Debate: Is it better to leave the party than to fight it?

Ivan Massow's decision last week to quit the Conservatives and join Labour brought criticism and praise. It raised the question of whether politicians should swear undying loyalty or stand up for what they believe <i/>
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Labour Party Special Conference always ends in disaster, and the most disastrous of all was held on a dismal Saturday in the winter of 1981. The only item on the agenda was "Constitutional Change" - proposals that its advocates claimed would generate greater democracy, but which were intended to guarantee the permanent domination of the unelectable left. The day ended in chaos and I walked out into the wet night with little doubt about my political future. Labour was sunk. I decided to go down with the ship.

Labour Party Special Conference always ends in disaster, and the most disastrous of all was held on a dismal Saturday in the winter of 1981. The only item on the agenda was "Constitutional Change" - proposals that its advocates claimed would generate greater democracy, but which were intended to guarantee the permanent domination of the unelectable left. The day ended in chaos and I walked out into the wet night with little doubt about my political future. Labour was sunk. I decided to go down with the ship.

Even at that traumatic moment I was sure that tribal loyalty was only a minor influence on my decision. I made no apology for my commitment to a party for which I delivered election leaflets when I was 11 years old. Irrational devotion is as important to political movements as it is to infantry regiments. It is what makes its members willing to fight and die rather than surrender. But even then I had no doubt that staying was the rational decision. When I joined the party on my 16th birthday, it was because I believed in a more equal society. Even in 1981, Labour was the best vehicle for moving that idea forward - if not in government then in opposition.

If there had been a sea-change in my ideology and I had become convinced that the injustice of the unregulated market was a price we had to pay for prosperity and individual freedom, I might have become a Conservative. But the idea that I should move right because Labour had moved too far left never entered my head.

Ivan Massow now tells us that he left the Tory party because of its recently acquired homophobia. Peter Temple-Morris crossed the House when the Conservatives hardened their opposition to the European Union. On both issues I am on the same side as the deserters. But two years ago, they and I held fundamentally different views on the nature of the good society. Do they now believe in the redistributive policies which are Labour's defining characteristic? Sudden conversions are never either convincing or edifying.

Apostates always speak about the incidents which alienated them from their old allegiance and rarely describe the change of principle which must accompany an honourable change of party. Mr Massow was offended by the way in which William Hague rejoiced at the House of Lords' defeat of attempts to repeal Section 28. But how did he feel at that moment about the general theory of conservatism? Did Hague's behaviour alter his philosophy? And if a new Tory leader is less homophobic, will he return to the fold?

If a party member finds one item of policy intolerable, he or she has a moral duty not to tolerate it. That obligation is far better discharged by fight than desertion; staying and fighting is not as painful as the apostates fear. And it can show results. Had the moderates abandoned Labour in the 1980s, the party would have disintegrated and the hopes of recreating a democratic socialist movement would have disappeared. We stayed, and the policies on Europe and defence have been reversed, and the hope of an egalitarian government remains. In fact, the pendulum has swung dangerously in the other direction. Twenty years ago Labour was too far left. Now it is too near the centre, but politics is like that. Parties are inconsistent. Individual members should be constant.

Lord Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party 1983-92 and an MP for 33 years.

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Peter Temple-Morris: Yes

Any political defection, particularly one from within the House of Commons, is agonising. After a political lifetime in one party you leave that tribe and join another. Unless it is based on strong conviction, what follows can be a recipe for unhappiness. In my case I have no hesitation in saying that I wake up every morning and say to myself, thank God I did it. I do not have to contemplate the week ahead wondering what I will be expected to support, how I will be able to support it, how far I can express my views, and all the other ghastly results of finding yourself beached on the wrong side in politics.

After many years I have at last a prime minister and government I can support. My principles have not changed and I never compromised them. If people refer to what I did as a betrayal, so be it. If I betrayed anything it was a rather extreme, unpleasant and largely unworthy bearer of the traditions of the Conserv- ative Party. Had I remained, the agony would have been much worse.

There is generally a catalyst to any defection. In my case it was Europe and Kenneth Clarke's rejection as leader. But what goes before can vary enormously. For me, it was the steady transformation of the Conservative Party, starting from the beginning of Lady Thatcher's leadership. For years I pretended little had changed and the "Old Party" was still in control. I rebelled occasionally and immersed myself in foreign policy.

The second half of the 1992 parliament was unhappy for me. Alan Howarth's defection in September 1995 had a profound effect. I wanted to join him but, with a constituency association which had baled me out of trouble with the local right, I could not bring myself to do it.

I was also in the thick of the internal arguments over Europe and virtually persecuted by the Daily Telegraph and others over my views on Ireland. My dissatisfaction with the Tories was public. Undoubtedly all this helped towards my acceptance in the Labour Party.

I fought the 1997 election with a heavy heart. I was now a member of a defined right-wing party. The rest is history.

With defections, comment seems to focus on one's abandoned party, the "departure lounge". But "arrivals" is equally important. With Tony Blair's arrival, here was a Labour leader overwhelmingly articulating my own views. Finally, my defection was my individual choice as a backbencher. For my part I had just had enough.

Peter Temple-Morris is MP for Leominster. He was a Tory MP for 23 years and joined Labour in 1998.

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