Podium: My long journey to where I started

From a speech by the former Conservative and now Labour MP to the Bristol Fabians
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The Independent Culture
I SOMETIMES think I have travelled a long way in politics by just standing still. I began as a soft-centred, one-nation politician with a social conscience; a believer in a basic free-enterprise society with a toleration, even affection, for a degree of public ownership; an internationalist and a convinced European.

Add to that, pragmatism, working for consensus, a dislike of over-partisan politics, a healthy disrespect for strictly party politicians and a belief in the middle way, to coin a phrase used in the Thirties by Harold Macmillan, and where does that get me? Put another way, does it really surprise anyone much that I am now a member of New Labour?

After the General Election, and having lived in hope that the Conservative party might come to its senses in defeat, I became utterly depressed with the pronounced drift to the right of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, rump that it was. There was no way that Kenneth Clarke could be elected leader by them, and the emergence of William Hague as leader was one of many last straws. I dropped into No 10 for a coffee with Jonathan Powell, who was well known to me, at the end of July 1997, and the process of defection, difficult as it is, began. I finally decided to join Labour in October 1997, with a Shadow Cabinet on the Single Currency providing an appropriate further last straw. Sadly, speculation about the possibility of my defection got into the press later that week, with me set to go on Sunday, 2 November.

Michael Heseltine came out on the Thursday before with a strong attack on Hague's European policy and the Shadow Cabinet decision, with an appeal for all Conservatives to stand firm and to carry on the good fight within the party. The broadcast was aimed at me, and the horse was shot from under me. I had no credibility to leave, and the matter was out in the public domain as well!

At 8.30am on Friday, 21 November, three weeks after my return to the fold, the Conservative whip was withdrawn from me by way of a faxed letter from the Chief Whip being read out to me by his secretary on the telephone. With all due deference to her, I found this procedure somewhat tawdry after nearly 24 years as a Conservative MP, and certainly unworthy of the party that I had joined. I resigned from the party immediately, and I crossed the floor the following Monday, 24 November.

After I crossed the floor as an independent, I still had some way to go. I took advice from various people and decided that there should be a period of about six months before I could finish the job and finally join Labour. I joined Labour on Sunday, 21 June 1998, and made the formal announcement in a prearranged interview on the Frost programme. At last I had reached my intended destination.

The worst thing that happened, and virtually the only one of its type in the whole process, was when I attended a major county lunch, held on the opening day of my constituency's biggest agricultural show. I was destined to sit at table one with various dignitaries, and none other than William Hague was attending and sitting, I am delighted to say, on table three.

I turned up at my table and was about to sit down, when the organiser came up to me and said: "You are wrongly parked here", whereupon he took my arm and virtually frog-marched me the entire length of the marquee containing 200 guests, placing me at the other end and as far away as possible from where William Hague was destined to be sitting.

At no time had I even been told that my table was due to be changed. This incident got into our local papers, and I had profuse apologies from the organisers. That said, it was quite the most humiliating experience of my political life.

I have always thought of myself as a typical one-nation Tory, a capitalist with a social conscience, who was absolutely appalled to hear Mrs Thatcher say in Edinburgh that, "there is no such thing as society". When I got to the Commons in February 1974, Edward Heath was still leader, but with Mrs Thatcher destined to take over in February 1975. Looking back, her doing so was the beginning of the end for me as a Conservative, although it was certainly a case, as Alastair Campbell once remarked to me, of "slow burn". As I said on one occasion to Tony Blair: "I woke up one morning, put my head outside the tent, and found you camped all around me!"

The Conservative Party has become even more right-wing, with associated nationalistic tendencies. All this represents a wonderful opportunity for the Labour Party. At last, I feel I have come home.

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