Labour vs the SDP: 31 years on – who was right?

Luke Akehurst

Today, 26th March, is the 31st anniversary of the foundation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) by Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams.

I remember what I saw as a nine year old at the time – my Labour-supporting parents’ reaction to this was one of feeling utterly betrayed by people who had been popular Cabinet Ministers in the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s. “Traitors” was as the mild end of the language I heard used about the SDP.

The passage of 31 years has dampened some of that feeling of betrayal, and many of the SDP’s activists have ended up back in the Labour Party where they belong.

But 31 years has also comprehensively answered the question about who was right amongst the Labour moderates in 1981, those who stayed and fought or those who joined the SDP.

At the time in 1981 many people faced a genuinely agonising decision which split friendships and political alliances that had existed for lifetimes.

The Labour Party seemed by any reasonable analysis to be heading for electoral hell in a handcart. Successive party conferences had seen rule changes that made it easier for MPs to be removed by their local activists, weakened the leadership’s say over the manifesto, and removed the exclusive right of MPs to pick the leader. This last one now sounds uncontroversial as our Electoral College enfranchises ordinary members of the Party and of unions, but in those days there were no One Member One Vote ballots so the MPs were losing out not to hundreds of thousands of members but to General Secretaries wielding block votes and to small cliques of activists casting CLP mini-block votes.

At the same time the Party was reacting to defeat by moving away from the electorate on policy, not towards it, adopting unpopular policies on nationalisation of key industries, unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the Common Market and an Alternative Economic Strategy premised on a protectionist siege economy and autarky. This culminated in a 1983 manifesto characterised as the “longest suicide note in history”.

And the atmosphere inside the Party was foul, uncomradely, bitter and in some CLPs intimidatory. Long-standing councillors and MPs were being subjected to orchestrated witch-hunts to deselect them for the crime of having obeyed the whip, or the thought crime of being insufficiently leftwing on a range of key issues. Many of the victims were themselves from the traditional Bevanite left of the party but had failed to keep pace with the acceleration to the left of Tony Benn and his supporters. Annual Conference had seen almost ritualised denunciations of the “selling out” of the Callaghan Government, with very personalised attacks on ex-Ministers. Militant Tendency, also known as the Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialist League, was in control of the youth section of the Labour Party and of a number of CLPs.

Michael Foot, an honourable man of the traditional democratic left, had beaten the more publicly popular Denis Healey to become Leader in November 1980 and whatever his intellectual and oratorical qualities seemed totally unsuited to leading a bitterly divided party in a TV age.

In these circumstances it is perhaps unsurprising that 28 Labour MPs thought Labour was doomed or just too unpleasant a party to stay in, and walked to the SDP.

What is more surprising and admirable, and only with the benefit of 31 years of historical hindsight showed better judgement, is that so many more equally moderate Labour MPs stayed put.

John Smith, Roy Hattersley, Denis Healey, George Robertson, Giles Radice, to name but a few, could have joined the SDP, and shared the views on all the key issues like CND, Europe, the economy, of its founders.

That they didn’t is as much down to tribal loyalty as to rational thinking. They probably had as pessimistic an analysis of Labour’s future as the SDP defectors did but ties of loyalty to their CLPs, their unions, their friends, and sentimental attachment to Labour kept them in the Party. The authoritative book on the SDP, “SDP: The Birth,
Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party” by Ivor Crewe and Anthony King, analyses the decisions to defect or not in detail.

As well as these leadership figures, a core of moderate backroom organisers stayed and kept up the fight, key among them being the late John Golding and current MPs John Spellar and Roger Godsiff. They started a long process, using the more moderate trade unions as a starting base, of winning back the party to sanity and electability, starting with Healey’s 0.8% win over Benn for Deputy Leader, where the abstention of “soft left” MPs like Neil Kinnock heralded a coming to terms with reality by the less hardline part of the Party’s left.

Those that stayed and fought had their sentimental, tribal, gut-instinct attachment to Labour even in the darkest of days vindicated and in spades.

It was not the SDP that provided Britain with a landslide centre-left victory and 13 years of progressive government, but a renewed and regenerated Labour Party. Labour’s best days were ahead of it, not behind it.

The SDP story which started with such a fanfare and promise of “breaking the mould” on 26th March 1981 has ended in the squalid spectacle of ex-SDP member Andrew Lansley presiding over the assault on the NHS, SDP founder Shirley Williams acting as his chief apologist, ex-SDP members Vince Cable, Chris Huhne and Tom McNally serving as Lib Dem Ministers in a Tory-led Coalition, ex-SDP members Mike Hancock and Bob Russell voting as Lib Dem backbenchers for Tory
policies, and ex-SDP members Greg Clark, Chris Grayling and David Mundell joining Lansley as Tory MPs. Only David Owen salvages some dignity by standing by the NHS and the social democratic principles he espoused then.

Lessons from this:

  • Tribal loyalty to the Labour Party is a much under-rated virtue. Stick with your Party even at the worst of times.
  • Any centre-left party not anchored in the working class and its interests via the union link is about as much long-term use as a chocolate teapot.
  • Good organisation can win through in the most adverse circumstances – the Labour moderates who stayed and fought eventually won because they had better politics but also better organisation than their opponents.
  • Labour is remarkably resilient as a political party. Its core values and core support are such that it can take remarkable punishment and bounce back.
  • Things are not half as bad now as they were then – this time round Labour finally broke with the habit of 1931, 1951, 1970 and 1979 and did not form a circular firing squad after General Election defeat.

So on the anniversary of a day of infamy and betrayal in Labour’s history let’s not remember the SDP’s founders but instead remember the courage of those who stayed and fought so that Labour might have a future.

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