Before discussing the post-electoral situation in Britain and its possible consequences for the Labour Party, I would like to ask you just one ‘personal’ question. Soon after you were elected Leader of the Greater London Council (glc) you spoke at a left-wing rally where you shared a platform with Ernest Mandel. Your self-introduction to that particular audience was somewhat unique. You informed us that you had joined the Labour Party in 1968. I was somewhat bemused listening to you since tens of thousands of us had been leaving the Labour Party in that period, what made you join at that precise moment in time? On the face of it your decision seems virtually inexplicable.

I was interested in politics from the age of eleven in 1956, but it was only an interest. Both my parents were working-class Conservatives, but of the sort who preferred the Tory patricians. They liked Churchill a lot, but grew progressively less fond of every succeeding Tory leader. My mother is now a Bennite! My father’s parents died when he was fourteen and he immediately joined the merchant navy as a seaman. The only progressive streak in him was a tolerance towards people of other races. He was strongly anti-racist. While other people in my age-group were already immersed in socialist politics—in and out of all sorts of left-wing organizations—my time was largely spent in the pursuit of natural history. This was my passion at the time. I was active in the breeding of frogs and much more concerned with preserving the species. So it was a very unusual background.

My shift towards a more active involvement in politics began with the assassination of Kennedy and the election of Wilson, first as Leader of the Labour Party and then as Prime Minister. Prior to that my involvement in politics was essentially confined to laughing at Macmillan and Home, whom I found to be terribly boring and dreadful patricians. The election of Wilson suddenly focussed my attention much more on the Labour Party and I was quite fixed on the idea that this Harold Wilson character was actually going to change things. I made the fatal mistake of believing in Harold Wilson. I still remember trembling with excitement when we won the 1964 elections, but I had still not joined the Labour Party. Then in 1966, of course, I was already disillusioned with Wilson. My friends were either anarcho-syndicalists or members of what was then the International Socialists—none of them, incidentally, is currently engaged in any form of politics. But it was through them that I ended up on the big Vietnam demonstrations. For a short period I joined an organisation called Solidarity. Is it still going?

Just about. .

It was just about going then! But I didn’t play much of a role in its deliberations. I suppose there were three experiences which propelled me towards the Labour Party. The Unit where I worked—a Cancer Research Unit—had a policy of redundancies to overcome a financial deficit. So with a couple of other people I organised a branch of astms (Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs) and we started to unionize the whole place. Secondly in Norwood, where I was living at the time, the local Labour mp was John Fraser, who had a very good position on racism. His Tory opponent had been a member of the ‘Hang Them, Flog Them and Send Them Back Home Brigade’. He has, by the way, disappeared into oblivion since he was caught in some embezzlement racket. So locally my mp was good on the issue that mattered a lot to me and that made an impression. Thirdly I got involved in helping American draft resisters, who did not want to fight in Vietnam. I had met some of them while hitch-hiking in California. These three events collectively helped me to decide where I was going. It was just so obvious. There was no way in which you were going to build anything without the Labour Party. Perhaps because my interest in politics was geared to psephology and things like that rather than to pure ideology, it was more obvious to me than to others at the time. The solid attachment of millions of working-class people to the Labour Party meant that it was this party that had to be taken over and changed. You weren’t going to build anything significant outside of it. So I joined.

The first ward meeting I went to was appalling. I was the only person below pensionable age. This was soon after the Socialist Labour League had been expelled from the Labour Party and the Young Socialists. The International Socialists left soon after. Norwood Labour Party had been filleted and gutted by people giving up in shock and horror and quitting. Three months after joining I found myself on the Executive Committee of the General Managment Committee and also Chairman and Secretary of the local Young Socialists. The latter body had one other member! The first debate we had was on ‘In Place Of Strife’ and we mandated Fraser to oppose it in Parliament. This was in 1969 and I still remember the vote on the gmc. It was 13 to 9. The Labour Party was at its absolute nadir in terms of membership and activists. Everything since has been an improvement. We’ve had a slow build-up, which has been camouflaged by phone membership statistics for years. The pits for the Labour Party was 1968-69 and we’ve been witnessing a slow recovery ever since.

No. It was all practical things. My workplace involvement, helping my American friends, etc. I’ve never been a theoretician. By the time I reached the stage where I wanted to read more theoretical works I was already on the Council. This was in 1971 and ever since I’ve been reading Council Agendas. Its really terrible. Just look around this room. Life is a flurry of paper. Many of them I won’t have time to read. Its a question of deciding whether they should be filed.