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