Splits from Labour are Unforgiveable

By John McDonnell MP

As always there are lessons to be learned from history. With a small group of MPs splintering off from the Labour Party, I thought it would be useful to recall just one of the local histories of the last split off from the Labour Party in the 1980s.

In the 1970s and early 1980s Neville Sandelson was the Labour Member of Parliament for my constituency of Hayes and Harlington. In the 1974 and 1979 elections I was my ward’s campaign agent for him.

After fighting many no-hoper safe Tory seats he had won the selection to fight Hayes and Harlington in a by-election by coming through the middle of the selection battle between the large unions affiliated to the constituency.

It wasn’t long after he was elected that it was pretty obvious that he was a bit of a fish out of water. Hayes and Harlington CLP has always been on the left of the party, based upon a strong shop floor, rank and file trade union movement. Previous MPs included Arthur Skeffington, who became a radical housing minister and Walter Ayles, who had been a famous conscientious objector imprisoned for his beliefs in the First World War.

Sandelson was on the right of the party. A middle class lawyer, he had few links or understanding of the trade union movement at its grassroots.

Hayes was and still is a working class community. For over a century it has been a migrant community with wave after wave of migrants settling in the area, including the Irish and Welsh, Afro- Caribbean, Asian, Kurdish, Somalian, Gambian and Gurkha communities. Sandelson never lived in the area and instead had a residence in Ascot, a wealthier London suburb.

Eventually there were moves in the CLP to see whether Sandelson could be replaced by a Labour candidate more in keeping with the political views of the local party. In the formal process for confirming the selection of Sandelson as our parliamentary candidate, the CLP voted against his endorsement as the candidate and sought to select another candidate. There were rumours that he would desert the party but he assured everybody of his absolute loyalty. The national party overrode the CLP and imposed Sandelson as the Labour candidate for the 1979 election.

Despite having a candidate imposed upon us we still fought hard to win the seat for Labour – and we succeeded. After the election an approach was made to Michael Foot who was then the leader of the party to see whether Sandelson could be made a member of the House of Lords. Many thought that this would be a diplomatic way out of the dilemma that faced the constituency and it was understood that Sandelson would be very amenable to that solution.

For some reason Michael Foot never delivered a seat in the Lords for Sandelson. Within months he had joined a breakaway group of Labour MPs to set up the SDP. He stood against us at the next election, split the vote and the Conservatives held the seat for the next 13 years.

Neville Sandelson’s contribution, alongside his fellow members of the SDP, was to ensure that this country endured the savagery of the Thatcher government throughout the 1980s. She left behind whole communities devastated by unemployment as we lost large swathes of our manufacturing base. Unemployment scarred a whole generation. The gift of a decade of North Sea oil that could have provided us with a sovereign wealth fund to sustain our public services for generations to come was sold off into private hands for private profits – and squandered. The deregulation of the city and finance capital sowed the seeds that would eventually cause the financial crash of 2008.

These were the consequences of a split in the Labour Party then, aided by a media only too willing to assist in installing and sustaining a Tory regime in power. Nobody recalling and appreciating the damage of the 1980s split could contemplate supporting a split today, with the threat of maintaining a Tory government that has just inflicted nine years of austerity on our society.

I cite just one statistic to demonstrate what that has meant and will continue to mean if the Tories are kept in power by splitters. In the sixth largest economy in the world, every day 90 people die before they receive the social care they need.

This piece first appeared in Labour Briefing, where John McDonnell writes a regular monthly column.   To subscribe, click here.