The MP who beat Eurosceptics to hang on to his seat
PUBLISHED: 06:00 23 February 2018
PA Archive/PA Images
DICK TAVERNE was deselected as an MP over his pro-Europe views in the 1970s. He has some advice to those on both sides of the House now facing similar threats.
Deselection of MPs because their views clash with those of their local or national party has been a rare event in British politics. But there are signs that it could be making a comeback.
Those on the Labour benches who are critical of their leader and his attitude to Brexit, are threatened with just such a fate by his powerful and well-organised supporters at a constituency level. At the same time, some fervent Conservative Brexiteers have called for the expulsion from their party of those who, they claim, express views that conflict with government policy on Brexit (even though we still don’t know what it is).
It is a scenario that provokes strong memories for me, because it was a fate I endured, as MP for Lincoln. In 1972 I was deselected by my local Labour Party because of my pro-European views. It seems a long time ago, but some of the lessons may prove highly-relevant today.
It was a time when Europe, as now, aroused strong passions. Two unsuccessful attempts were made for Britain to join the European Community, by Macmillan in 1962 and by Wilson in 1968. Both were vetoed by De Gaulle. When the Conservatives regained power in 1970, Heath tried again. De Gaulle was no longer president.
His successor, Pompidou, withdrew the French veto and in 1972 the Commons were asked to approve our entry.
However, Labour had decided to change its mind and opposed entry. A group of some 30 Conservative eurosceptics also opposed and we would not have joined the EC if 69 Labour MPs, led by Roy Jenkins, had not defied a three-line whip and voted to support Heath, giving him a big majority.
My own local Labour party in Lincoln, a very left-wing party, was violently anti-Europe and before the vote told me that if I voted for entry, with the Tories and against the three-line whip, they would deselect me. As a convinced pro-European I did – and they did.
I then resigned to fight a by-election as ‘Independent Democratic Labour’. I was opposed both by official Labour and Conservative candidates. The Liberals did not put up a candidate. A hundred or more Labour MPs (though very few of the 69) trooped to Lincoln, urged on by the whips, to canvass against me and humiliate this rebel apostate.
It was an election that aroused huge public interest. At the largest public meeting Lincoln had ever seen, I explained that as a life-long pro-European I was not going to abandon my principles because my local party told me to, and was supported by Bernard Levin, one of the outstanding journalists of the day, who told the audience that the choice in Lincoln was between Dick Taverne and a dictaphone.
Hundreds of members of all parties and none came to Lincoln to campaign for me, including at least one leading Conservative MP, Patrick Mayhew, later Attorney General and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Michael Heseltine, then a minister, told me he too would have supported me. (My re-election was also supported by The Times and its editor, William Rees-Mogg, father of Jacob!)
Labour thought I was bound to lose because an opinion poll they organised showed that Lincoln electors were opposed to EC entry by two to one. But Europe was not the only issue.
In 1973 I won an overwhelming victory with 21,967 votes compared with 8,776 for Labour and 6,616 for the Conservatives. I believe it was mainly Edmund Burke ‘wot won it’, father of the doctrine that MPs should not act as delegates, nor, as I put it, as party puppets, but as representatives who exercise their own judgement after hearing the evidence and arguments.
What also swayed a lot of votes was my appeal that politicians should put country first, constituency second and party third.
Burke proved popular. Indeed Roy Jenkins, not a natural populist, temporarily became a popular hero and told me that taxi drivers would wind down their windows if they passed him and shout: “You stick to your guns, mate.”
Are circumstances less favourable for a deselected dissident today? They are probably more favourable. At that time, party loyalties were much stronger than now. When I announced I would stand as an independent, the general view in the media was that I had committed political suicide.
I thought I had a chance of winning, but was astonished at the general enthusiasm that my by-election aroused and indeed at the size of my victory. I have no doubt that the flood of my supporters in Lincoln will be nothing to the tidal wave that would pour into a by-election about Brexit today, if a pro-European MP is hounded out of his or her constituency.
Many groups in different parts of Britain have already started their own local Stop Brexit activities and have been longing for an opportunity to express their passionate frustration at the referendum result on the national stage.
The not-so-secret weapon of a Stop Brexit campaign are the young. Remember shortly after the referendum vote, when many thousands of young people took to the streets spontaneously to express their deep concern about their future. There was no national organisation behind their demonstration. Nor was there one to back me in 1973.
But now a national Stop Brexit campaign is about to be launched that is likely to galvanise anti-Brexit voters, especially the young, who the polls show still strongly favour Remain. A mass of enthusiastic young campaigners will set any campaign alight and will not only make success in such a by-election likely, but if they secure a big victory, could bring about a big shift of public opinion against Brexit.
Incidentally, the polls also show that more than 80% of Labour activists now want a second referendum. And MPs should not fear the charge that a second referendum ignores ‘the people’s will’. It would be a new referendum, when the facts are known about what Brexit actually means.
The moral of the story is that deselection is not inevitable political death for an MP who sticks to his or her principles.