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Corbyn makes history in the rebel ranks

Former leader follows in a rich tradition of intransigent Labour MPs who have been suspended or expelled

05 November, 2020 — By John Gulliver

Jeremy Corbyn has been North Islington MP for four decades. Right: rebel MP for Merthyr Tydfil SO Davies

SIR Keir Starmer may have been thought to have gone too far last week.

There is admittedly a rich tradition of suspending or expelling “lefty” intransigent Labour MPs but except on one occasion – the expulsion of Ramsey MacDonald nearly a century ago – a former leader has never had the door shut on him. Though Michael Foot had the whip withdrawn by his rival Hugh Gaitskell in the 1960s, it was restored two or three years later.

Judging by a decision of London regional staff on Monday at party HQ to shut down an execu­tive committee meeting that wanted to debate a motion supporting Jeremy Corbyn, things look as if they are going to get ugly.

Awkward MPs, who have fallen from grace in the past, often held safe seats but not necessarily impregnable majorities. This is what sets Jeremy Corbyn apart – he is a very popular North Islington MP with a majority of nearly 30,000, and has been in the seat for nearly 40 years.

Illtyd Harrington refused to stand against SO Davies

It’s one thing to unseat rebellious newcomers like Chris Williamson or Claudia Webbe in semi-marginal constituencies but quite another a longstanding MP like Jeremy Corbyn.

This brings back memories of my late colleague and friend, Illtyd Harrington, who often talked about another awkward popular Labour MP and miners’ leader, SO Davies.

Davies, who was perhaps a greater rebel than Corbyn, had an almost mystical following, not only in his South Wales constituency of Merthyr Tydfil, but in the party nationally from the 1930s to the 1970s.

When he became too recalcitrant for the party, his enemies de-selected him and things looked bleak for the rebel.

At the time, party members turned to my friend Illtyd and begged him to stand as the official candidate in a by-election but Illtyd, true to character and a man of rich principle – a rebel in his own right – refused the offer.

He respected Davies too much to betray him.

It was expected that Davies would be defeated by the official candidate but the party hacks got it wrong – though Davies was well into his eighties, young campaigners helped him to win by 7,000 votes.

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