What’s wrong with the SDP?

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • Capitalism and Social Democracy by Adam Przeworksi
    Cambridge, 269 pp, £25.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 521 26742 0

Those who voted for the Alliance at the last election tended to be as hostile as Tories to nationalisation. They were nearly as fierce about the Unions too. But they were well disposed to redistribution, as keen on creating jobs as those who’d voted Labour, and on several of the ‘moral’ issues markedly more liberal. Who are they? Tories had the vote of two-thirds of the managers in private concerns; Labour of two-thirds of the workers in public ones; the Alliance, of nearly half of all graduates.[*] They are, in Julian Critchley’s description, ‘the examination-passing classes’. Decent people.

The Party is decent too. It accepts that ‘defining rights and freedoms by negative laws and procedural remedies’ will no longer do. It wants to introduce a Bill of Rights to fit with the European Convention. It also wants more access to government information and a licence to inspect any information – any information? – about oneself. It promises to increase spending on health by about 1.5 per cent a year in real terms, and to favour preventive and community medicine. It suggests taking advantage of falling rolls to refurbish schools, re-train teachers, and raise their pay. It intends to restore the stock of public housing; then, it will encourage tenants to buy. It wants to refashion the State Earnings-Related Pensions Scheme to make it less inegalitarian. It proposes to abolish the at present regressive married man’s allowance to pay for a new, unified and higher benefit, calculated from a single tax-benefit return to the Inland Revenue. It would tax wives separately from their husbands, pay child benefits directly to the responsible parent, simplify and strengthen the law on equal opportunities, outlaw sexual harassment (at work), and more easily allow dependents in to join their immigrant families. It would keep private medicine, although, of course, ‘no patient need endure unequal treatment through inability to pay.’ It would also do nothing about private schools, although, of course, it ‘would seek to end any unfair advantage which stems from attending them’. The miners, one need hardly add – but the Party Conference did – can go dig for their forfeited funds. We’re nicer, but we’re not One Nation yet.

Nevertheless, the undeclared civil war of the last six years seems to have had its effect. In 1981, the only poll that got anywhere near reflecting what actually happened in the Warrington by-election was taken in haste outside the local vodka factory, and it would not be wise to put too much weight on more careful ones made more recently. But these have been quite striking. The Alliance is consistently preferred by between a quarter and a third of all voters. Nearly two-thirds of those who voted Conservative last time, well over a third of those who voted Labour, said earlier in the autumn that they’d consider voting for it at the next election. Nearly two-thirds said they were ‘very worried’ about the economy. More thought that the Alliance would sort it out better than Labour, and produce a fairer society. Of all the qualities desired in a future leader, ‘compromise’ was twice as often ticked as ‘toughness’. Sixty per cent, when asked to choose, said they would rather we were more like Sweden, only 20 per cent more like the United States. Nevertheless, Mrs Thatcher may not call an election until late 1987 or early 1988, and even then, whereas the Conservatives only have to have 35 per cent of the total vote to be sure of being called by the Queen, and Labour 36, the Alliance has to have 41. The two old parties, even now, are but a whisker away. The new one is not. John Curtice thinks that the next Parliament could have about 305 Labour MPs, 151 Tories and 168 from the Alliance. ‘The capitalist vote,’ Brian Walden inferred on his Weekend World, ‘will be divided. Labour will form the next government.’

He was not quite right. The capitalist vote will divide three ways. There are no socialists. If ‘socialism’ means anything at all, short of what Adam Przeworksi nicely describes as the distant although not absurd arcadia of ‘automation, accumulation and the independence of want-satisfaction from labour’, it’s the abolition of private property and the assumption of all production and distribution by the state. The Labour Party has never advocated that and doesn’t now. This is not to say that it doesn’t otherwise condemn itself. It may form the next government, but in the longish run, it’s finished as the party it’s been. Przeworksi doesn’t talk much about Britain, but in his marvellously sharp analysis, quite the best that there’s been of his subject for years, he explains why this must be so.

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[*] How Britain votes by Anthony Heath, Roger Jowell and John Curtice.