As Jeremy Corbyn’s grip over the Labour party tightens, the threat of deselection for more moderate Labour MPs who do not toe the party line is increasing. Labour MPs who are concerned about their futures may be looking for ways to fight back. I can offer one example of how this can be done, from my time working as a special advisor to the Labour MP John Silkin.
In 1981, Tony Benn announced he was challenging Labour’s Deputy Leader, Denis Healey, for his job. Labour MPs, with minds of their own, were appalled. They saw the tactic as part of the nasty war being waged in the constituencies by a group called Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) to deselect them as candidates and to stop them speaking up for all their constituents.
Fortunately for Labour’s immediate future, those MPs did not just moan; following Benn’s 2am announcement of his candidature, they acted. Hurried discussions took place among members of the left-wing Tribune Group who did not want to vote for Benn but found it equally difficult to imagine voting for the right-wing and often abrupt Healey.
To show their distaste for both Benn and Healey, the disgruntled MPs planned to put up a third candidate. That candidate would be knocked out in the first ballot. After that they would not choose between Benn and Healey because they would abstain.
John Silkin, MP for Deptford and a former Government Chief Whip, offered to call the meeting, and, as I was his special adviser, I was landed with arranging it. I booked a room off Westminster Hall and listened as the unhappy MPs met to plot tactics.
At the first meeting Eric Heffer, MP for Liverpool Walton, bravely offered his services as fall guy. There was one snag – he must tell his constituency agent first. He would report back. But Heffer chickened out. His agent had been very cross with him. He was scared of her. She was a large lady and if we met her we would also be scared of her. He had changed his mind.
Various other suggestions were then considered. Neil Kinnock was proposed but blocked by two former Cabinet ministers: Albert Booth and Stan Orme. They objected to Kinnock on the grounds that Kinnock was not a Privy Counsellor and would lack credibility. However, they did not want to stand themselves.
After further meetings, Silkin eventually agreed to take on the unenviable position of third candidate. Consequently, I was landed with running his obviously losing campaign.
It was a hard and often lonely slog.
A few MPs, despite being threatened with deselection in their constituencies, bravely put their heads above the parapet and spoke up in Silkin’s favour. Others who later claimed credit for their bravery hid until September when they knew Alex Kitson, the Deputy General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, had almost certainly secured that key union’s vote on the first ballot.
Some MPs with very active CLPD members in their constituency parties began to get cold feet. It was not just the prospect of being deselected that put them off but also the vituperative nastiness voiced against them personally and against hard-working members of their constituency parties. Some of those MPs voted for Silkin on the first ballot but went on to vote for Benn on the second, thereby negating the whole purpose of the exercise.
Nevertheless, the third candidate tactic was successful and Healey narrowly won the day. Those involved congratulated themselves on saving the Labour Party from the Trots, but CLPD campaigns to deselect sitting MPs went on.
The deselection campaign against Silkin was particularly vicious. The Trots and their mates targeted loyal members of the Deptford Constituency Labour Party; the allegation against them was often that they were too old. Meetings got longer and longer and more acrimonious; sensible people went home to bed and eventually cancelled their Labour membership in despair.
That Silkin was Jewish was held against him, as were the allegations that he was rich and a solicitor. Other Jews were also targeted. The Methodist Mike Cocks, also a former Chief Whip, had tears running down his cheeks as he told me how horrid so-called activists in his Bristol constituency were to long-term members of his local party. It was no coincidence that Cock’s wife, Valerie, organised Labour Friends of Israel. Other Jewish MPs including Reg Freeson in London and Maurice Miller in Scotland were also targeted.
Today Momentum is using some of the same tools as CLPD and its associates did in the 1980s: smears, abuse, ridiculously long meetings and the threat of deselection. However, clever use of social media has enabled Momentum to become even more effective than its predecessor organisation.
A key question for those Labour MPs who want to remain independent-minded and free to represent all their constituents rather than a small, well-organised rabble is this: do they have the guts to stand up to the threats of deselection and the abuse that accompanies those threats. If so, will they organise to do so?
Ann Carlton was a special adviser to Tony Crosland and John Silkin, and was local government officer for the Labour party from 1966 to 1974.