'LOST BATTLE OF RESELECTION'
Daily Telegraph – 3 October 1980
If there is one thing worse than political subversion, it is political subversion masked by a veneer of respectability.
No doubt many newspapermen would have revelled in Mr Benn's personal discomfiture and many social democrats would have slept the more soundly if the Labour Right's ill-fated attempt to preserve the present system of electing the party leader had not misfired so characteristically.
Such celebrations would have been quite unwarranted and dangerously misleading. The real battle had already been conceded to the Left before the conference began. I refer to the only proposed constitutional change of decisive long-term importance – compulsory reselection of sitting MPs between elections.
Mr Leon Marks's letter (October 1) brilliantly evoked the cowardice and opportunism of Labour's putative moderate leadership prior to the 1979 election. These "good men" did absolutely nothing – in Shirley Williams's borrowed phrase – to prevent "the triumph of evil".
Indeed, when a moderate counter-coup was staged in the notorious Newham North-East constituency party, they chose to range themselves alongside the battered militants in order to prevent something deemed far more dreadful – the triumph of the Tories, rendered more likely by embarrassing pitched battles in public against the hitherto dominant Left.
The same applied to various MPs, already fearful of being systematically picked off by Left-wing entryists, when that still required the cumbersome and generally messy introduction of special deselection procedures. How much greater will such gutlessness become, now they are to face political liquidation by simple surgical means? Not, of course, that belated defiance will save those who realise that appeasers do not usually last long in competition with genuine children of the revolution.
It used to be an axiom of Labour party lore that the moderation of the Parliamentarians fairly reflected the views of ordinary Labour supporters, irrespective of deviations by the extra-Parliamentary machine.
This was made possible by two breaks in the chain of political responsibility: one between the party's mass popular base and the activist cadres on which the conference and National Executive Committee are ultimately based; the other between this unrepresentative clique-ridden organisation and the MPs themselves.
Automatic reselection has now virtually closed the second of these gaps. Until its reopening, or the closing of the first one by legislative provision for mass participation in candidate selection, the worst possible outcome would have been a hollow moderate victory on the leadership and manifesto questions.
For, as the complexion of the Parliamentary Labour Party changed, as it was in any case now bound to do, these prizes too would have eventually fallen into the hands of the militant Left. And, if the views of Labour voters are in future to be unrepresented, it is clearly for the best that no-one should remain in any doubt of the fact.
St Antony's College
[NOTE: This letter was published after Julian's 1976-1978 campaign against Militant Tendency infiltration of the Labour Party, and shortly before Shirley Williams and three other leading Labour moderates abandoned Labour to the Left and formed the short-lived Social Democratic Party. The flavour of those times can be gauged from Julian's 1983 General Election Address.]