What people often lose sight of is the personal dimension of all this. I was very unhappy and by the end I could take no more of it. Now I do not wake up in the morning thinking with dread of what I'll be called upon to support that day, and to what extent I will have to stand on my political head.
At 41 Shaun has his future, whatever it may by, ahead of him. Once he gets through the trauma of defection, he is likely to thank the good Lord that he has done it, and get on with his political life. He can also have peace of mind with his life generally. This is far more important than what may become of him in the Labour Party. He will have to earn that. At this stage he has given up a safe seat, but he has a good future which he is young enough to enjoy in any party. He has acted on principle and he deserves our respect for that.
It is important to realise that there are two main aspects to political defection. The "Departure Lounge" often dominates the debate, but it is the "Arrivals Area" that is the most important. His main challenge now, and his preoccupation for the rest of this Parliament, must be to work his passage as a card-carrying member of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). As he has been in Parliament for only two and half years, very briefly as an Opposition front bencher, and has both ability and ambition, some of the PLP will need reassurance. This he must give them, collectively and individually.
He must not rush his fences. It is important to choose his issues carefully and concentrate in using his experience to further the cause of New Labour. By all means take the occasional swipe at his old party, but make sure that he is on firm political ground in doing so. But the main thing must be constructive support for this Labour Government. He has plenty of time and he should use it sensibly, be it at Westminster, with local Labour Parties that will want to hear him, and in the wider public and media arena.
At Westminster the social side is extremely important. The PLP will be potentially warm and supportive. He must justify that by personal contact. The party will not give a toss about his background. In a real sense the Labour Party is not like that. But it will want and expect him to be one of them. I was lucky in that I had been around a long time, had many Labour friends built up over years of service, and my discontent with the Tories was all too-well-known. He'll have to work harder than me on this one. Get out there among them, get into the members' dining room and quite simply work at it. The PLP will respond. At no time, publicly or privately, must he tell the PLP what to do. He will occasionally be asked, and that is his moment.
At the moment Shaun is rushing around, the adrenaline is flowing and doubtless the approach of Christmas is a welcome prospect. The "Departure Lounge" will be the first thing he will have to get over. In my case I went out on the street expecting that someone would shout abuse. Instead I found, both in London and in the constituency, just the opposite. One classic encounter was when I was stopped in Parliament Square by an Conservative area chairman who sympathised. As we were talking two young men passed by, stopped and shouted: "Well done. Don't worry mate, We're not Tories any more either!".
The moral of all this that those out there are, in this day and age, nothing like as party-political as politicians may think. They are surprisingly fair-minded and they like someone who stands up for his beliefs. It is only the activist tribe of a political party that reacts with the all too predictable accusation of treachery.
In the House of Commons Shaun will find that his Conservative friends will remain his friends. Again he should not push it, but allow them to come up to him. As time goes by it will become easier. I personally employed and still to an extent do employ a "no greet policy". I will look the approaching Tory in the eye but I will not greet until greeted. In this way no one can cut you, even if they effect to ignore you. It always amuses me that those who do this are so utterly predictable. Most of them I could not stand when I was in the Tory party, and, so, I am supremely relieved to no longer have to associate with them as party colleagues.
In the constituency it should be business as usual. Shaun should get out there as the MP, literally as if nothing has happened. At present the usual demands for a by-election are being made, more through frustration than with any constitutional depth. Constitutionally we are elected as individuals and the right to defect within a Parliament is a valuable safe- guard. In recent years a whole range of defectors from Reg Prentice, to David Owen and the SDP, to Alan Howarth and beyond, have all remained sitting MPs for the duration of the parliament.
The demands will subside as Shaun continues to represent all the people of his constituency in the best British tradition. The good news is that he will be spared all the never-ending social activities of a constituency Conservative association. No more repetitive wine and cheese parties, or forced to make speeches at social evenings of one type or another: more time for serious speeches and articles to establish himself within the Labour Party.
In the wider world outside politics Shaun is also in for some pleasant surprises. The Conservative Party's reaction to his defection could hardly have been nastier. Gone is any pretence to the style and grace of the old party. This reaction is typical of what now passes for a Conservative but is symptomatic of the rump the party has become. By the same token people in the real world out there have forsaken this party. When I joined the Labour Party I was due at a charity function two days later as a guest of a major City bank. When I telephoned, offering to withdraw, I was told in no uncertain terms that I was welcome - I suspected, with cause - more welcome than before. The coalition that elected Labour in 1997 was quite phenomenal in its breadth.
It is greatly to the credit of Tony Blair that class-based politics are fading out as a thing of the past. But again Shaun will have to take care particularly in a Tory county constituency. Many ageing county Tories are essentially apolitical. They are born conservatives, die conservatives, believe what they read in The Daily Telegraph, and expect their politicians to defend their often privileged middle class interests. The genuine grandees are fine, but watch out for the retired majors and colonels.
Enough for the moment. Doubtless I will be talking to Shaun before long. For the moment I say well done, good luck and work hard in the Labour Party to secure the trust and confidence it is surely ready to give you.
The author has been MP for Leominster, Herefordshire, since 1974. He defected from the Conservative Party in November 1997 and, after six months as an independent, joined the Labour Party in June 1998Reuse content