As Labour MPs depart in 2019 – haven’t we been here before?


Yes we have. It was January, 1981 and the right of the Labour Party felt thoroughly embattled. The Left had surged forward since the Labour general election defeat in 1979 bringing in Margaret Thatcher and the Tories. So – rather like Chuka Umunna and his group of six other Labour MPs, there were four very senior Labour politicians who quit the part very publicly in 1981.

Europe was a lightning rod issue in 1981….and 2019

The so-called Gang of Four (named after a group of plotters in Communist China) issued what became known as the Limehouse Declaration aiming a series of stinging attacks on the Left of the party. The four were Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers. Jenkins, Williams and Rogers had all been ministers and grandees of the party – while Rodgers was a more junior player.

The party had been in ferment for nearly two years after being kicked out by the electorate. The Left blamed the previous Labour government’s policies of economic cutbacks and pay restraint for the loss of power. Their solution was a more robust, socialist party advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the Common Market (forerunner of the European Union) and increased nationalisation.

I was very active in the Labour Party at this time and meetings often divided between those who wanted to nationalise the top 25 monopolies (Tribune supporters) and those wanting to go for 250 monopolies (Militant supporters). The seeming capitulation of prime minister James Callaghan and chancellor Dennis Healey to the demands of the International Monetary Fund for economic austerity was seen as a “class betrayal”.

There were also reforms to the party structure promoted by Tony Benn, a left wing MP, and his “Bennite” supporters. This included the option to deselect MPs and extending party leadership elections from just MPs to constituency parties and the trades unions. Needless to say, this all went down like the proverbial bag of sick with the Gang of Four.

From Gang of Four to The Independent Group

The Gang of Four formed the nucleus of a new political party, the Social Democrat Party (SDP). Twenty-eight Labour MPs and one Tory eventually defected and ran for re-election in 1983 under the SDP banner. Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams were no longer MPs in 1981 (Jenkins had gone off to become President of the European Commission) but won seats in 1983. The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberals and their vote came alarmingly close to Labour, who scored an all time low. Thatcher won a second term.

Today’s Independent Group has veered away from forming a new party – probably with the SDP in mind, which went from hubris and electoral surge to eventual collapse into the Liberal Democrat party. But there must be a hope that they can peel off a significant number of MPs in the months ahead.

One has to be careful with similarities but in both periods, Labour had moved sharply leftwards; an atmosphere had been created in the party where centrist elements were marginalised and the eventual departure came as no surprise. Both today and in 1981, I suspect many on the Left were glad to see the split – believing it was evidence that the party was moving in the correct direction.

Differences between today and 1981

Europe is very much the overwhelming focus now and these seven MPs are solid Remainers who suspect Jeremy Corbyn is anything but. In 1981, the policy clashes were much broader and deeper. The Left was influenced by a Marxist critique of capitalism that covered everything from the ownership of the economy to a critique of “bourgeois” democracy. Today’s millennial socialists are – for the present – way less ideological and Momentum has nothing like the full throttled anti-capitalist agenda of Militant in the 1980s.

The MPs who have left are – in my humble view – of a lesser calibre to the Gang of Four. That could, of course, change with further departures – watch this space!

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