Labour and reselection: the panic last time

As anti-Corbyn Labour MPs kick up a fuss in the press about possible reselections, Hilary Wainwright looks back at the strikingly similar alarm in the parliamentary establishment in the 1970s and 1980s

October 5, 2018 · 26 min read

This is an excerpt from Hilary Wainwright’s book Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, first published 1987. At the time, mandatory reselection had been won as a democratic demand in the Labour Party (it was later scrapped again as the foundations of Blairism were laid). Hilary picks up the story in 1975 – the first ‘deselection’, which sparked a media storm that set the template still in use today.

On July 23, 1975, a majority of the 48 delegates to the General Management Committee of the Newham North East Constituency Labour Party voted, in strict accordance with the party’s rule book and under the watchful eye of the party’s regional organiser, that their MP, Cabinet Minister Reg Prentice, be ‘requested to retire at the next election’. All hell broke loose.

The day before, the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party had sent a letter to the constituency accusing the Newham party of betraying ‘the principles of tolerance and free speech for which our movement has always fought’ should it vote to sack Prentice. After the Newham decision, Harold Wilson threatened, at a meeting of the party’s National Executive, that ‘if this sort of thing continues, PLP [the parliamentary party] will have to put up its own candidates’. And overnight those who wanted Prentice to go were described as ‘extremists’, ‘ bed-sit revolutionaries’, ‘members of the Trotskyist Militant’, ‘unrepresentative of the Labour voter’ and ‘enemies of democracy’. These descriptions, with the term ‘hard left’ added as a useful catch-all, have stuck for any group in the Labour Party which challenges established political (especially parliamentary) power. Who were the people they described in Newham North East?

John Wilson, the EETPU [electricians’ union, now part of Unite] delegate to the Newham North East party, moved the resolution to deselect Reg Prentice. He would describe himself as ‘just left of centre’. He was in his mid-thirties at the time and had been on the General Management Committee for several years. He was supported by a cross-section of the constituency party. They included old hands such as Claude Calcott, the 82-year-old party secretary (he had been secretary when Prentice was first selected), Harold Lugg, a retired milkman and party president, and Connie Clements, in her seventies, a strong defender of the younger people joining the party: ‘Reg resents the young because they can argue and talk. This party will die if we don’t encourage young people to join it and become active; it will die if this resolution is not passed,’ she said at the special meeting called to consider John Wilson’s resolution. Then there were younger members in their twenties and thirties. Some were local, like Michele Piggott and Lew Boyce – now the stationmaster at East Ham. Others were recent residents, like Denise Cohen, a social worker, and Hilary Jenkins, a teacher. And there were members in their forties and fifties, like Councillor Fred York, a delegate from the NUR [railway union, now RMT] Branch, and Owen Ashworth, a local teacher. No one lived in a bedsit.

The establishment, including the Labour establishment, was reacting not primarily to a personal threat but to an institutional and ideological challenge

There were only four who were Young Socialist supporters of Militant among the twenty-nine who voted for Prentice’s retirement, and none of them was in a leading position. There was no outside organisation conspiring to bring about Prentice’s downfall: ‘We’d all come to a similar assessment, with a heavy heart in many cases, for different reasons,’ commented Alan Haworth, a vice-chair of the party who, ironically, worked – and still works – as clerk to the Parliamentary Labour Party. None were even members of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) and, according to Haworth, they ‘felt quite resentful when CLPD turned up with a banner’, after the vote against Prentice. ‘“What business is it of theirs?” we thought at the time. Though we’ve been involved since.’

Reg Prentice and local activists, during the ‘deselection’ campaign

Twenty-nine delegates supported Wilson’s resolution. Nineteen delegates supported Prentice. Of these nineteen all but four were retired, and all had been in manual working-class jobs. Labour voters in Newham North East include a significant swathe of white-collar and professional workers, young unemployed and young manual workers. The twenty-nine were thus far more representative.

Anxiety about Prentice’s public statements had been growing in the constituency for some time before John Wilson and his colleagues resorted to what is now termed ‘deselection’ (‘deselection’ and ‘reselection’ were not common currency at the time). It was particular statements he made against the unions and in favour of the EEC which worried constituency members, in particular because he never discussed his views with them. Wilson explains their view:

‘Prentice was behaving as if he could take the job for granted, as if it was his for life. He treated us with disdain. We don’t expect an elected person to be a puppet but we do expect him to make his judgements after discussion with his constituency party. He was after all elected as a representative of the party.’

Deselection was a last resort, and it was a decision arrived at in a most cautious manner.

In 1974, before the October general election, several trade-union delegates, from the T&GWU [also now part of Unite], EETPU and UCATT, had put a resolution to ‘rescind the decision to adopt Reg Prentice for the forthcoming election’. It was defeated. Delegates were reluctant to ‘rock the boat’ in a run-up to the election. However, Prentice’s attitude to the constituency party did not change, even though the vote confirming his re-adoption had been narrow. For instance, he refused even to talk to a trade union delegation from his constituency who tried to lobby him about the three Shrewsbury building workers imprisoned for picketing activity under Heath’s 1972 Industrial Relations Act.

In June 1975 the local party executive received the motion from John Wilson’s branch proposing Prentice’s retirement. The executive decided to set in motion the procedure in the Labour Party constitution for dealing with such a motion. A special meeting was convened and attended by the regional officer, Bill Jones. The decision was taken. Four months later, the Labour Party NEC ratified this by rejecting Prentice’s appeal. Since then Reg Prentice has left the Labour Party, claiming it has been taken over by Marxists, has briefly flirted with the Liberals – they had no Cabinet positions to offer – and finally joined the Conservatives, becoming a member of Mrs Thatcher’s government.

Since his deselection, party membership has grown by around 25 per cent. And it has done well electorally: two notable successes were won, first in the GLC [Greater London Council] election and then in the 1978 borough elections. In the GLC election, Newham North East had one of the two highest swings to Labour – the other was in Ken Livingstone’s seat in Paddington. At the 78 local elections which were disastrous for the party in other parts of London, Labour gained six seats in Newham, including one previously held by a ratepayers’ candidate who made much of the Prentice affair in an effort to retain her seat.

Media smears

You might think this was a case of a local party exercising its proper duty to Labour voters in the area, and being vindicated. It was controversial because of the Cabinet status of the MP, and difficult to go through with, because such conflict necessarily reflected badly for a time on the party. But it was party democracy nonetheless, and, as it turned out, proved healthy for the Newham party.

That was not the impression given at the time. The headlines spoke of ‘ultra-leftists plotting to increase the number of pro-communist MPs’. Few of the above facts about those who voted against Prentice are mentioned in any of the articles. All the newspaper stories concentrate on one person, Tony Kelly, highlighting his separation from his wife and other supposedly damning aspects of his background. Kelly was by no means the single driving force. In fact he was the only one which the press could smear. By association the media then smeared everyone else. Under the headline ‘Hardline Marxist in charge at Newham’, the Daily Telegraph described Phil Bradbury as a member of Militant, which he was not, never has been and is certain that he never will be.

Pro-Labour or ‘neutral’ papers such as the Daily Mirror and the Guardian made assumptions based on hardly more facts than the other papers. The Mirror, for instance, asked: ‘If the opponents of Mr Prentice are unrepresentative, who let them infiltrate?’ A good question. But the comment and conclusion goes on to assume that the ‘if’ is a fact. The Guardian made the same assumption: that it was those who voted against Prentice who were unrepresentative. In a leading article, the Guardian then pointed out the moribund character of many Labour parties which made them vulnerable to takeover, warned of the consequences of ‘opting out of politics’ and argued for the ‘widest possible participation in the machinery of democratic life’.

In fact, many of the people who supported the move to get rid of Prentice were the very model of the Guardian‘s politically responsible citizen, ‘campaigning to open the machinery of democratic fife to a representative community’. Take Anita Pollock, for instance, whose face covered the front page of the Evening Standard as ‘The Girl Out To Get Reg’. She is an Australian who was working as an editor in publishing at the time of the Prentice affair. She came from a ‘right-wing country family’ but became a socialist in Britain ‘because it was such a divided country’. She decided not to join the Labour Party until she was ‘settled in one area’. In 1971 she and her boyfriend Phil Bradbury bought a house in Newham. It took them several months to find the local Labour Party since it was not in the phone directory, but was, in fact, Claude Calcott’s home.

‘“Everybody knows that I’m the Labour Party”, he said,’ recalls Anita. ‘We asked when the next meeting was. “Meeting?” he said, “we haven’t had a ward meeting for three years.” They called one specially for us. There we were with the three councillors for the area who didn’t live in the ward, Claude and a sweet old woman who’d run the ward in the past. We were elected chair and secretary.’

Anita got hold of the address fist of around fifty members and went to visit them, only to find that most of them were dead. She and Phil Bradbury then went round from door to door recruiting. Within several years they recruited 200 people of varying ages and backgrounds. Branch meetings have taken place regularly ever since, with an average attendance of twenty. Soon the councillors were from the area, and included the first Asian councillor on Newham Council. In other words, these two delegates who voted for Prentice to go were making Labour representative of local people for the first time indeed since the 1950s. The deselection of Reg Prentice was, it seems, a consequence not of the local party being moribund, but of its rising from the dead.

The reaction of the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party was remarkably similar to that of Fleet Street, and was based on a remarkably similar absence of information. One hundred and seventy-nine MPs signed a letter to the Newham constituency party expressing their support for Prentice, and pleading with them not to remove him. Gavin Strang, a junior minister at the time, described how ‘it was just assumed that you would sign – especially if you were in the government – and that you accepted that the constituency party had been taken over or influenced by people without the party’s best interests in mind’. Strang was rung up ‘on the ministerial phone, which I thought was a bit off’, by Bob Maclennan, then also a junior minister – he has since joined the SDP [the then-recent right wing split from Labour, now part of the Lib Dems]. ‘He was taken aback that I wouldn’t sign. “Everyone in the government has signed,” he said.’

The deselection of Reg Prentice was, it seems, a consequence not of the local party being moribund, but of its rising from the dead

The general acceptance of the media interpretation of what was going on just five miles away in Newham is confirmed by Alan Howarth, the Newham activist by night, clerk to the PLP by day. He clerked all the PLP subcommittees and was in constant contact with MPs. His position as a leading member of the offending party would be well known. Did any of those who signed the letter even casually ask him for his version of events? ‘The only conversation which any MP had with me about it was a desultory one with Sir Frank Barlow who mentioned that he’d been in the same platoon as Prentice and had found him “a difficult chap”. But that was it.’

What lay behind the solidarity which MPs showed towards their colleague? The MPs’ letter mentioned three things. First, the work Mr Prentice had done for his constituency and his country. He ‘is a distinguished Labour MP who served his constituency and his country for eighteen years’. Secondly, the letter called on the constituency to ‘uphold the principles of tolerance and free speech for which our movement has always fought’. It concluded by saying that the removal of Mr Prentice ‘would strike a grave blow at the unity of the party at this difficult time’. An interesting mixture of fellow feeling: ‘you can’t do a man out of a job he’s had for eighteen years’; high principle: ‘MPs must be able to exercise their independent judgement, don’t make them party puppets’; and the somewhat more mundane protection of the party: ‘don’t rock the boat’.

The Reg Prentice affair was one of the most publicised early examples of a reform movement within the Labour Party, and it encouraged the movement for the introduction of mandatory reselection for all Labour Members of Parliament and for the election of the Labour leader by an electoral college made up of MPs, constituency Labour parties and trade unions. Similarly the reaction to the ‘deselection’ of Reg Prentice by the Labour Party’s parliamentary leadership and by the press became a pattern to be repeated with every advance of the movement for reform.

The purpose of this chapter is to try to explain why what at first appears as a modest set of reforms, such as reselection and the party’s election of the leader – both common features of other European Socialist and Social Democratic parties – should provoke such blustering, self-righteous resistance, not only from the party leadership but, through the press, from the wider national political elite. Party members in Newham say now that, looking back, they had no idea at the time ‘what we were taking on’. As Anita Pollock puts it: ‘We thought it was a local issue, but in the end it seemed as if we had taken on the whole establishment.’

The historical legacy

From its foundation the Labour Party’s organisation, in particular its links with the unions, has contained an implicit challenge to the Burkean notion that only the individual MP alone with his conscience can ultimately determine how best to represent his constituents. The Labour Representation Committee and the Labour Party, which followed after, were founded to represent in Parliament the interests of the working class, a force already organised, at least in part, outside Parliament. Clearly this aim implied some spirit of accountability more defined than the MP’s judgement of his or her constituents’ interests. It also went beyond the notion of guidance by a party, like the Conservative and Liberal Parties, established to mobilise voters and to bring some discipline to bear on Members of Parliament elected on the basis of party policies. It involved an ambiguously defined, constantly redefined, idea of accountability to forms of democracy trade-union organisations in particular, but also socialist clubs and women’s labour organisations – established independent of Parliament, yet desiring political representation.

On the other hand, the leaders of the LRC and then the Labour Party assumed that the needs of labour could be represented adequately within the existing parliamentary institutions. In spite of its extra-parliamentary basis, it would, chameleon-like, become in Parliament a proper Parliamentary Party.

Most trade-union leaders, from the party’s origins up to and including the present time, have seen no contradiction in this parliamentarianism. The extra-parliamentary character of the party was in their view purely and non-politically a trade-union one: few trade-union leaders have accepted the potentially political character of a workers’ industrial organisation and its potential to play a leading role in the planning and control of production. They have desired simply to be represented within the existing political system in their corporate trade-union capacity.

To achieve this representation and eventually to be in government, Labour’s leaders tended to play down non-parliamentary connections, almost as if they had something to hide. Since the Second World War, and the growth of trade-union bargaining power, the search for respectability and acceptance has taken a new twist as Labour leaders turned their trade-union base to an advantage as a claim to govern. Only a Labour government – was, and sometimes still is, their argument – can bring the trade unions into the state and in doing so contain their demands. At all times (except, briefly and rhetorically, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution) Labour leaders have taken for granted the given, inherited framework of parliamentary representation and the existing state.

One aspect of this framework is the unwritten rule that in theory MPs are not accountable to anyone outside Parliament other than, as they see fit, their constituents. I stress ‘in theory’, because the beauty, for some, of Britain’s unwritten constitution is that theory and practice can contradict each other, but outsiders to the unwritten rules lose out because there are no agreed rules to argue over or agitate to change. Thus MPs have always represented interests other than those of their constituents (undoubtedly they will have squared the interest concerned with their conscience). They have often been paid for doing so (though only since 1974 have they had to declare such payment), and in all sorts of ways they are accountable to these interests whether through the club, the boardroom or some more formal arrangement. It was precisely because this was going on and every other interest but labour’s was being thus felt, that the LRC and the Labour Party were formed: to have MPs who would be accountable to labour.

The party’s constitution provided for a general framework of accountability of MPs through the PLP to party conference, but there was always considerable room for flexibility, and the accountability of MPs to their constituency was never defined. The balance of power between conference and the parliamentary leadership varies. Two factors affect it profoundly: one is the success, and therefore authority, of the parliamentary leadership in government. Thus in the early to mid-fifties the parliamentary leadership had exceptional authority stemming from what were seen as their achievements between 1945 and 1950. By contrast, the authority of the parliamentary leadership in 1970-73 and again in 1979-81 was at rock bottom. The second fundamental factor in a party based on the trade unions is the industrial strength and political confidence and independence of the unions themselves. The early seventies were a period not just of strong but of confident, mobile, innovative trade unionism: developing new kinds of resistance through occupations and work-ins, spreading direct forms of workplace organisation through national and international shop stewards’ organisations, and finally taking on the Conservative government. This militancy and its lasting legacy lay behind the shifting balance of power against the parliamentary party throughout the seventies.

I say ‘against’ the parliamentary party, because although trends in the trade union seep eventually through the union-party channels into conference and the block vote, they do not so easily, if at all, reach the majority of the parliamentary party. The PLP has inherited, and enveloped itself in, many layers of protective clothing. It is extremely loath to undress.

The state in Parliament

Inherited values, reflected glamour, job security and job promotion all help explain why mandatory reselection [introduced temporarily from 1980] caused so much anger and bitterness among Labour MPs, and led them to turn on the left that campaigned for it, thus provoking further animosity from the left. But they do not provide an adequate explanation for the high priority and persistent hostility given to the issue by the press, and (both reflecting and reinforcing press coverage) by the parliamentary Labour leadership. To understand this it is necessary to explore the potential of reselection, the precedent it has established and the further changes that it implies. The establishment, including the Labour establishment, was reacting not primarily to a personal threat (Peter Shore was the only member of the Shadow Cabinet who was at all personally vulnerable from reselection though there were unsubstantiated press rumours about Gerald Kaufman) but to an institutional and ideological challenge.

The fundamental problem facing any attempt to challenge the power of the parliamentary leadership is the weight of the state’s presence on Parliament. This is what distinguishes it in kind from local government. This authority of the state is implicit in the obligations or oaths that Members sign. Councillors, committee chairs and council leaders are bound by a ‘fiduciary duty to the ratepayer’, an obligation to spend ratepayers’ money for the benefit of the ratepayer, that is, the public. MPs, ministers and Prime Ministers are bound by an oath to the Crown. There is no oath or statement of obligation to the people.

Does this really matter? Surely oaths are just empty rituals, sworn one day, forgotten about the next. It’s true, they may not have an obvious material effect. If you ask an MP ‘How has your political behaviour been affected by the oath you swore to the Queen a few years ago?’ he is unlikely to tell you anything very interesting. The significance of these oaths is symbolic, a clue to what is and is not acceptable, what changes can be taken on board and what will cause one almighty row. In other words, they give you an idea of when you are about to knock into the constitutional equivalent of Parliament’s balls! The crown in effect stands for the moral authority of the British state.

The significance of these oaths is that, in between elections, moral authority lies within Parliament, and that means not simply in the laws it makes or agrees to, but in the process by which it does so. To suggest it lies anywhere else is in effect a challenge to the authority of the state. That is what the unsuspecting delegates to the Newham Labour Party did, without realising quite what they were doing. In this way too, mandatory reselection and non-parliamentary election of the Labour leader, not to speak of proposals for the election of the Cabinet and party control over policy, confronted the long tradition of British rule from above.

Mandatory reselection and non-parliamentary election of the Labour leader, not to speak of proposals for the election of the Cabinet and party control over policy, confronted the long tradition of British rule from above

Week after week therefore, during 1980 and 1981, The Times – which was still at that time the ‘representative’ paper of the ruling class – attacked the reforms [ie. mandatory reselection] not merely as an internal party affair but as matters of importance to the state. The underlying fear was not of constituency ‘extremists’, though these were frequently the objects of abuse. The most important cause of their concern was the increased influence which these reforms would give to the trade unions, that is, to the organised working class. And at that time, the late seventies and early eighties, ‘trade unions’ conjured up not the meek, subservient Len Murray [TUC general secretary 1973-1984], but memories of striking miners, able to cause the downfall of a Conservative government, shop stewards leading occupations of the property of their employers and municipal workers refusing to collect the garbage and bury the dead. To Times leader writers, Conservative MPs and to the leadership of those who split from the Labour Party to form the SDP, the idea that these people should have a significant say in electing a future Prime Minister was a challenge to the constitution. It certainly upset the customary role that the Labour Party had been relied on to play within this constitution.

The constitutional reforms were not and are not anti-Parliament; they are anti-parliamentarian. That is, they challenge the view that Parliament, and the state in Parliament, is the sole source of moral political authority. The reforms attempted to extend constitutional legitimacy to forms of political democracy outside Parliament as well. In this sense they are ‘republican’ in spirit, they seek to treat people as potential citizens with sovereign rights.

The democratic left that campaigned for these reforms wants Parliament to become a democratic national assembly. A Parliament which takes final decisions on the government of the country yet is flanked by an elected judiciary to preside over the enactment of its laws. What the left questions is the idea that Parliament is an exclusive sovereign which once elected decides, like a private club, its own rules and decision-making processes.

The left’s questioning of Parliament’s claim to such total sovereignty arises not so much from an abstract belief in extraparliamentary democracy – their ideas on this are still untheorised and pragmatic. Rather it arises from long observation that even (or perhaps especially) under a Labour government, Parliament’s decision-making, in particular the government’s role in it, is already in fact based on non-parliamentary processes. Here they observe the power of the Civil Service (well beyond its advisory brief), of the defence establishment and NATO, the security services, the CBI and the financial institutions of the City. The left’s initial desire was to protect and to stiffen the resistance of a democratically elected Labour government against these unaccountable pressures, by allying it to the pressures and initiatives of the people who elected it. For this the radical left turned to the only instrument at hand, ill-equipped though it is in its present form: the party. And through it they strengthened the one lever they have over Parliament, weak though it may be: the selection of their MP.

Imagine representatives of CND along with shop stewards and technicians from the shipyards making Trident in Barrow, working as members of an ‘Arms Conversion Council’ in the Ministries of Defence and Industry, preparing detailed plans for putting the resources and skills of the nuclear arms industry to useful purposes. Or think of women from Greenham, with other leaders of CND and sympathetic technicians being given the power and resources to monitor the withdrawal of Cruise missiles. Or workplace and community representatives with local authorities drawing up investment plans for the Department of Industry and the Treasury for areas of economic collapse like London’s Docklands, parts of the north-east and Merseyside. And you begin to see why, when the peace movement is strong and the ‘nightmare’ of trade-union strength could once again come true, the idea of giving power to the Labour Party Conference and to constituency Labour parties – in the establishment’s eyes all part of the same dreadful group of people – sets the alarm bells clanging.

The secrets behind Prime Ministerial power

It should be clear that reselection and the election of the Leader do not automatically challenge the character of the state. That depends, among other things, on the strength of mass movements for change. But the establishment’s responses to these reforms and to Tony Benn’s activities – mirrored in the responses of the Labour leadership – had the hysterical, frequently paranoic quality they did because these ideas touched on the secret that lies beneath Prime Ministerial government: the closed, class-based character of the British state. Once Prime Ministerial government is challenged from outside Parliament as well as inside, this will expose the character of the state: its secrecy, its subservience to unaccountable financial and industrial powers (‘the bailiffs’, in Wilson’s famous description of the financial pressures on the tenancy of his elected government), and its domination by the Atlantic Alliance. Parliament has protected this state well. The constitutional reforms of the Labour Party, modest though they were, and the behaviour of their well-placed champion, cautious though he was, introduced an unacceptable degree of instability into this protection. Parliamentarians, inside Parliament and outside, united to block what they regarded as the thin edge of what was for them a very dangerous wedge.

The explanation for the outcry over Reg Prentice’s deselection – an outcry which grew louder and louder with each advance towards constitutional reform – has moved a long way from the defence of ‘freedom and toleration’ called for by the 179 Labour MPs. The exploration in this chapter demonstrates that to differing degrees these parliamentarians were not defending principles. They were defending the mystique of their position, their job security, the hope of patronage, the exclusivity of the parliamentary club and the sovereignty of the state in Parliament. They were defending their right to exclusive rule. No wonder party members in Newham felt as if, unprepared, they had disturbed a hornets’ nest.

This is an edited excerpt from the first chapter of Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, which is in the process of being republished by Commonwealth Publishing.

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