'We won't go back to Labour' say SDP converts

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR might present the new face of Labour, but he has failed to win back the support of the majority of Labour MPs who left old Labour to join the SDP 14 years ago.

Nearly twice as many of the one-time defectors say they will support the Liberal Democrats in the next election as say they will vote for Mr Blair. The Labour leader, whose remodelled party has been dubbed "son of SDP", has recaptured the support of only six out of 24 former SDP MPs polled by the Independent on Sunday.

Altogether, 31 people wore the transitory label of SDP MP; four are now dead and three are presently abroad.

Of the rest, only six - Edward Lyons, Jim Wellbeloved, Dickson Mabon, Bob Mitchell, John Grant and Ron Brown - have pledged their support for Mr Blair in the next election. Of these, only Mr Wellbeloved, Mr Grant and Dr Mabon have rejoined the Labour party since Mr Blair's election as leader.

From the remainder, there are 10 supporting the Liberal Democrats, eight undecided and one who will vote Conservative. The Conservative voter is John Horam, a former Labour member for Gateshead West and now a Tory minister and MP for Orpington.

Three of the original Gang of Four - Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams - will be supporting the Liberal Democrats. Only David Owen is refusing to align himself to a party.

The main reservations about Labour and Mr Blair's leadership revolve around his opposition to proportional representation; Labour's relationship with the trade unions; the main party's rows with local government this summer, particularly in Walsall; and a scepticism about the political depth of his message.

Many, though, did express hope that Labour and the Liberal Democrats could work closely together: many also praised Mr Blair's approach in his 15 months as leader.

Brian Magee, a former Labour MP for Leyton, spoke for many when he said: "The last few weeks and months have shown that there's an awful lot of dead wood in the Labour Party. There's still a lot of the loony element in local Labour government which is unacceptable to me. Tony Blair still needs to prove that Labour has joined the human race."

While both Labour and the Liberal Democrats appeal to many of the former SDP members, one has reservations about the ambiguous nature of both. John Cartwright, one of the longest-serving SDP politicians, said: "Some day I'm going to have to face this awful decision of who to vote for but I'm not attracted to any party. None of them meets my needs."

Mike Thomas, a "floating voter" and former Labour/SDP MP for Newcastle East, is also unimpressed. "My problem with the Labour Party is that I'm not sure what it is Tony Blair wants to do that's different from what the Conservatives want to do."

Bruce Douglas-Mann, ex-MP for Mitcham & Morden, summed up many of the doubts surrounding Mr Blair when he said: "He's achieved a great deal but my apprehension is that he will get into government and not do as much as he might if he had more pressure for the Lib Dems."

Many of the former SDP MPs are convinced of the value their old Alliance partners will have, even in a Labour government. Lord Jenkins of Hillhead said: "The Labour Party has vastly improved from the Labour Party of 1983 but I'm very doubtful whether this would have come about were it not for the SDP/Liberal Alliance."

Lord Rodgers added: "There's every advantage for the country in having strong Liberal Democrat representation. I think Labour's constitutional relationship with the unions is wrong and electoral reform is still highly desirable."

Six former Labour MPs have been delighted to return to the fold. One, Ron Brown, was an MP for Hackney South & Shoreditch until 1983, the year Mr Blair became an MP. Before that, Mr Blair spent eight years at Hackney South Labour group, discussing politics with Mr Brown. "He had just come down from university qualified as a lawyer and he wanted to make industrial compensation as part of his work. I dealt a lot with the unions and I helped him. He holds the same views on Clause Four, defence and economic aspects as I do. He's turned out exactly as I hoped he would."