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Our role in the Prentice story is accurately summarised by Horn, except in one minor detail: the Labour party never managed to expel us for our efforts to save it from itself. The mixture of intensive local mobilisation and court enforcement action which we undertook saw the moderates back in charge of the local party from July 1977 until late October that year, when the Left-dominated National Executive Committee of the Labour party voted to suspend the Newham North East CLP. By that time Reg Prentice had already been a Conservative MP for a fortnight.

As Horn’s narrative makes clear, Prentice’s failure to prevent his own deselection initially convinced him to stand as an Independent — either at the next general election or at a by-election which he himself would trigger. He no longer wanted to represent the Labour party, given the seemingly unstoppable advance of the Left. We shall never know for certain, but it seems probable that our temporary success in winning back control of the CLP inadvertently saved his career. If Prentice had fought a by-election in Newham North East (a rock-solid safe Labour seat), his defeat would have been beyond doubt — just as it would have been had he stayed on in the Commons as an Independent MP until the 1979 general election. Yet, with moderates apparently in charge in Newham, an independent stance became incredible: his only way out was a total switch to the Conservatives. To that he owed his parliamentary survival.

More importantly, crossing the floor ensured that when the Callaghan minority government faced a motion of no confidence in March 1979, it was Reg Prentice whose single vote secured its downfall. As Horn relates: “The one vote that the government had needed to survive should have been supplied by the MP for Newham North East, representing a Labour stronghold . . . But Prentice’s vote was decisively cast in favour of bringing to an end what proved to be the last Labour government for a generation.” Prentice’s defection and the subsequent breakaway of the Social Democrats heralded the ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher. Labour remained out of office for 18 years.

It is not good for democracy when just one major party has electoral credibility. The country needs sensible parties of both Right and Left to act as government and opposition, with the latter fit to take over when the voters tire of the former. Conservatives should not gloat when they see the Labour Party in radical left-wing hands. Nor should the country be complacent, however sincere and personally decent a Lansbury, Foot or Corbyn may be. Horn’s salutary reconstruction of the ordeal of Labour moderates like Reg Prentice 40 years ago, and the electoral oblivion which followed, should be a wake-up call to their present-day successors. They can get their act together or face a generation in the wilderness.

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