In tomorrow’s by-election in Clacton, former Conservative MP Douglas Carswell will contest his previous seat after defection to UKIP. Carswell’s strong difference of opinion with his party over the issue of Europe has echoes of a different by-election – Lincoln in 1973 – but the parties and positions were reversed.
When Britain was applying to join the then European Economic Community (EEC) in the 1960s and 1970s it was the Labour party who were divided on the issue and had a significant minority opposed to membership. In 1971 the Conservative leader Ted Heath put the question of entry to the EEC to the Commons, and Labour MPs were instructed to vote against. This caused real issues for a number of Labour MPs, mostly on the right of the party, who were pro-European. Amongst these were some of the MPs who later formed to the Social Democrat Party in the 1980s.
Dick Taverne, MP for Lincoln, would later join the SDP, but he left the Labour party much earlier. As a committed pro-European he rebelled against the party leadership and voted for joining the EEC, and in doing so lost the support of his constituency party. In his recent interview for our oral history project, he discussed how he left the Labour party and forced a by-election, standing as an independent social democrat candidate:
And my local party was absolutely clear about it and they said: ‘If you vote for entry against the three line whip we will withdraw support’. So I did. And they did. A big battle ensued, in fact it became a national battle, because there was a Granada World in Action programme which televised a debate in which I confronted the leader of my local party, Leo Beckett, and some of his followers. In which they said ‘Didn’t we support you? Weren’t we on the door step with you?’ and I said ‘Yes you were and of course I take note of your opinions but I am not a puppet. I don’t vote as I am instructed by my party masters and I am going to vote for entry’. (You can listen to this clip, and more, on our website)
The 1973 Lincoln by-election put both local party activists and Taverne’s fellow-MPs who sympathised with his stand, but did not want to force the issue with the party, in a difficult position. He remembered that “one third of my local party joined me, which was very brave because they worked for the party all their lives, they were due to be expelled.” However, support from fellow-MPs, even quietly, was very difficult: “I got nudges of support, they’d hope I do well. I mean Roy was absolutely delighted when I won – Roy Jenkins – but he couldn’t possibly.”
Despite winning the by-election, Taverne continued to face difficulties on his return to the House of Commons. In the following extract, he remembers being viewed as a ‘traitor’ to his party, and losing that support:
Taverne won the following general election but lost his seat in October 1974. He wrote a book calling for a third, centrist party in British politics and when the SDP was formed in the 1980s he joined, now sitting in the Lords as a Liberal Democrat peer. Whilst the Clacton by-election is in very different circumstances, the vexed issue of British membership of Europe remains.