Beaming down to the Brave Old World

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The Independent Online
It was a beautiful day and I thought to myself, "What could be nicer than to spend it in the company of Old Labour? We could talk about times past and sing a few of those old, rousing songs. Later on we might take in an Indian and sink a couple of pints of heavy to wash down a pork vindaloo."

So off I went to a press conference featuring that dangerous radical, Roy Hattersley. Gloriously contrary now that he is unencumbered by high party office, Hatters discerns which way the political tide is flowing within his party - and then swims strongly and loudly in the opposite direction. One day soon he will be espied, complete with dreadlocks and nose-rings, selling Socialist Worker outside Victoria Station, stopping only to take the occasional swig from a bottle of Krug.

To get to Mr Hattersley and company I had first to gain entry to the suite of MPs' offices at Number 7, Millbank. This involves waiting for one curved Perspex door to slide open, standing inside a small bubble, waiting for the first door to slide closed again, and then waiting once more while a second transparent door opens. All of which happens with the swish and hiss of one of those airlocks in Star Trek. Presumably the idea is to equalise the air pressure between MPs' natural environment and that of the world outside.

Once aboard I prepared to take a time trip with Roy, Gerald Kaufman and Joan Lestor, who had come together as The First Past The Post Group, formed to campaign against any change in the system for electing the House of Commons.

Roy's role was to take the discussion on to the higher plane of principle and destiny. If Labour was to fulfil its socialist promise, it must do so unrestricted by alliances with Liberals, nationalists and other odd bods. Did anybody realise how awful it was during dark days of the Lib-Lab pact (1977-79, for students of ancient history), when the whims of footloose centrists drove men like Denis Healey to tears?

Should Roy's high-mindedness fail to persuade Labour MPs to oppose change, Gerald Kaufman was on hand to spell out the more personal consequences. Thirty-four would have to give up their seats. They wouldn't like that, now would they?

Joan Lestor wound proceedings up. Like Gerald and Roy she has actually served in a Labour government. Her line was that she had fought nine elections under first past the post, and had won eight of them.

And it's true - she had. But Labour hadn't. I made a quick calculation that her first election was the1964 Labour victory that ended "13 years of Tory misrule". In the following 32 years, Labour enjoyed a good working majority for four of them and a precarious one, or none at all, for another seven. The other 21 saw Conservative governments with solid or huge majorities, none of them elected with a majority of the popular vote.

So, as I stood in the airlock waiting to be beamed back to my own planet, I pondered the strange phenomenon of a group of people fighting like hell to retain a system that has so manifestly not worked for them. The phenomenon of Old Labour, in fact.

Politics, pages 10, 11

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