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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 18 September, 2002, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
The first Social Democrat?
Dick Taverne
Taverne ran against his former party in 1972

In 1972, a Labour MP's decision to quit and run against his own party in a by-election caused a massive political storm.

It also pre-empted the creation of the SDP nine years later.


The trouble with Wilson was that he was in the management consultancy wing of the Labour Party

Lord Taverne
Lord Taverne - then known as Dick - jumped ship because he disliked the leftwards drift of Labour and was adamant the UK should join the Common Market.

Taverne, now a Liberal Democrat peer, held the seat of Lincoln as an independent until the second general election of 1974 when he was defeated by Labour's Margaret Jackson - now better know as Beckett.

Taverne says that he was warned to be more cautious by the likes of Roy Jenkins in 1972.

Taverne says: "I was actually spoiling for a fight because the Labour Party was going the wrong way and I could see what was happening in Lincoln spreading.

"It took longer to spread than one thought but by 1981 it had spread sufficiently for the others to recognise my view was basically right.

"The only difference was that in 1974 Labour won when everyone expected them to lose. Had they lost the split would've then taken place five years earlier."

Drift

Taverne adds that whilst Labour remained in power the "lunatic wing" remained under control.

But he says that under the leadership of Harold Wilson there was simply too much drift.

Harold Wilson
Wilson was prime minister in the 1960s and 1970s
"Wilson wasn't a left-winger as some people originally supposed, he wasn't a right-winger, the trouble with Wilson was that he was in the management consultancy wing of the Labour Party," he says.

All this made Taverne happy to act as what he hoped would be a catalyst to political allies in Labour and he jumped ship.

He says his concerns mirrored many of those reforms eventually instituted by Tony Blair in Labour over 20 years later such as the abolition of Clause 4.

And he found he had a great deal of sympathy from former colleagues on the right of Labour in 1972.

Covert support

"Obviously they could not come and support me if they were still to be in the Labour Party," Taverne says.

"Some did surreptitiously as it were. Roy Jenkins' aide, a man called John Harris, helped me with my campaign but otherwise I was on my own and I knew that."

Many of those who would eventually back a split with Labour thought Taverne was going too far in 1972/3 - Gang of Four members Bill Rodgers and David Owen among them.

(L-r) Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams
The events in Lincoln came nine years ahead of the SDP
But the "seeds of doubt" were already in Roy Jenkins' mind "and he was very unhappy that Labour won in 1974 because he didn't think the party was ready for government".

Taverne insists that the SDP were right to align themselves with the Liberals and eventually merge although he concedes there were differences.

He claims the SDP were "more attuned to power" while the Liberals had become a party of opposition - albeit one with "a lot of very good ideas".

"I think that the new Liberal Democrats are a much more realistic force without having lost their idealism than the old Liberals and a much more effective force than the SDP would've been on its own."

As for Labour he says it was "rotten" at that point and ultimately it was Neil Kinnock who "brought it to its senses".

'Little Englander'

In the meantime Margaret Thatcher had won power in 1979 and the Conservatives were in power for the next 18 years.

Taverne says that he thinks some of Thatcher's reforms were right and necessary.

Although he adds: "It was an awful pity that she was such a divisive force and that she was such an isolationist and national chauvinist as prime minister.

"She was very much a little Englander."

Neil Kinnock
Taverne says Kinnock turned Labour around
But then that is an accusation that Taverne lays at the door of Labour's left wing.

But would he feel at home in Tony Blair's New Labour?

Taverne concedes that leaving a political party is a "major undertaking" and if he was with Labour now he would be a "critical Blair supporter".

He adds: "That doesn't mean to say that I'm not more at home with the Liberal Democrats than I would be in the Labour Party."

The prime minister, says Taverne, falls short on issues like wealth redistribution, on libertarian issues and on his failure to take the UK into the euro.

He adds that he "feels very strongly" that the Lib Dems have more in common with Labour than with the Conservatives.

He believes that the Lib Dems may eventually take over from the Tories as the official opposition.

Shrewd

They may even form a government in their own right, he says, although Taverne says he will never predict the timing of such an event.

But party leader Charles Kennedy has a delicate path to tread if he is to continue the trend of picking up seats from both Conservative and Labour.

Taverne says: "I think he's a very shrewd politician and I think he has seen and understood the basic trends of British politics very well and in some ways I think [Paddy] Ashdown was more dynamic as a leader but Charles Kennedy is politically more shrewd.

"I think he goes down well with the public and he's extremely good and intelligent in the studio maybe he should do a little more in between when he's asked to appear on television."


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25 Jan 01 | Politics
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