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Dan Poulter defects from Tories to Labour: Inside the art of switching teams

May 2, 2024

In a new article for The Conversation, Edge Hill Senior Lecturer in Politics Paula Keaveney takes a looks at politicians who choose to swap sides.

When Conservative MP and former minister Dan Poulter announced his defection to the Labour party it came as somewhat of a surprise. It was only the second transfer from government side to main opposition party this parliament, with Bury’s Christian Wakeford having made the move in 2022. There appeared to have been no build up. There had been little speculation about him.

Poulter has said he is not standing in the next general election. And since the government still has a majority in parliament without him until that election, the move is more about signalling and messaging than about numbers.

Parties receiving defectors like to get the timing right. In this case, apart from the coming local elections, there was no real political peg.

Defections can be planned for periods of maximum impact and harm. In two recent and memorable examples, the defectees timed their announcements either during their new party’s annual conference or on the eve of of the deserted party’s annual event.

Both former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown and former Labour spokesman Alastair Campbell’s diaries provide an insight into the delicate mating dance involved in the defection process. Some politicians get to the riverbank and can’t quite step across.

And for those who do jump, it’s clear that plenty of after-care is needed. It is no use getting a defector who is then effectively rejected by their new host party. It is difficult for members of a party, who have spent most waking moments attacking the other, to suddenly take one of the other side in.

And there can still be significant policy and ideological differences. When Shaun Woodward defected to Labour during Tony Blair’s time, the Labour left was less than welcoming, with then MP Chris Mullin describing it as one of New Labour’s “vilest stitch ups”.

Defections between parties are relatively rare in the UK’s national and devolved parliaments. They are a slightly more common occurrence in local government, although recently the tendency has been to resign from one party to set up an independent group  rather than join another.

Of course, there are more local councillors in the UK than there are MPs, so there are more individuals who could have a change of heart. And the stakes are lower for councillors than MPs.

What, no vote?

In New Zealand the act of moving from one party to another while in parliament, is called waka jumping, but there is a law that acts as a disincentive to any politician thinking of taking the leap. This mandates that a defection must always lead to a byelection. Conservative backbencher Anthony Mangall tried to get a similar law brought into force in the the UK, but ultimately failed.

While Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless both chose to resign and fight byelections after moving from the Conservatives to Ukip in 2014, most MPs don’t take this step. Host parties may baulk at the cost and risk of a sudden contest. Defectors may quail at the thought of the revenge campaign by their old party.

When the SDP was founded in 1981, by a group of breakaway MPs, only one, the 1982 entrant Bruce Douglas Mann, triggered a byelection (which he then lost). When the Independent Group, later Change UK, was formed by breakaways from Labour and the Conservatives, there was no effort to hold any polls.

Of course without a byelection, constituents have no say. You could start the day represented by someone from the blue corner and end up with a red representative, or vice versa.

The implications for Poulter’s constituents are not that dramatic. He had already said he wasn’t standing again even before leaving for Labour, so they were always going to get a new MP.

The implications for Labour are more significant. Recruiting Poulter sends a strong signal that it is “safe” for moderate Conservatives to support the party at the next election. Poulter has also helped by speaking in scathing terms about his former party and specifically citing its record on the NHS as his reason for leaving. Labour can use the defection of Poulter (who is also a doctor) to bolster its own position on health.

That said, the defection is one drop in a torrent of messaging – and was quickly overshadowed by the turmoil in Scottish politics as the first minister resigned. Voters are not that likely to notice.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

May 2, 2024


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