Defection – the ultimate political betrayal?

The Tories should be careful - Amjad Bashir has only made his career last so long by repeatedly moving on


Within political parties there is generally a deep mistrust of those people whose party loyalty is so weakened or absent that they feel able to defect to another party.

The act of joining a political party is a much greater commitment than being a habitual voter for any particular party. The contract of membership is financial rather than in blood. However, those active within a party will often talk about membership in terms of family, or tribes. A much greater connection is understood through party membership than in many other contexts, apart perhaps from the passionate loyalty of a fan to a football club.

Despite the general view within political parties that defecting is the ultimate betrayal, those leading parties tend to view the press coverage that accompanies a defection as worth the risk.

For the Conservative Party, gaining an MEP from UKIP must have seemed heaven sent, particularly as it came as Baroness Warsi was attacking them for fuelling mistrust in Muslims. Here was the proof that they were looking for to counter her inconvenient attack. Here was Amjad Bashir, a Muslim MEP and businessman, so clear that they were the party that represented him that he wanted to join them. Even better than that, he wanted to join them from UKIP: a PR success on two fronts it seemed.

For a party whose leadership is dominated by PR men, the Tories might on reflection be regretting the joy of gaining this particular scalp from UKIP. The back story of Amjad Bashir has unravelled slightly and the Telegraph has declared that it is ‘not the boon it appeared to be’.

Bashir has been revealed to have previous membership of both Respect and Labour. While the truth of allegations around his finances alluded to by Nigel Farage in his tweet on Saturday announcing his suspension from UKIP has yet to be established, the Tories may have been wise to take note of what appeared at first simply to be a pre-emptive strike in advance of his defection.

For UKIP, suffering as they currently are from a constant stream of stories about what they stand for (not the NHS as it happens), and what some of their councillors and candidates say, the defections of MPs Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell lend the party respectability and a voice in parliament.

The by-elections won lent added legitimacy.  But despite rumours (started by UKIP) that Labour politicians would follow, defections to and from UKIP have remained between them and the Tories. This does not appear to have particularly dented the party’s ability to woo some voters from the left as well as from the right. Electorally UKIP gains more from a general discontent and anti-politics mood than it does from talking about policies other than Europe and immigration.

Farage is now being relatively low key in terms of what he is suggesting the party will gain in May (he suggested 4 – 6 would be a good result). If in the event one of the seats gained does not include South Thanet, or if UKIP don’t do as well as pundits and members think they should, it is the defectors who may prove Farage’s undoing.

A weakened leader would need to beware of the MPs he welcomed in to the UKIP fold as they might reasonably – as stars of the show – be expected to have designs on the leadership. In a major party like the Tories, defectors are normally absorbed or marginalised, becoming bit players after the glitz of the grand entrance has faded.

With the exception of Churchill, who made a habit of switching parties, defectors to larger parties don’t normally rise through the ranks to particularly high levels.

Traditionally, in a political system with two main parties, defections have been comparatively rare at parliamentary level because of peer pressure which sometimes sees malcontents become rebels or stand down. The only mass exodus from one party to another came with the 1981 split within the Labour Party in which 28 Labour MPs left to join the Social Democrats.

It is remarkable, in a way, that the Social Democrat’s successor party the Lib Dems – many of whose MPs are claiming to be deeply uncomfortable with the government they have been propping up – hasn’t seen more defections at a national level since 2010. However, those who are hoping to buck the trend of Liberal Democrat meltdown are relying on highly personal and highly localised campaigns. Others seeing the writing on the wall are standing down.

The distrust of those politicians who change parties is partly based on the belief that they have put their personal ambition above party loyalty. Political careers don’t generally benefit from the mistrust and distaste that comes with jumping ship, both within the party someone leaves and the one someone joins.

This is something that Amjad Bashir is probably used to with his track record. In his case though, his political career has lasted as long as it has by his repeatedly moving on. However, for Bashir – and most likely for whoever recommended the Tories jump at the chance of signing him up – this is a game of musical chairs he may be about to lose.

Fiona Twycross AM is a Labour Londonwide assembly member. Follow her on Twitter

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