In 1976, Newham North-East Constituency Labour Party gained a new member. A postgraduate student from Oxford, he was described by The Observer as “able”, “single-minded”, “egocentric” and “fanatical” – and by 1977 he had carried out what the paper termed a “coup” in the CLP, wresting control from a coalition of Trotskyists in order to defend Reg Prentice, the sitting moderate MP.
The young man’s name was Julian Lewis – now rather better known in his true form as Conservative MP for the New Forest, strident defender of Trident, long-term thorn in the side of the left and defence specialist. With the support of The Freedom Association, he had decided to practice a bit of entryism in Newham in order to play the hard left at its own game – fighting through endless meetings, procedural skirmishes and court cases to defeat and expose Militant Tendency, among others.
His battle wasn’t entirely successful – at least in the short term. Prentice ended up defecting to the Conservative Party, and according to at least some sources at the time wasn’t totally convinced that legal action by someone who (it seemed) was on the right of the Labour Party was entirely helpful to his cause. Eventually the moderates, led by Lewis, were overthrown by direct intervention of Labour’s NEC, and lost a court case to overturn that decision.
But in the longer term, it proved to be a worthwhile endeavour. Only a few years later, the Labour Party would recognise the problem of Trotskyist entryism and purge itself of Militant. Lewis, a Tory who opposed the hard left, had fought the first real battle in that war.
It’s a tale worth considering for two reasons.
First, it’s a reminder of how much the world has changed in 40 years. It’s still possible to attend the left’s meetings without necessarily being recognised, or for Tories to get a vote in the Labour leadership contest, for example, but it would be extremely hard for any Tory to actually join and take over a Constituency Labour Party over the course of several months. Modern life involves a digital footprint for almost everyone – a modern-day Lewis would surely be outed as a secret Conservative in about ten minutes.
Second, it’s a reminder of how little the world has changed in 40 years. Hard left extremists taking over the Labour Party machinery and threatening deselections of moderate MPs. (Coincidentally, even some of the families are the same – a judge in one of Lewis’s cases was Sir Helenus Milmo, grandfather of Chuka Umunna.) The major difference is one of scale – Militant never secured control of the Labour Party in the 1970s, whereas today such people can legitimately claim to be working in the interests of the Party’s leader, whether he explicitly welcomes their support or not.
Plenty of Tories observe the rise of Corbyn, and the decline of the Opposition, with understandable glee – enjoying the spectacle of a once-threatening political force sinking beneath a tide of obscure pamphlets and fairtrade hummus. Others argue that a lack of scrutiny and tough challenges from the other side will make the Conservative Party flabby, arrogant and ineffective. Both are understandable and justified viewpoints.
What is undeniably bad for the country is the re-emergence of the hard left into mainstream politics. Marxists, Trotskyists and every other unpleasant left-wing sect have taken the opportunity to return from the fringes where they had been forced to live out their long exile. While we may enjoy the sight of the red line plummeting in the polls, and the vanishing chances of Labour winning the next General Election, we should all oppose any prospect of such extremists gaining influence at any level of our national life.
The question therefore is what can modern-day Lewises – Conservatives willing to try to save Labour from the hard left – do to help the relatively sane elements of the Labour Party hold out? As I’ve already noted, it would be nigh-on impossible to repeat his feat of covert action in the age of the internet, and modern-day Prentices would no doubt find the public support of actual Tories (as opposed to “red Tories”) more harmful than helpful.
Answers on a postcard (or in the comments below), please.