Ahh, the 1970s. What a decade. The fall of Heath and Callaghan. The rise of Thatcher. The Winter of Discontent. Saltley Coke Works. Grunwick. British Leyland. Hot pants, flares, glam rock, Reg Prentice…
No doubt all of these are familiar, especially Reg Prentice. Of course, there may be some millennials whose education failed to include poor Reg. You could look him up in Wikipedia. Or just keep reading.
Reg Prentice was MP for Newham North East. Newham was that bit of London that commuters from Essex passed through to get to their jobs in the City. Some of their trains never stopped there. It was not quite the ‘inner city’, being east of Tower Hamlets. But enough geography.
The constituency was a rock-solid Labour seat, one of those places where Labour votes were weighed instead of counted. Prentice was Education Secretary in Harold Wilson’s minority government. A Labour MP in a safe seat, he had a job for life.
Unfortunately for him, his Constituency Labour Party disagreed. They seemed to believe that instead of representing his constituents, he should be a delegate for the activists of the party and represent their views. This was a time when the ‘soft’ Left in London was being overthrown by extremists, a process that reached its zenith with the internal party coup that toppled the victor of the 1981 GLC election and replaced him with Ken Livingstone.
Prentice had a deselection battle with the extremists in his local party. He lost. Rather than go quietly muttering into the dark, Prentice did something quite novel in post-war politics.
Forty years ago, Prentice crossed the floor and joined the Conservatives.
He was selected for a safe Conservative seat for the 1979 election, where he increased the majority by over 10,000 votes. He went on to serve as a Conservative minister in Margaret Thatcher’s first government until ill-health forced him to return to the back benches. All this shows is that you can’t keep a good man down. Serving in one government, enduring deselection, crossing the floor, obtaining a safe seat, and then serving in the succeeding government surely demonstrates political ability and talent of the highest calibre.
Reg Prentice retired from the Commons in 1987, when he was knighted. In 1992 he received a life peerage. Not bad, not bad at all.
Why is this important now? Well, Prentice’s troubles started in 1975 when he was deselected by his local Labour Party. Six years later the national party split with the formation of the SDP as left-wing infiltration continued unabated. There is now renewed talk of deselections of Labour moderates by left-wing activists.
Labour MPs on the hit-list could look to Reg Prentice’s example and cross the floor. What’s the worst that could happen? Mrs May has made a cross-party appeal for contributions to the Brexit process. If Labour MPs are already feeling rejected by their local activists, they will have little to lose. The SDP, after an initial burst of interest, did not achieve its promise in the 1983 general election to ‘break the mould of British politics’, so a breakaway party is increasingly unlikely, especially with a return to two-party politics. Crossing the floor to get away from the attacks from their own side makes sense.
If any anti-Corbyn Labour MPs are tired of enduring the increasingly unfriendly environment from their side of British politics, and especially from with their own CLPs, they really have nothing to lose by crossing the floor, since they will be out of a job by 2022 anyway. After crossing, the attacks won’t go away, but at least the person would be among new and supportive friends. Mrs May is advocating a form of social democracy well to the left of the Conservative government in which Reg Prentice served as a minister. Being a new Tory MP might be a good fit, once all the socialist opprobrium and hyperbole that routinely falls unchallenged on the Tories is stripped away.
For a Labour MP, crossing the floor to join the Conservatives may now appear an outrageous concept. But at the beginning of 2015 so was the idea of Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party. Reg Prentice’s career shows what can be done. Does any current Labour MP have the talent and ability to follow him?