Westminster sources are claiming that the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, has been discussing defecting to the Labour Party, along with four or five Liberal Democrat colleagues. The reports have been confirmed by three separate sources, including one close to Ed Miliband’s Labour leadership campaign. Kennedy, along with the others are believed to be planning some announcement towards the end of the month – which would also coincide with ballot papers for the Labour leadership elections being sent out to party members. It is unclear whether there have been formal or informal contacts between the Kennedy and Miliband camps.
It has been widely known for some times that Charles Kennedy is unhappy at the coalition deal struck with David Cameron by his successor, Nick Clegg. These reservations are shared widely in the Liberal Democrat Party, and have given rise to separate reports that Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who is a former member of the Labour Party, was deeply unhappy at the time of the deal being struck and made last ditch appeals to outgoing Prime Minister Gordon Brown in an attempt to strike a Coalition deal with Labour. But reports that Kennedy, under whose leadership the Liberal Democrats enjoyed record levels of support, is countenancing defection will fuel speculation that he – and perhaps others – could be offered positions on the Opposition front bench – and a return from relative obscurity to front-line British politics.
Kennedy is known to be privately supportive of Ed Miliband, who he sees as a progressive alternative to his older brother David, who is widely perceived as the Blairite choice to succeed as Labour’s next leader. Any public support for Ed Miliband by Charles Kennedy and other leading Liberal Democrats could well tip the balance in Ed Miliband’s favour in Labour’s tightly fought leadership election race – a leadership race between two brothers.
Liberal Democrat insiders point to the fact that Kennedy and his supporters emerged from the SDP, the old Social Democratic breakaway party, but that in seeking to “break the mould” of British politics and merging with the Liberal to become the Liberal Democrats in the 1980s, never in their wildest dreams expected to end up supporting a minority Conservative Government intent on the most swingeing cuts in public spending since the Second World War. They are appalled by what they see as the surrender of many key Liberal Democrat cornerstone policies, such as the commitment not to renew the Trident Nuclear submarine. They also say that some Liberal Democrat MPs, especially in Northern English and Scottish seats where Labour is in second place, now fear being wiped out at the next General Election. These fears have been compounded by the recent announcement from the Liberal Democrat’s Deputy Leader, Simon Hughes that there will be no General Election pact between the Conservatives and his party. Tellingly Simon Hughes has also talked of a possible future Lib Lab Coalition, with Ed Miliband responding positively, although pointedly saying that any future coalition deal could only be struck with a new Liberal Democrat leader in place, in other words, not Nick Clegg.
Charles Kennedy’s own Scottish seat of Caithness and Sutherland has historically been a Labour seat, before it’s then MP, Robert Maclennan, defected to the SDP in the 1980s, and was the party’s last leader. Lord Maclennan, Lord Newby – a former founding member of the SDP and Chief of Staff under Charles Kennedy – and former MP and long time anti nuclear weapons campaigner, Lord Archy Kirkwood – are also being mentioned as possible supporters of the Kennedy initiative.