What do defections mean?

by Stephen Tall on July 5, 2006

Honestly, I go away for a week, and what happens? I return to find that a second Lib Dem councillor in Oxford has decided to defect from our group, this one choosing to ‘cross the floor’ to Labour. (The other is currently ploughing his furrow as an Independent.)

Now, according to the Oxford Mail – which I’ve just caught up with – this has plunged the city Lib Dems into “chaos”, journalistic hyperbole which I suppose we can indulge in the circumstances. So what’s really going on?

The truth, I’m afraid, is surprisingly dull.

The Lib Dem group is not in the throes of despair. In May, the Lib Dems won the highest level of support of any political party across the city. We became for the first time the largest political group on Oxford City Council (though for how much longer depends on an impending by-election).

In fact, the group is pretty much united on all the big issues currently facing the city, with no-one voicing any dissent from the policies agreed when our manifesto was being drawn up, and mapped out at recent Executive Board and Full Council meetings.

This second defection is frustrating and a shame, that’s all: no more, no less. Defections happen in all groups at different times; they rarely portend anything politically significant. I’ve no complaints that the Labour group in Oxford is happily spinning this as a major setback for us – I guess we would too in the same situation. Such is politics.

The Lib Dems are in minority control of Oxford City Council: we have 17 councillors and Labour have 17 councillors, with 13 shared between others (no Tories, of course: this is Oxford). We cannot win a vote in Full Council without the support of at least one other group – a position we knew when we took on the mantle of running the city – and that remains the case. It’s not an easy position, but as the Lib Dems are committed to a ‘fair votes’ electoral system, we can hardly complain at not having a majority when that’s not what residents voted for.

I’m not going to make any personal comments about those who defected – sorry to disappoint, but that’s not what I do. But I will make two observations which apply generally:

1. Defections are almost never for the reasons stated.

On the ‘Yes, Minister’ principle (“never believe anything until it is officially denied”), never believe a press release announcing a defection. Whoever is welcoming the defector back into the fold will claim it is because of reason X, Y or Z – in the hope that this will get reason X, Y or Z into the newspapers. (And, because a defection is news, it usually does.)

They may also claim that “the party has left me, I’ve not left the party” – this is almost without exception untrue, however much the defector may choose to believe it.

2. Politicians nearly always over-estimate their own importance.

You need to have a bit of an ego to choose to run for election, at whatever level: your name gets emblazoned on leaflets and on posters, people start to know who you are, sometimes they recognise you, they place their trust in you by marking an ‘X’ against your name on the ballot paper – their one true expression of representative democracy. It’s tempting to start to believe their vote was for you as a person, especially if someone sidles up, and confides, “I’ve never voted Lib Dem / Labour / Tory before, but I just voted for you.”

Most of us who’ve stood for election have a bit of a personal vote, especially after a few years if we’re diligent with our case-work. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think it would be enough to get us elected, that we’re somehow bigger than the party we stood for.

I know I’d be no-where without the members whose subscriptions help pay for my leaflets, the supporters who help deliver them, the activists who canvass on my behalf, and the voters who haven’t a clue who I am but think the Lib Dems are a party which sticks up for them.