Those that talk of setting up a new pro-European party to combat Brexit should reflect on the fate of the Social Democratic party, writes Andrew Adonis
In spring 1981 the Labour party appeared to be vanishing over the far left horizon. It was committed to leaving Europe and a hundred-and-one other lunacies. A dangerous Tony Benn/Arthur Scargill duo appeared set to take over the party, with the chaotic Michael Foot as midwife.
The highly talented and prominent ‘Gang of Four’ – Shirley Williams, David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers – broke away and set up the Social Democratic party in a surge of media enthusiasm and approbation. More than 50,000 members were recruited within weeks and the new party was soon at 50 per cent in the opinion polls. Some 40 Labour members of parliament defected and Jenkins and Williams re-entered the House of Commons in stunning by election successes.
But the day after the 1983 election, it all lay in ruins, even though the SDP/Liberal alliance gained 26 per cent of the vote and was only two points behind Labour. Why?
The first clue is in that title – SDP/Liberal alliance. There was already a sitting tenant on the centre-left – the Liberal party, then ably led by the charismatic David Steel. Once the media launch was over, the hard graft of negotiating everything – policy, seats, leadership – between two ‘autonomous’ parties, one of whose activists resented the incursion by the other, proved nightmarish. Clashing egos, local and national, more than made up for the apparently few ideological differences.
The electoral system punishes third parties without regional concentrations of support, and the SDP was no exception. For all its votes, it came narrowly third in 1983 and with the Liberals only managed 23 seats against 209 for Labour.
The SDP was unable to overcome the fact that Labour did not split enough. Most moderate Labour MPs and councillors remained in the party. The unions continued to back Labour; and the Labour machine remained essentially intact, albeit weakened. Even in its weakened state, it was superior to anything the SDP and Liberals were able to muster.
Also, hardly any Tories came over – only one Tory MP, who lost his seat in 1983. ‘Wet’ Tories like Ian Gilmour were constantly mentioned as possible defectors – but they remained just that, wet, and they never joined the SDP.
However, the killer problem was that Labour moved to the ‘fairly far’ left, but the hard left never took complete control of the party even in the worst period of 1981-82. Crucially, Benn lost narrowly to Denis Healey in the election for deputy leader of the Labour party after Foot’s election as leader. Benn never again got close to the leadership once Neil Kinnock and the soft-left took charge after 1983.
This time, some things are different. Jeremy Corbyn of course captured the leadership and the mainstream left has been expelled – or expelled itself – from most of the shadow cabinet.
However, the similarities are greater than the differences. Moderate Labour MPs remain overwhelmingly entrenched in the Commons, as do moderate councillors at local level – including the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan (in contrast to Ken Livingstone in County Hall in 1981). It looks unlikely that this position will change much in the coming few years; just as it looks unlikely that another candidate from the uncompromising hard left will repeat Corbyn’s victory when he stands down. A soft left leader is far more likely.
Furthermore, on policy, the party is in a less extreme place than in 1981-83. It is not unilateralist on defence. On Europe it is wishy-washy, not opposed. It is committed to nationalising and spending far less.
It is therefore hard to see that a new SDP could achieve anything more than the last one. It, too, would almost certainly gain few Tory defectors: Tories like Ken Clarke are tribal and will stick with their party almost whatever happens. At best, a third of the parliamentary Labour party might join a new strongly pro-European party, but without most of the party machine. And a reviving Lib Dem party under the soundbite expert Vince Cable would be as hard to navigate with, and around, as David Steel’s Liberals in the early Eighties..
The root of mainstream Left discontent today is Europe. The supreme political battle of this parliament is the battle against Brexit, in which Corbyn appears to have little interest.
But the key point is that Corbyn is uninterested – not actively hostile. There is everything to play for in terms of the party’s policy and campaigning capacity. This should be the object of every mainstream Labour activist’s attention, not fantasies of a new party which would further split the left and the pro-European forces and probably land us with both Brexit and a re-elected Tory government. It is a time for calm nerves.
Oh, and note – the twentieth century ended with the same three national parties as it started with; and they are all still there in 2017. The death of the political party has been predicted for decades. But it never actually dies.
Andrew Adonis was a founder member of the SDP. He joined Labour in 1995 and was successively schools minister and transport secretary between 2005-10. He tweets at @Andrew_Adonis
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