It could be you

In February 1974, my school held a mock general election, just for laughs. A friend of ours was into politics and told us he was standing for Democratic Labour; he told us all about this exciting new breakaway from the Labour Party and its (one) MP, Dick Taverne. It sounded great. He came second last in the school, with six votes. In October 1974 the school repeated the exercise; our friend didn’t bother this time, but a group calling itself the School Reform Party stood with a platform of actual demands on the school, on the basis that even winning a mock election would give them standing as the voice of the kids. They came second, unfortunately, and life went back to normal. (This isn’t relevant to the post, but it shows you what giving people the habit of democracy can do.)

Dick Taverne, Reg Prentice, David Owen… Chuka Umunna? Lately we’ve been hearing rumours of splits again; BBC Political Correspondent Ian Watson writes:

Some people close to the Labour leadership believe a breakaway is all but inevitable – but that it will be small.

Well, we were promised one resignation on Thursday night and we didn’t even get that; breakaways don’t get much smaller than zero.

But let’s assume – in the teeth of the evidence – that Chuka and friends are going to jump at some point. Watson points out that scattered and disorganised resignations of the whip are much more likely than a big breakout in the SDP mould. Commentators have got into the habit of talking about “pro-European dissenters” as if they were a coherent group, but as Watson points out there are actually four groups of Labour MPs here:

  1. Pro-Remain but on the Left; probably the largest single group. Not going to defect.
  2. Pro-Remain, raring to go, just waiting for a signal
  3. Pro-Remain but waiting till Corbyn has Brexit well and truly hung round his neck
  4. Anti-Corbyn, raring to go but (I hate to mention this) not actually pro-Remain as such

Imponderables include: how big each of these groups is; what kind of signal is going to satisfy group 2 (and who’s going to give it); how long group 3 are prepared to wait; and whether either 2 or 3 is prepared to work with group 4 (and, indeed, whether group 4 wants to work with those posh metropolitan gits). None of these groups – with the exception of group 1, which isn’t really in the game – seems to number in double figures. All in all it’s not a promising launchpad for a party capable of repeating the successes of the SDP – let alone a party capable of achieving a bit more than keeping the Tories in power for 15 years, wasting huge amounts of money and effort, then slinking back into the Labour Party and trying to claim credit for changes that had happened while they were away. (I’ll say many things about Peter Mandelson, few of them complimentary, but he never went near the SDP.)

There’s also the C-word: career. Perhaps our doughty centrists won’t be dissuaded by the thought that leaving the Labour Party that got you elected is the act of a cynical turncoat scumbag, but they should consider that it could be a very bad career move. Consider the evidence.

In 1948, Alfred Edwards and Ivor Thomas left the Labour Party and subsequently joined the Conservatives. Neither resigned to trigger a by-election. Both stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1950, and were defeated.

In 1961, Alan Brown left the Labour Party and subsequently joined the Conservatives. He did not resign and trigger a by-election. He stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1964, and was defeated. He later rejoined the Labour Party.

In 1968, Desmond Donnelly left the Labour Party to form a new party, the Democratic Party. He did not resign his seat. He stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1970, and was defeated. He later joined the Conservatives.

In 1972, our mate Dick Taverne left the Labour Party to form the Democratic Labour Party. He resigned and triggered a by-election, which he won. In February 1974 he defended his seat for the Democratic Labour Party, and – perhaps surprisingly – won again. Unfortunately he lost the seat in October 1974.

In 1974, Christopher Mayhew left the Labour Party and joined the Liberals. He didn’t resign his seat. He stood for Parliament at the next election, in October 1974, and was defeated.

In 1976, Jim Sillars and John Robertson left the Labour Party to form the Scottish Labour Party. They didn’t resign their seats. Robertson didn’t stand at the next election in 1979; Sillars stood and was defeated. (He later joined the SNP, and was elected to Parliament at a by-election in 1988; he was defeated at the next election in 1992.)

Also in 1976, John Stonehouse – awaiting trial for fraud – left the Labour Party to join the English National Party. After being found guilty, he resigned as an MP but did not stand in the subsequent by-election.

In 1977, Reg Prentice left the Labour Party and joined the Conservatives. He didn’t resign his seat. He stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1979, and was elected; he was re-elected in 1983.

And then there was the SDP. Two bits of anecdata seem relevant here. One is Steve Bell’s defecting Labour MP Ned Lagg. Bell, of course, had no sympathy for the SDP at all; Ned Lagg was a vain, complacent old soak, who’d got comfortable on the back benches and didn’t see why being deselected by a bunch of Trots should change anything – the voters loved him, didn’t they? Successive strips showed him doing the bare minimum of campaigning – little beyond driving around the constituency in a speaker van, “I’M NED LAGG, YOUR MP. VOTE FOR LAGG ON THURSDAY.” – until the catastrophe of election night. Rejected by “his” voters, Lagg got more and more drunk and more and more angry, eventually taking to the road in the speaker van: “I’M NED LAGG AND YER ALL A BUNCHA BASTAAARDS!!!!”

Of course, no resemblance was intended to any defecting Labour MP, and I’m sure none of the people I’m about to name would do any such thing. Although the story of [name redacted] and the trout is worth mentioning. It’s 1983, it’s election night, it’s 9.00, and in the SDP campaign office all is frenzied activity. In walks [ahem], previously the sitting Labour MP for the constituency, carrying something wrapped in newspaper. He goes into the kitchen and unwraps a large trout, which he proceeds to gut and prepare. It’s an hour before the polls close. One of the campaign volunteers plucks up the courage to go and ask him, politely, what the hell he’s doing: wouldn’t this be a good time to be double-checking the canvass returns and getting the last few votes out? The MP beams and says that it’s been a very long day, and he thought the volunteers would like something nice to eat. Apparently these are the thoughts that go through your head at 9.00 on election night, if you’re an MP in the kind of seat where they only need to weigh the votes. (He did win the election that night – by 100 votes.)

In 1981, Tom Bradley, Ronald Brown, Richard Crawshaw, George Cunningham, Tom Ellis, David Ginsburg, John Grant, John Horam, Ednyfed Hudson Davies, Edward Lyons, Bryan Magee, Tom McNally, Bob Mitchell, Eric Ogden, Bill Rodgers, John Roper, Neville Sandelson, Jeffrey Thomas, Mike Thomas and James Wellbeloved left the Labour Party to join the Social Democratic Party. They did not resign their seats. They stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1983, and were defeated.

Also in 1981, Bruce Douglas-Mann, James Dunn, Dickson Mabon and Michael O’Halloran left the Labour Party to join the Social Democratic Party. Douglas-Mann resigned his seat and triggered a by-election, at which he was defeated. Dunn, Mabon and O’Halloran did not resign. Dunn and Mabon did not stand at the 1983 election. O’Halloran was not selected as the SDP’s candidate in his old constituency, Islington North; objecting to this decision, he stood in 1983 as an Independent Labour candidate. He got 11% of the vote, coming in fourth behind Labour, the Conservatives and the SDP. The new Labour MP was Jeremy Corbyn, who has held the seat ever since.

Also in 1981, John Cartwright, Robert Maclennan, David Owen and Ian Wrigglesworth left the Labour Party to join the Social Democratic Party. They did not resign their seats. They stood for Parliament at the next election, in 1983, and were re-elected. Wrigglesworth was defeated at the following election in 1987; Cartwright, Maclennan and Owen were re-elected. Following the 1988 merger of the SDP and the Liberals, the (continuing) SDP was wound up in 1990; Owen resigned from the Commons in 1992, while Cartwright – standing as an Independent Social Democrat – was defeated. Maclennan, now a Liberal Democrat, was re-elected in 1992 and 1997, before retiring from the Commons in 2001.

In 2001, Paul Marsden left the Labour Party and joined the Lib Dems. He didn’t resign his seat. He re-joined the Labour Party shortly before the next next election in 2005, but didn’t stand for re-election.

In 2005 – shortly before that year’s general election – Brian Sedgemore left the Labour Party and joined the Lib Dems. He didn’t resign his seat and didn’t stand for re-election.

That’s a total of 40 defectors from Labour, most of whom I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of. (All male, for what that’s worth. Only two women MPs have voluntarily left one party for another (there’d be stronger female representation if we included expulsions and MPs sitting as independents); one (Emma Nicholson) defected from the Tories, and the other (Cynthia Mosley) is before our time-frame.) 37 of the 40 crossed the floor without triggering a by-election; one triggered a by-election but didn’t stand in it; and one of the two who did put his mandate to the test lost his seat for his pains. (I respect his principles, but otherwise I can only tell you one thing about Bruce Douglas-Mann: the Guardian by-election sketchwriter pointed out that his surname is an anagram of Glumsod-Nana.) Five of the remaining 39 retired at the next election; 28 were defeated; six were re-elected. Only four – Cartwright, Maclennan, Owen and Prentice – served in the Commons for ten years or more under their new party’s colours; and two of those careers were ended by the dissolution of that party, or what remained of it. David Owen hasn’t done badly out of politics overall – Christopher Mayhew and Bill Rodgers haven’t done too badly, come to that – but overall it’s really not a record of success.

The question for today’s potential defectors – John Mann? Neil Coyle? Angela Smith? – really is, do you feel lucky? Do you think you’d defy the odds? Do you think you’re the next David Owen or Bob Maclennan? Or is it more likely that you’d be the next Desmond Donnelly or Edward Lyons – or Michael O’Halloran? And yer all a buncha bastaaards…

But then – coming back to the ‘career’ question – political success isn’t the only form of success in politics. No fewer than 11 of the 40 people I’ve listed ended up in the House of Lords – Prentice for the Tories, Owen as an “independent social democrat”, Crawshaw, Horam, Maclennan, McNally, Mayhew, Rodgers, Roper, Taverne and Wrigglesworth for the Lib Dems – which must be four or five more than the same group would have achieved if they’d all stayed in the Labour Party. Thoughts about small ponds and big fish (sorry Ian) go here. And Lord Umunna does have a certain ring to it…

2 Comments

  1. Guano
    Posted 18 February 2019 at 18:11 | Permalink | Reply

    Bruce Douglas Mann

    About 40 years ago I attended a Labour Party press conference about “Tied Housing”. There were only 5 people there – myself, someone from Shelter, Bruce Douglas Mann, Frank Allaun and a researcher who had written a document on the subject for the Labour Party. The event was highly embarrassing because it was obvious that Allaun thought that Tied Housing was an issue, while Mann thought that it wasn’t. The researcher was stuck in the middle between two very divergent tendencies in the Labour Party. The rest of us made an excuse and left.

  2. Posted 20 February 2019 at 19:50 | Permalink | Reply

    Cheers for that outline. It really does lay it on the line. If the unspectacular crew who have jumped ship think they’re somehow more charismatic and vote winning than that… well, as a somewhat detached observer I would think they are wrong.

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