By Julian Lewis
Standpoint Magazine, Issue 83 – June 2016
One need not personally subscribe to the Labour Party to realise the importance of it reflecting the views and values of its moderate electors, rather than those of its radical activists. Late last year, with an eye to history repeating itself – though far from farcically – Manchester University Press republished Crossing the Floor (£18.99), Geoff Horn’s objective and meticulous political biography of Reg Prentice. Its availability as an affordable paperback is good news for all who care about the political health of the official opposition.
Prentice reached Labour Cabinet rank as Education Secretary in the 1970s, only to finish up in the House of Lords as a Conservative peer in 1992, having been knighted by Margaret Thatcher on leaving the Commons in 1987. Dr Horn’s lucid account of his career, and of the circumstances which led him to become
“the most high-profile politician to cross the floor of the House of Commons in the post-war period”,
is a timely reminder of what happened to Labour the last time it chose a leader from the radical Left and flirted with political extremism.
Admittedly, the parallels are not quite exact, despite striking similarities between Jeremy Corbyn’s backers and those of Michael Foot. Most trade unions now have moderate leaders elected by tamper-proof, secret postal ballots. The 1970s lacked such safeguards. Indeed, the influence of the Communist Party upon organised Labour was a serious threat to the moderate Callaghan government, whilst entryist groups like Militant Tendency – in reality, the covert Revolutionary Socialist League – played a supporting role destabilising and deselecting individual Labour MPs deemed too right-wing by the Trotskyites.
Today’s Labour leader is far to the Left of most of his parliamentary colleagues. Their support for him is minimal. He owes his position instead to the extraordinary decision to let anyone vote in the 2015 leadership election in return for a nominal £3 subscription as an “associate” party member. In November 1980, when Foot narrowly won the leadership, it was fully three years after Prentice had crossed over to the Conservatives. In fact, Prentice made his move at the very time when the Left had been ousted from control of the Newham North East constituency Labour Party (CLP), which had deselected him as its prospective candidate, despite his Cabinet status, by 29 votes to 19 in July 1975. Today, the threat to moderate Labour MPs comes from a revived deselection campaign by readmitted leftists – some of them anti-Semitic – who were encouraged to join, for a pittance, to choose Ed Miliband’s successor.
At this point, I should declare a personal interest, as one of two graduate research students who intervened in the Newham North East saga for more than a year from the autumn of 1976. Our first step was to recapture a ward branch from the Left, only to see that victory overturned by party officials who had done nothing to enforce CLP rules flouted by the Left when seizing control in the first place.
Our role in the Prentice story is accurately summarised by Horn, except in one minor detail: the Labour Party never managed to expel us for our efforts to save it from itself. The mixture of intensive local mobilisation and court enforcement action which we undertook saw the moderates back in charge of the local party from July 1977 until late October that year, when the Left-dominated National Executive Committee of the Labour Party voted to suspend the Newham North East CLP. By that time Reg Prentice had already been a Conservative MP for a fortnight.
As Horn’s narrative makes clear, Prentice’s failure to prevent his own deselection initially convinced him to stand as an Independent – either at the next general election or at a by-election which he himself would trigger. He no longer wanted to represent the Labour Party, given the seemingly unstoppable advance of the Left. We shall never know for certain, but it seems probable that our temporary success in winning back control of the CLP inadvertently saved his career. If Prentice had fought a by-election in Newham North East (a rock-solid safe Labour seat), his defeat would have been beyond doubt – just as it would have been had he stayed on in the Commons as an Independent MP until the 1979 general election. Yet, with moderates apparently in charge in Newham, an independent stance became incredible: his only way out was a total switch to the Conservatives. To that he owed his parliamentary survival.
More importantly, crossing the floor ensured that when the Callaghan minority government faced a motion of no confidence in March 1979, it was Reg Prentice whose single vote secured its downfall. As Horn relates:
“The one vote that the government had needed to survive should have been supplied by the MP for Newham North East, representing a Labour stronghold ... But Prentice’s vote was decisively cast in favour of bringing to an end what proved to be the last Labour government for a generation.”
Prentice’s defection and the subsequent breakaway of the Social Democrats heralded the ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher. Labour remained out of office for 18 years.
It is not good for democracy when just one major party has electoral credibility. The country needs sensible parties of both Right and Left to act as government and opposition, with the latter fit to take over when the voters tire of the former. Conservatives should not gloat when they see the Labour Party in radical left-wing hands. Nor should the country be complacent, however sincere and personally decent a Lansbury, Foot or Corbyn may be. Horn’s salutary reconstruction of the ordeal of Labour moderates like Reg Prentice 40 years ago, and the electoral oblivion which followed, should be a wake-up call to their present-day successors. They can get their act together or face a generation in the wilderness.