New Forest East



By Laurence Marks

Observer – 10 July 1977

When the embattled Newham North-East Constituency Labour Party holds its reconvened annual meeting on Wednesday, it is expected to discover that Mr Reg Prentice's supporters are again in a majority on the management committee. Some of them may try to reverse the local party's decision not to readopt him at the next general election. Whether this will encourage Mr Prentice to abandon his plan to stand as a Democratic Labour candidate is less likely.

The latest development in the Newham affair springs from the arrival on the scene of two postgraduate students from Oxford, Mr Julian Lewis and Mr Paul McCormick, determined to stiffen opposition to the local party. In February, they obtained a High Court injunction which stopped the annual meeting of the party.

At the court hearing which followed, the judge gave a ruling that has had a radical effect on the composition of the management committee. It was that, contrary to establishment [sic] practice, any trade union branch could affiliate to a local constituency party on the basis of its entire membership, regardless of how many of the branch's members lived within the boundaries of the constituency.

While the left-wing were distracted by the campaign for the GLC election in May (at which the sitting GLC councillor Tom Jenkinson was dropped and his left-wing successor, John Wilson, returned with a bigger share of the vote), Mr Lewis was busy campaigning among local branches of the Transport and Construction Workers' Unions. As a result, many have affiliated with larger numbers, and have elected their new entitlement of delegates to the management committee. These newcomers are believed to have shifted the balance.

Until February, there were 94 delegates on the committee. In battles over Mr Prentice's candidature the Left (composed of the Trotskyist Militant faction, Tribunites and some unattached party members who were opposed to Mr Prentice) usually had a majority of 10. Now there are about 124 delegates. Most of the new ones have joined the committee as a result of Mr Lewis's recruiting drive.

Mr Prentice himself, who has not been invited to Wednesday's meeting, is watching the fresh development with caution.

There are three reasons for this:–

First, the effect of the judge's ruling will be reversed at the Labour Party's annual conference in October, so the balance of advantage to the pro-Prentice faction could be short-lived.

Secondly, Mr Prentice is not entirely happy with his unsought-for new allies, whose recourse to law in a political conflict he has publicly criticised. They have reservations about his willingness to listen to advice.

Mr Lewis has been described as "able", "single-minded", "egocentric" and "fanatical". He has his own strong views about the future of the constituency party. Mr Prentice is not anxious to exchange what he sees as the dictatorship of a left-wing caucus for the dictatorship of a right-wing maverick.

Thirdly, and most importantly, he is now firmly committed to fighting the seat with support drawn from all three major parties, and feels quite confident, he says, that he will be able to hold it.

His attitude to Mr Lewis's coup is that, if offered readoption, he would accept – but without making any concessions. He would do so only on his own terms, and would certainly refuse to resubmit himself to a selection conference. Ironically, even if the balance remained tilted against the Left, Newham N-E could end up with another 'moderate' candidate to replace Mr Prentice.

[For later developments, click here.]