15 OCTOBER 1977, Page 13

After Prentice, who next?

Brian Walden

I pity Reg Prentice. Whatever the rights or wrongs of what he has done, he does not deserve the treatment that British politicians reserve for defectors. British politics is all about class, despite the occasional pretence that some weighty philosophic principle is at issue. To leave Labour and join the Tories is to desert the workers and join the bosses.

Naturally the point cannot be put that crudely by the genro of the Labour Party, but Mr Bob Mellish's description of Mr Prentice as 'a nauseating traitor' gives an accurate indication of what feeling is like in the ranks. The 'moderate' or 'socialdemocratic' (I no longer have the slightest idea what doctrinal nuance is supposed to be conveyed by these terms but everybody uses them and so must 1) wing of the Labour Party will be especially bitter in their denunciations, lest doubters wonder where their loyalties lie.

The Labour Left will be glad to see the back of Mr Prentice, though their joy will not be quite as unconfined as it was when Roy Jenkins took ship for Europe. What would maximise their pleasure would be Mr Callaghan's retirement to his farm and Mr Healey's permanent withdrawal to his large house, of which Mr Jack Jones, speaking on behalf of the sons of toil, so strongly disapproves.

The word will now go forth that Mr Prentice was an unperson of no significance whatsoever. My father removed Ramsay MacDonald's picture from the wall to the toolshed and almost succeeded in convincing himself that no such man had existed. That is the authorised Labour response and Reg Prentice can expect a double portion of cold-shoulder. I hope he has not been kissing any duchesses, or engaging in any other Tory pursuits, such as playing cards or drinking sherry. If he has, we shall certainly be hearing about it, probably from Mrs Judith Hart, who has a blouseful of knives she wishes to stick into Mr Prentice's back.

The crifrie that Mr Prentice has committed is to make people think. Mr Paul Johnson and Mr Woodrow Wyatt are both splendid fellows and if I ever staged a booze-up they would be amongst the first chaps I would invite. But that is the trouble. They have a well-deserved reputation for brilliance and so are not taken seriously by the Labour Party. Their defection can be written off as the passing whim of men who are too intelligent to feel at home in the People's party. Not to mention their private habits. Why, it has already been in the pages of the New Statesman that Mr Johnson was SO devoid of virtue that on one occasion he visited the Ritz.

But Mr Prentice and the Ritz somehow do not go together. Mr Prentice looks like a temperate, solid man, not overburdened with imagination, but chockful of dedication and worthy endeavour. Just the sort of bloke who would be in Mr Callaghan's Cabinet. If people like this are turning blue, it is a serious state of affairs. Who next? Mr Merlyn Rees?

It will be pretended that Reg Prentice was some rare species of 'moderate', entirely dissimilar to any other bird in Labour's garden. The truth is that he was a typical right-winger, who differed not one jot from his comrades, except that they kept their mouths shut in public and he did not. For once the truth is widely known and it is this that is so dangerous for the Labour Party. Questions can be asked to which there are no satisfactory answers. The dragons teeth sown in the 1 960s are sticking up unmistakably through the soil.

The most damaging question that can be asked of a Labour 'moderate' (and I strongly recommend that it be put to Mr Roy Hattersley before he writes any more works of political philosophy) is, `Do you believe in the kind of socialism advocated by the NEC of the Labour Party?' This is not a trick question, nor is the asking of it a disgraceful slur upon the reputation of good men. It is a question of staggering banality, so wide-eyed with innocence that any politician who has been doing the job for a week ought to be able to knock it for six in a couple of pithy sentences. So why don't they?

It is the embarrasing silence on this not unimportant point that has become noticeable and is dramatised by Mr Prentice's defection. He thinks he knows the answer and he proclaims it vociferously. He says the Labour 'moderates' are a pack of careerists, who do not believe in any brand of socialism as understood and supported by Labour activists in the constituencies. But the 'moderates' do not admit this, because they want jobs, especially jobs in the Cabinet.

It is this charge that needs to be answered and until it is there will be a spreading stain across Labour's reputation. Mr Prentice will have done his old party a good turn if he forces it to examine its principles. When see a man of Roy Hattersley's stature and intelligence, an outstanding candidate to become Prime Minister one day, concocting unbelievable nonsense to the effect that mending leaky roofs is what freedom is all about, I begin to become very worried indeed about the future.

There are several honourable answers to the question 'Are you a socialist?' No definitional problems need detain the willing respondent. He can say 'yes', or 'no', or 'maybe' and go on to explain what he means by public ownership, or anything else that enables him to give a clear picture of what he believes. What he cannot do with any honour is to keep silent. Hugh Gaitskell made that point so often it is astonishing that anybody can sleep at nights whilst ignoring it.

So after Mr Prentice has been given the ritual bashing for which his heinous offence cries out, I hope we shall hear a few words on the substance of his accusation against former colleagues. It would surely be ironic if the moderates' fear of realignment within the Labour Party led to them having to face a realigned Tory Party.

Mr Prentice, Mr Johnson and Mr Wyatt do not constitute a realignment. Only an ominous warning. I hope that somebody has been listening.