by KEVIN McNAMARA Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull
"Shock for MPs as Mellish offers to go" ran the headline in Labour Weekly's Christmas edition. "The Primt Minister will address I.abour MPs. including the 54 who rebelled against the whip op the defence cuts, as a result of Bob Mellish's on-off resignation on Wednesday.
"Chief Whip Mr Mellish agreed to withdraw his resignation and to carry on with the job after a long talk.with Mr Wilson after the recent back-bench revolt," and so the article goes on giving chapter and verse of what had happened when the revolt against the defence cuts took place.
Bob Mellish became Chief Whip when towards the end of the last Labour Government, Mr Wilson, Roy Jenkins, Barbara Castle, had seen the revolt on a three line Whip against the Labour , Government's proposals to reform on the Trades Unions contained in the White Paper "In Place of Strife."
Bob's first job was to tell the Government that it could not get this legislation through the Parliamentary Labour Party, ,never mind the Commons. The -issue was then dropped. The messages which Bob Mellish has since had to convey both to the Cabinet and, when in Opposition, to the Shadow Cabinet, as Chief Whip have often been distasteful to the Leadership but he has carried out a most difficult job, which he does not particularly like, and would dearly love to get rid of, with distinction.
Just before the 1970 election he was appointed Minister of Housing and Local Government. He never went into office. Labour lost and at Mr Wilson's request he was back as Chief Whip.
His main task as Chief Whip in those difficult years in Opposition, was to keep the party relatively united and happy during the saga of the Common Market legislation and it may well be that his "on-off' resignation was more to do with what may be coming from that direction in the next six months, than what in fact happened over the defence votes. He may wish to bring more discipline into the party, yet he is in a difficult position to discipline anybody. The last issue on which a PPS was sacked for voting against the Government was at the time of "In Place of Strife."
Since that time there has been one distinguished revolt on April 18, 1972 in which two members of the present Cabinet abstained as well as assorted Ministers of State, Parliamentary Under Secretaries and the like in the present Government without including the present chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party Liaison Committee and the chairman of the Manifesto Group, the Labour Party's new moderates.
The vote on that occasion was an amendment to the European Communities Bill dealing with the referendum. The Labour Party was on a three line Whip and the Tory Government was successful by 49 votes — the Tories and supporters 284 — Labour and supporters 235 votes. There was some cross-voting but not by 52
Members of the Labour Party, they merely abstained on a three line Whip.
Now many people could speculate that alfthe evils of the last Tory Government — as they are seen by members of the Labour Party and all objective commentators — such as the Housing Finance Act, industrial confrontation, the printing of money under Mr Barber, the fall in house-building, and the great class divisions which appeared in our society, could all have been avoided if those
50 odd Labour members had voted with the party and defeated the Tories.
Mr Heath might have been forced to go to the country and so the speculation goes on. Like all speculation it is more or less useless. What would have happened if Moses had turned right instead of left when he crossed the Red Sea?
After that vote there was no great summoning by the Leader of the Party for the faithful and the rebels to be called together. The distinction is made today that the Labour Party is now the Government and that in the 1972 vote we were in Opposition and that the rebels then were merely abstaining and not voting with the Tories, but this a dangerous argument to follow., The pro-Marketeers cannot
sanctify abstention, indeed the abstentions not only weakened their own party but possibly kept the Tories in power. Over principle? Yet all the members of the present Government fought the last election in support of the British people deciding by the ballot box whether we should remain in or out of the Common Market, the referendum. Or perhaps they voted that way in 1972 because of their moderation and kept the Tories in for moderation. The Industrial Relations Act, the Housing Finance Act were they measures of moderates? I recall the events of 1972 not because l am anti-Common Market on the present terms, nor because I was one of those who voted in favour of greater defence cuts, nor even to show how even the most moderate of men, have on occasions been wrong but merely to solicit your prayers for Bob Mellish in his most difficult task of attempting to keep everybody happy in what is going to be a most difficult year for the Government. The financial situation alone would make the Government and in particular the Chief Whip's job far from happy, but when added to that there is the problem of the Market one can understand his wish to he rid of the job. Yet it must be repeated he has been a remarkably good Chief Whip, approachable, always around late at night and ready to share the burdens of the back benchers. He not only helped to keep the party
together in the most difficult times, but kept members talking to one another and good humoured when appalling issues could have split the party asunder. He has even given me a "pair" on a three-line whip.
There is one lesson, however, that Bob must have learnt as Chief Whip, if ever he needed to, which 1 doubt, and that is it is not a return to the harsh discipline of pre-1966 Labour Party which is going to keep the Government and the Parliamentary party united, but a realisation that in the new atmosphere in the Commons and with the change in the nature of the Members, particularly on the Labour benches, that we will be governed not by the cracking of a whip but by sound argument and reason.
Perhaps one day he will be allowed to go and be Minister of Housing and we all hope he will make a good job of it for he has the ideas, enterprise and drive. What is certain is he cannot or should not be allowed to go now. There are stormy waters ahead and his good humour and ability to jog things along are going to be needed.
If occasionally things do not quite go the way he was expecting them and he threatens to resign, well even whips are entitled to get fed up occasionally as are back benchers but both whips and back benchers have to live together or else how can they hope to keep the Government in order.