The ‘London Review of Books’ started with an interest in the Social Democrats, in the days before the party was launched.

David Marquand writes on the eve of their first Party Conference

  • Breaking the Mould by Ian Bradley
    Martin Robertson, 172 pp, £8.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 85520 469 9

The pregnancy was long, difficult and ridden with anxiety, but the birth was easy and infancy has been a triumph. Unfortunately, however, Mr Bradley’s instant history of the first few months of the Social Democratic Party tells us a good deal more about its gestation before the launch on 26 March than about its development since. This was inevitable, no doubt. Even instant historians have to get their books printed; and Mr Bradley’s would not be in the bookshops yet if he had dealt with the final stages of his story in as much detail as the earlier ones. All the same, the effect is curiously lop-sided: lop-sided, moreover, in a way which obscures much of the real significance of the events which Mr Bradley has set out to analyse.

As everyone knows, the SDP – or, at any rate, the Council for Social Democracy which paved the way for the SDP – started life as a breakaway from the Labour Party. The Gang of Four were all senior Labour politicians or ex-politicians; two of them were Labour Members of Parliament. Most of the signatories of the Guardian advertisement appealing for support for the Council were either members of the Labour Party or past members of the Labour Party; until Mr Brockle-bank-Fowler’s adhesion, all the MPs who sat on the Social Democrats’ bench in the House of Commons had originally been returned in the Labour interest. Some of the non-MPs who had hoped and argued and planned for the emergence of a separate social democratic party before it happened had drifted a long way from the Labour Party before the planning started; all of them drifted further and faster thereafter. But it was from the Labour Party, and only from the Labour Party, that they drifted. There were no former Conservatives or Liberals among us; and if any had sought to join us, I have a nasty suspicion that we would have rebuffed them. We wanted an explicitly social democratic party, with a distinctively social democratic philosophy, not what was later to be termed a Mark II Labour Party. Callaghanite Labourism, with its corporatist kow-towing to the Unions and its Tammany Hall approach to political leadership, was, if anything, even less attractive to us than Bennite neo-Marxism. But even we had not quite emancipated ourselves from our Labour Party pasts or from the Labour Party assumptions which we had absorbed at the political equivalents of our mothers’ knees.

We had been to school with Ivor Crewe and the Essex political scientists. From them, and even more from our experiences as MPs, Parliamentary candidates and party activists, we knew that as the two big parties had lurched towards their respective ideological extremes they had rendered more and more of their voters politically homeless. We could see that these homeless voters – non-Conservatives, non-Labour, yet unattracted, or at any rate unimpressed, by the Liberals – formed a potential social democratic constituency, of impressive size and weight. But although we realised that the central electoral objective of a new social democratic party would be to mobilise that constituency, we were still at any rate half-imprisoned intellectually by the notion that there was some special virtue in winning Labour votes and Labour seats.

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