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Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.

The Conservative Party Conference of 1977 met in Blackpool in the second week of October, 40 years ago this week. Most of us will remember that conference, or associate it in historical memory, with a youthful tour de force from the platform by a 16-year old William Hague. The text is mostly boilerplate 1970s Conservatism, about the need for the government to get out of people’s lives – particularly young people – and for the forthcoming Thatcher government to reverse the incoming tide of socialism, but it is interesting to listen to it again.  Hague delivers it well, his Yorkshire vowels and a style that ranges from playful to insistent, evoking both Harold Wilson and Enoch Powell.

There is a particular gift for the writer (I feel some affinity with David Lynch, recalling ‘I’ll see you again in 25 years’ in the original Twin Peaks which ended in 1992) this month:  “… the socialist state, which draws nearer with every Labour government and which Conservatives have never reversed,” said Hague, looking around the hall.  “It’s all right for some of you. Half of you won’t be here in 30 or 40 years’ time.

Therefore half of you, presumably, are still around, and some will have gone to the very different conference in Manchester this month. But it is another aspect of the 1977 conference about which I write, and which involves another surprising new face appearing in the Conservative ranks. The 1977 conference season saw the very public defection of Reg Prentice to the Tories.

Prentice was no mere backbench Labour MP. He was of solid, reliable trade union stock, and a safe pair of hands in government who had been given several ministerial jobs between 1964-69 in the then government, and who eventually reached the Cabinet as Margaret Thatcher’s successor at the Department of Education and Science in 1974. He was demoted, but kept a seat at the Cabinet table in 1975 as Minister for Overseas Development. He had been orthodox in Labour Party terms until the early 1970s, when he started making some challenging speeches against the Labour left and against what he increasingly saw as the erosion of the rule of law manifested in successive strikes. Unlike many on the centre-right of the Labour Party, though, he was not particularly pro-European.

Prentice, though, had a more than usually fractious Constituency Labour Party (CLP). This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the whole saga: in the much bigger split to the SDP in 1981-82, one of the main determinants of whether a moderate Labour MP would defect was the state of the local party, in terms of interpersonal acrimony as much as ideology (so it was that as mainstream a Labour figure as Jim Callaghan’s Political Secretary Tom McNally ended up in the SDP).

There was all-out factional warfare in Newham for several years, with a culture clash between older socially conservative trade unionists and younger, more middle class and left-wing Labour members who had moved in, plus some hard left groupings. There was a complete lack of understanding or communication on both sides. Prentice was not good at building bridges with the constituency members: as Roy Jenkins confided to his diary:

“The trouble with Reg is that, while he has many admirable and rare qualities, he is a heavy-footed elephant crashing through the jungle. He is in a curious way an extremist, not a moderate at all, and he is inconsiderate of other people which makes him difficult to work with. Still, this is better than being hopelessly trimming as so many people are; but I feel sorry for people who supported him closely, like Shirley (Williams) and who are still in British politics. (9 October 1977)”

Prentice was deselected in 1975 – an extraordinary snub for a sitting Minister and very unusual at that time in the Labour Party for any reason, and his appeal was turned down by the NEC in 1976. There was a short extraordinary period in 1977 when pro-Prentice campaigners including Julian Lewis, now the Conservative MP for New Forest East, took over the constituency party until it was suspended by the NEC: Dr Lewis has written about the period in Standpoint.

One possibility after Prentice’s deselection was confirmed was to sit as an independent or to set up some sort of centre grouping. Many of Prentice’s allies in the centre, such as my late friend and colleague Stephen Haseler, had hoped to launch a social democratic party of some sort in the mid-1970s, with Prentice as part of the founding group. Haseler was a cheerful, incorrigible schismatic who started as a Gaitskellite partisan, and whose last tilt at elected office was on the Pro-Euro Conservative Party list during the 1999 European Parliament elections. Stephen, Dick Taverne, George Brown and Prentice all ended up being disconnected, uncoordinated departures from Labour rather than a movement.

Prentice was also talking to the Conservatives, particularly his friend Patrick Cormack, the MP for South West Staffordshire, who was a strong personal support at a difficult time for Prentice. Although an awkward character at times, Prentice was not temperamentally a loner, and disliked the isolated political grey area into which he had drifted by 1977. Nor was he a natural leader or a political adventurer. There were attractions to being among friends and colleagues. Cormack and others argued that the Conservatives would do something about the things he really cared about by restoring the authority of law and the state, and that the Tories were basically a pragmatic and moderate force. It wasn’t necessary to accept every jot and comma of Tory doctrine in order to be accepted. By October, Prentice was convinced and ready to go, and his defection was announced during the conference weekend.

The shock of the Prentice affair for the Labour right was profound. As Gerald Kaufman acidly put it, Prentice had ‘done the four minute mile on the road to Damascus’. Reg Prentice himself was culturally Labour, a common-sense trade unionist rather than an academic intellectual. For such a man to go over to the Conservatives was striking, and both symbolised and played a part in the swing of skilled working class voters towards Thatcher in 1979. Within Labour, it made it harder for MPs to argue against the Left’s demand for mandatory reselection.

The Prentice defection ended up being critical to the calling of the 1979 election. The Government lost a no-confidence vote by only 311-310, and the member for Newham North East was among the Conservatives. It is good practice to protect and reward new recruits, and the Conservatives had wisely found a safe Conservative berth for Prentice as MP for the rolling acres of Daventry in Northamptonshire.

Prentice served as MP for that constituency until 1987, and from 1979 to 1981 was a Minister of State in the Department of Health and Social Security. It is a sign of changing times that he was the last Reginald in the House of Commons: Labour’s Reg Race served a single term in 1979-83 and Reggie Maudling died in February 1979.

He went to the Lords in 1992. He was loyally Conservative, but had strong reservations about the party’s line during the disruptive ‘fuel protests’ of September 2000. He saw it as a manifestation of the same sort of coercive disrespect for the law and the public interest for which he had condemned trade unionists in the 1970s. When I spoke to him in late 2000, he was an affable, slightly weary man who did not regret the choices he had made. He died in January 2001, at a time when his fellow 1977 conference initiate, William Hague, was party leader.

There is undoubtedly merit in seeing the Prentice defection in the context of the strains that were showing in Britain’s post-war social democratic order, and the sense that it was running out of road after the crises of the 1967-76 period. Hague’s speech looking forward to a Thatcher government rolling back socialism, and Prentice’s belief that the future choice was the far left or the Tories, were of a piece philosophically. It was the most significant defection since the inter-war period of party-hopping, in that it involved an MP who had recently been a Cabinet minister, who had always been regarded as a solid, mainstream Labour figure, and was one of a series of precursor shocks leading up to the Labour split of 1981.

The last few years have been as stressful as any since the turbulent period between 1972 and 1981 but, in contrast to the 1970s, there has been a complete lack of high-level defections between the parties. This is all the more remarkable given the rapid ideological transitions that have occurred in all the parties.

First, the Liberal Democrats had seemed comfortable carving out a place decidedly to the left of centre and then, after 2010, governed from the centre-right. During the coalition years, they lost members and councillors, some of them to Labour, but none of their MPs resigned or defected for ideological reasons; the one MP they lost in the Parliament, Mike Hancock, left for personal reasons and did not join another party.

Labour has made a big lurch to the left since 2015, but discontented MPs have either stuck with it, retired or, like Tristram Hunt and Jamie Reed, resigned their seats to take other jobs.

The Conservatives, too, changed direction during the short, eventful parliament of 2015-17, but no pro-European or cosmopolitan liberal Tory MPs have resigned the whip – although one of their number, George Osborne, has certainly taken his share of other jobs as an alternative to being an MP. If one is looking for a Europe-based realignment in the last 25 years, the nearest thing is a number of MPs and MEPs who left the Conservatives during the late 1990s and early 2000s: Alan Howarth, Emma Nicholson, Peter Thurnham, Hugh Dykes, Bill Newton Dunn…

The last time that the two main parties abandoned what was then perceived as the centre ground, back in 1981, a vast political territory opened up for a while that was occupied by the SDP-Liberal Alliance. There is no sign of similar space appearing this time. The present time looks like a moment of weakness and realignment. One wonders if, again, something has to give and we will start to hear ominous creaking, as we did in the mid-1970s, before one of the two big parties splinters under the strain. However, we might not be revisiting the 1970s in that respect at least; the binding force of party loyalty is extremely strong within the parties in Parliament, even if voters have become ever more fickle and uninterested.

Further reading: Geoff Horn: Crossing the Floor – Reg Prentice and the crisis of British social democracy (Manchester University Press, 2013)

8 comments for: Lewis Baston: Forty years ago, another Tory conference. It saw that famous Hague speech. And the arrival of Reg Prentice…

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