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18 February 2019

Dick Taverne: “Some of the Labour Party people have absolutely nowhere to go”

The former Labour MP and founder-member of the SDP on his conversations with Corbynsceptics and politics then and now. 

By Patrick Maguire

On 6 October 1972, Dick Taverne, the Labour MP for Lincoln, announced his intention to resign the Labour whip and his seat in parliament, having been deselected by his local party over his stridently pro-European views. He fought the ensuing by-election, held the following March, as a independent centre-left candidate and won handsomely, defeating an official Labour party candidate as well as a Conservative challenger. His parliamentary career as a Democratic Labour MP was brief, but encouraged his political allies, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers, that a Labour breakaway could succeed – leading, in time, to the creation of the SDP in 1981.

Though by then he was long out of Parliament, having lost to Margaret Beckett in the second general election of 1974, Taverne’s influence over British politics is one that Labour’s present-day rebels can only dream of. Some of them certainly are. Now 90, Labour’s original splitter sees the similarities himself.

“I wanted to be expelled,” Taverne, who now sits in the Lords as a Liberal Democrat, tells me when we meet at his Westminster flat. “I couldn’t live with that local jihadist management committee. The perpetual battle. You can’t fight your local party. That’s the difficulty that Angela Smith and Chris Leslie have.”

“My history is very ancient now,”  he says, “But it’s not entirely irrelevant. Some of the Labour Party people have absolutely nowhere to go.”

The understatement feels almost comic. To consider Taverne’s case is to consider that of any number of present day Labour backbenchers who are poised to join him in committing the left’s ultimate heresy. One has sought his counsel. “Take Chris Leslie, who I’ve talked to at some length. He says he’s going to be deselected anyway, so what’s he got to lose? I think an awful lot of other people in the Labour Party say: ‘We’ve lost!’ I think that’s no longer true, actually.”

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Taverne does not believe a split is imperative if Labour can be convinced to back a second referendum or Corbyn ousted in favour of a pro-European such as Keir Starmer. “If he became leader, yes. A Labour Party solidly supporting a new vote and Remain is essential. Stay! I think so. I’d then say stay. But at the moment they don’t see any future. I’m just beginning to doubt whether that is in fact right. I can see the makings of a change.”

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“I think that the moment is ripe for another challenge against Corbyn. I don’t know whether we should hope for something from John McDonnell. As a good Marxist, he’s a serious politician. He’s not like Corbyn.” Emerging with coffee, Taverne’s wife, Janice, assents. “Much more serious!” Dick reflects. “He’s a cod-Marxist thug, but apart from that.” Yet without change at the very top, his prognosis for those at odds with their members is stark. “Chris Leslie, Angela Smith and several of the others have nowhere to go at the moment unless they topple Corbyn and his little clique.”

Taverne nonetheless fears a schism now – so close to March 29 – could be self-defeating. “I think the only trouble about that is timing,” he says. “We’re so damn near to the moment that I don’t think it can be done.” Later, he adds: “They could do it themselves, but it’s not the time for it now. If it was the beginning of a five year term, that would be just the thing to do. And they would win!”

But he does not rule out another Lincoln. The public, he says, care more about principle and a politician’s willingness to stick to it than they do Europe. “They like somebody who sticks to their guns, and they don’t like people who are being bullied by their local party….I did say to Chris Leslie that it’s up to him. Obviously, I said: ‘Don’t go for a by-election now, because we need your vote! But at some stage, if you do fight a by-election, you’ve got a good chance, because you’d get enthusiastic young people all backing you, fighting on your side.”

A lifelong disciple of Roy Jenkins – under whom he served at the Treasury and Home Office – Taverne believes today’s crop of pro-Europeans lacks something very important: a leader. “I think that there is the possibility of a somewhat left-of-centre new party but where are the people who lead it? Where are the people of any stature? Keir Starmer seems to be about the only one on the Labour side…I think some people could do my role…someone lighting the torch, and starting the whole thing off. I think that could be done by people like Angela Smith, and Chris Leslie.”

Some argue Taverne lit the torch too early, himself included. “I could say I completely misplayed my hand,” he tells me. The only pledge of support from his former colleagues came from Labour’s former deputy leader, George Brown, who had lost his seat in the 1970 election and whose reputation had suffered from his heavy drinking.

“He rang me up to say he’d like to support me,” Taverne recalls, “My agent said: ‘George Brown’s willing to come!’ And I said: ‘Yes, George, thank you very much, I’ll consider this carefully.’ My agent says: ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I said: ‘He’s drunk! He’ll be enthusiastic today, and tomorrow he’ll say he can’t come.”

But Roy Jenkins, meanwhile, was not ready to leave (and even if he had been, Taverne says, neither Shirley Williams nor Bill Rodgers would have joined him). Reforms to local government meant every council seat was up for election in 1974 and Jenkins predicted that, faced with a choice between a new social democratic force and tribal loyalty, the Labour right would always “return to the womb”.

Taverne made the case to Jenkins during his by-election campaign but failed to convince him. Jenkins reflected that while “a lot of people” would tell him the same thing when they saw him on the train, “when I travel by train, I do travel first class.”

There was a serious message in Jenkins’s self-deprecation, and it is still unclear whether those plotting a new centrist party will heed it.

Bar a few irreconcilables and ideological warriors, most Labour MPs have made their peace with Corbynomics – which Taverne, a self-styled “Piketty man” who was among the founders of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, describes as a mainstream social democratic programme. It polls well too. Though there is no supply-side problem for MPs who want reheated Blairism, there is almost certainly a demand-side one among voters.

Taverne agrees. “I think some people are saying: ‘Who’s going to split first?’ I think a lot of people in the Conservative Party are now thinking it’s a lost party. [But] My worry about a new centre party is that there are some very good Conservatives on board over Europe, and you’d get quite a lot of the others round in time. But will they still stick to Osborne’s shrinking the state?”

Then there is the question of diminishing returns for the bigger names seeking a new political home. “I told Roy: ‘I think we’ve got something moving in Lincoln that could really be a big new movement. I don’t think there’ll ever be such a good opportunity again.’

“He said: ‘In the Labour Party, there’ll always be an opportunity.’ That wasn’t necessarily true. It was never quite the same. When he finally made his move in 1981 with the SDP, Roy was no longer the popular figure he’d been before. He’d lost his touch. He was the fat cat from Europe. His parliamentary performances weren’t anything like as good.”

He suggests that salvation could instead be delivered by a Leicester Macron. “Gary Lineker would be great. He’s intelligent. Lots of people are intelligent but don’t have a feel for politics, but I think he’s got quite a good feel for politics.”

But to ponder these questions about a new party, Taverne believes, is to risk putting cart before horse. He has been burned before. His own SDP prototype, the Campaign for Social Democracy, was routed in the few seats it contested in 1974 (he believes the “distraction” contributed to his eventual defeat), and he insists a new party should come after, not before, the push for a second referendum within Labour is over.

He is confident of a Remain victory but much less of one for Remainers on the opposition benches. “If we get a second vote we will stop Brexit. But how the hell do we get a second vote with the Labour Party being what it is?” If it stays that way, he sees no future for “40 or so” Labour MPs. He describes them, witheringly but not without sympathy, as “scared” and “pygmies” compared to his generation. “I don’t see the point of being MP if you’ve got a perpetual row with your local party and you don’t believe what the party believes in. I mean, people said to me: ‘You can’t abandon the Labour Party!’ I said look, I haven’t joined the Labour Party because it’s a religion.’

Whether MPs in a similar position will succeed in fixing what Taverne sees as a broken party system will depend, he suggests, on whether they can find the inspirational figurehead they so sorely lack. “We had leadership,” Taverne says plaintively. “Roy was the leader. There’s no leader now…I think it all depends on a rising of the Labour rebels now.”

But history teaches us that they are Labour before they are rebels. “I would have supported you at Lincoln,” Michael Heseltine would tell Taverne after his victory. “But you made one terrible mistake. You should have never lost your party. Remember Disraeli. Forget principles. Stick to your party.” Labour MPs stood firm to that mantra in 1973. The success of any attempt to repeat Taverne’s forgotten victory will depend on them finally resiling from it.