The SDP’s Chances

William Rodgers

Parliaments divide, with surprising neatness, into distinct phases. A first phase reflects the initial euphoria of a party winning power (or retaining it). A sober middle period is spent getting to grips with real problems. There follows, finally, a collapse into electioneering. The transition from the middle to the final phase is usually the most clearly defined. There is a rush of Members of Parliament declaring their intention to retire. In the House of Commons the Queen’s Speech takes on a subtle edge: the New Legislation Committee has been beavering away for months producing a package of proposals either popular enough to win votes or so prosaic as to be dropped without penalty if Parliament runs out of time. On the direct and specific instructions of Number 10, ministers are preparing executive decisions (money to be spent, promises to be made) that will win friends among the discontented.

In 1983, few Social Democrats welcomed the prospect of the full five-year Parliament that Mrs Thatcher’s 397 seats guaranteed. Resources would be stretched and morale would need sustaining. Even if by-elections were to add reinforcements to the SDP’s tiny troop of six MPs, the Party would still be overshadowed by its Liberal allies and vastly outnumbered by the big battalions of the old parties. Survival rather than advance would be the order of the day. But, perversely, a full five-year Parliament has been a blessing. The transition to the final, electioneering phase is occurring with three-and-a-half years gone (the average life of a peacetime Parliament). It is also occurring as the SDP completes its own intense process of policy-making and defines more precisely than hitherto its position in the political spectrum. In 1983, a brilliant Tory poster portrayed SDP policy as 12 bottles of claret. Never again.

The intervening period has not been entirely free of tension. On taking charge, David Owen showed a determination to distance himself from his predecessor, Roy Jenkins, and to abandon the collective leadership of the founding Gang of Four. His preference for an arm’s-length relationship with the Liberals was disturbing to a majority of SDP members who welcomed the organic growth of the Alliance and wanted no obstacles to natural convergence. Even before 1983, at a time when the SDP was showing a capacity to move mountains, he had talked of balanced Parliaments and coalitions rather than outright victory. What sort of party did he wish to lead?

There was an agreement that it should not be a Mark 2 Labour Party, backward-looking, bureaucratic, centralised and content to work within the system. A commitment to Proportional Representation was enough to rule that out. But there was still room on the middle ground of politics for alternative positions. In his first major speech as leader, his address to the SDP’s 1983 Salford Conference, David Owen articulated his own understanding of the social market. The principles had been embodied in the Gang of Four’s Limehouse Declaration of 1981 and in subsequent policy pronouncements. But the style and force of his presentation suggested that for him the middle ground might be nearer to the Conservatives than to Labour.

The sources of subsequent anxiety were complex. Premature talk of a merger with the Liberals on the part of a circle close to Roy Jenkins produced an over-reaction designed to enable David Owen to define his own position as being against merger and in favour of a distinct SDP identity. After that, it was easy for commentators to slide into the convenient shorthand of a party divided between Jenkinsites and Owenites, a fiction which the more passionate supporters of both sought to perpetuate. The reality was of members strong in their personal support of David Owen and his decisive leadership but cautious about approving the direction in which he appeared to move the Party.

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[*] Reviewed in the LRB of 21 November 1985.