Among all the pre-election coverage of policy launches and manifestos, we’ve now had the first pre-election human drama – a defection. Time will tell whether we’ll see more of these in the febrile atmosphere of the run up to May 7. But as the world of football has its transfer season, we may well be into the equivalent in the world of UK politics.
The January defection, of UKIP MEP Amjad Bashir to the Conservatives, had its element of slapstick. Did he jump or was he pushed? (UKIP would claim the latter). Was he in fact a serial rosette changer? (Respect claim him as a former member ). Are the Tories keeping him under metaphorical lock and key to avoid unfortunate remarks? (Blogger Guido Fawkes, in his usual inimitable style, thinks so)
Defections are not really about one-in one-out. Parties see these moves as primarily about publicity. And the publicity can be immense if handled properly . The trick is to surprise as many people as possible while manoeuvring for the best news coverage. Former Conservative MP Emma Nicholson’s defection from the Tories to the Lib Dems is a textbook case. The then Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown and colleagues had the announcement planned with military precision (as you would expect from a former Royal Marine). Every detail, from hand- delivered letters to Conservative office-holders in Nicholson’s Devon constituency to the exclusive BBC TV interview, was timed to the minute. Both Nicholson, in Secret Society, and Ashdown, in Diaries Volume 1, give inside information about the events of that December in 1995. The announcement on the 29th caught the usually quiet news period between Christmas and New Year thus guaranteeing even more prominent coverage. (And political geeks will also spot the significance of that date – William Ewart Gladstone’s birthday).
Defections during actual election campaigns do happen. 1994 saw a Parliamentary by election in Newham in East London. Candidate Alec Kellaway defected from the Lib Dems (for whom he was the official candidate) to Labour just before polling day. He had reportedly wanted to defect dramatically from the stage at the count but was persuaded to bring the announcement forward. Voters had the odd experience of seeing Mr Kellaway’s name on the ballot paper as a Lib Dem (as by then nominations were well and truly closed and the papers printed) while hearing that he was in fact now a Labour member. And in 1983, National Chair of Young Social Democrats, Keith Toussaint, moved from the SDP to the Conservatives during the campaign.
Lower level political defections are surprisingly common. At local councillor level most weeks see a story about someone “disgruntled” or “principled” changing allegiance.
But national level, and therefore politically significant, moves are both a lot less common and a lot more newsworthy. Will we see more between now and polling day? You know I think we might.