion of no confidence, but they still probably wouldn’t have the courage to buttonhole an MP one-on-one.

All the same, for a political party conference, many politicians will be staying away from Liverpool.

They would have been welcomed at the gathering that wraps up today in Brighton. Liberal Democrats are wondering what’s keeping them.

The Lib Dems are pursuing an odd strategy: they are the one-time third force in the centre-ground of British politics, now arguing for the creation of a new party to become the third force in the centre ground of British politics. Vince Cable even offered to change the name.

It’s no surprise that the party is having a crisis of confidence, even when they are the only group with an unclouded narrative and a single, unifying objective. You can’t ask the voters to take you seriously if you don’t take yourself seriously.

In Brighton, a senior Scottish Lib Dem hinted at their unhappiness that the party is calling so openly for its own replacement - but that same Lib Dem went on to say the party would steer clear of being king-makers after the 2021 Holyrood election. The politics of low stakes aren’t particularly inspiring.

Nonetheless, the party has dropped heavy hints in the past week that they are talking to rival MPs about possible defections. It is the quickest shortcut, they believe, to the new centrist political force that we hear so much about.

Yesterday, Nick Clegg admitted the British party system isn’t going to realign itself in the six months until Brexit day. French politics were in the doldrums for well over a decade before Emmanuel Macron burst onto the scene, igniting the dreams of so many moderates. The only hope of jump-starting that process is if MPs from other parties leap first.

They could be waiting some time. One senior Lib Dem told me this weekend that despite all the reasons Jeremy Corbyn has given marginalised MPs to quit the party, something else is still needed to push them over the edge.

Europe and Brexit aren’t enough; Corbyn’s eurosceptic credentials were already well-established when he won the Labour leadership, and his lacklustre campaigning in the EU referendum merely highlighted what are core beliefs. Labour europhiles complained, but they stayed in the party despite what they see as a cataclysm.

Foreign policy isn’t enough, either; by now Corbyn’s stances are well known, as he’s had plenty of occasions to remind people of them. Consider the gulf between his Labour party and the one that was in government in the context of the Middle East, where members of his front bench have backed away from supporting protesters in Iran or rebels in Syria.

On Russia, too, Corbyn actively positioned himself as a sceptic of government intelligence following the Salisbury attack. If his views are so dangerous, why are Labour MPs content to share a party with him? The anti-semitism row came as close as we’ve seen to breaking MPs’ resolve. This was an issue that stabbed at the heart of what they felt it mean to be in the Labour Party.

Yet even in its supposed resolution, when Corbyn and his supporters accepted an international definition of anti-semitism as part of the Labour code of conduct, it was clear the leader was on the other side of the argument.

Yet the only resignation was Frank field - and he’s not going to be joining the Lib Dems.

Tribalism is a more powerful force in politics than many realise. It isn’t always about principles; sometimes it’s about who your friends and neighbours are.

Lib Dems may dream, but unhappy Labour MPs have been given plenty of reasons to leave their party. Why would they do it now?