Why I stayed with Labour

I fought to save the party after the foundation of the SDP-Liberal Alliance.

Eric Heffer - a belligerent left-winger - broke the news. On the way in to a shadow cabinet meeting, he complained that the Guardian was about to report that I was considering leaving the Labour Party. Protestations that I had no idea what he was talking about were brushed aside. After the meeting, David Owen explained Heffer's error. Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers had written an article about the need for Labour to end its antagonism to the European Community. It ended with what amounted to a threat. If they had to make a choice between Europe and Labour, the authors would choose Europe. "We knew," he said correctly, "that you agreed about Europe but wouldn't go along with the warning."

That was the only direct conversation I had with the "Gang of Four". Personal contact was limited to more junior defectors who chose to assure me that they would never split the party. As the rumours of rift began to grow, there were emotional and sometimes acrimonious meetings in committee rooms. Significantly, the discussions were rarely about principles and policies. The issues that concerned the putative apostates were Labour's prospects of ever winning another election and the party's likely future leaders. If Roy Jenkins had not been in Brussels, the argument would have been more elevated.

The stories that loyalists "cut old friends dead in the street" and "crossed the road to avoid speaking to them" are not so much exaggerations as inventions; when they could no longer claim to be prophets, some of the Gang of Four's adherents wanted to be martyrs. But there was bound to be friction. Three years earlier we had all been Labour. After the foundation of the SDP, old comrades became committed to the party's destruction. Those of us who still believed that Labour was the party most likely to achieve our hopes for society could hardly be expected to wish its new enemies God's speed.

My attitude towards individuals varied according to my assessment of motives. Roy Jenkins and I remained friends throughout. Most of my anger was directed towards the half-dozen MPs who stayed Labour long enough to vote for Michael Foot, the leadership candidate they thought would ensure the party's defeat. For the MPs who left Labour because they had been deselected by their constituency parties, I felt only pity and contempt. The people I most despised were those who, although social democrat in heart and head, had no stomach for the battle to move the party back into the mainstream and hoped to find a more comfortable way of remaining in politics.

Shirley Williams, whose views I had thought identical to mine, lost her seat in 1979 and, as I recall, we did not meet between the split and the 1983 general election. We were reunited in a small plane flying to London after a television debate. That night, Labour and the SDP-Liberal Alliance were neck and neck in the polls. Shirley predicted that Labour would come third in the popular vote and be extinguished. I ridiculed a prediction that I feared would come true. I had already decided that, if Labour sank, I would go down with the ship, but it still seemed right to "fight, and fight, and fight again, to save the party" from extremism.

That is what a handful of us did. As history shows, the fight was won.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation