The showing of the SDP in the last General Election cannot entirely be explained on the supposition that it enjoyed widespread support from readers of the LRB, but they have as much right as anyone to know what has happened to it since. Let us begin by acknowledging that it is not yet a fit subject for ‘Where are they now?’ and to that extent things could be much worse. The strong popular vote for the Alliance – nearly two-thirds of the Tory poll and virtual parity with Labour – might have been the end of the road. The miserable Parliamentary representation of the SDP might have been enough to stifle it. At the time this unanswerably demonstrated the grotesque anomalies of our electoral system, and it still takes a bit of explaining to incredulous foreigners: but the presence of nearly ten times as many Labour members in Parliament inevitably handicaps the Alliance in presenting itself as an alternative opposition. Twelve months ago, while Neil Kinnock was enjoying his brief ascendancy in an aura of sweetness and light, the Labour Party relapsed into its know-nothing strategy for seeing off the Alliance: scorn and vituperation until it simply went away.
Yet the Alliance has not gone away. Even in Parliament it has triumphed over the odds, largely thanks to bloody-minded commando raids by David Owen, who has been the one politician consistently able to score off Thatcher. In the opinion polls it has been back at the levels of the General Election campaign. Moreover, whenever there has been a real election, the Alliance has beaten the polls in a way that must now be reckoned with in forecasting. In local council elections it has accordingly been gaining ground. Most significant, in Parliamentary by-elections it has polled more votes than either the Conservative or Labour Parties. There is no over-publicised Alliance bandwagon, as in the winter of 1981-2, but there is a new solidity and stability to the support which it can now mobilise.
The obvious conclusion is that the Alliance is here to stay, because it fills a vacuum, and that vacuum is left by the effective demise of the Labour Party. The position in this respect has changed little in the last four years. The only break in the trend was the Kinnock honeymoon, which merely showed that there’s a pan for every flash. Otherwise the Labour Party has learnt nothing and forgotten everything – including, it seems, the lessons of the 1983 Election. Of course, the miners’ strike has not helped. But it is surely wrong to think of its impact as a fortuitous calamity, like the Falklands adventure. Scargill may serve as a surrogate Galtieri so far as Thatcher is concerned, but she herself has supplied us with the crucial distinction between them in speaking of ‘the enemy within’ in July 1984.
The phrase is a pregnant one, and not only in the sense that its ultimate progeny may need nine months or so of gestation. As Michael Crick points out in his informative and well-documented Penguin Special,the term ‘the Enemy Within’ had already been splashed over the front page of the Daily Express almost a year before Thatcher cribbed it. But its provenance goes further back. It was, in fact, the title of a book published in 1960 by the late Robert Kennedy, following his investigations of corruption in the Teamsters’ union in the era of Jimmy Hoffa. In taking up the phrase, of course, Thatcher has given it her own twist of paranoid populism. What needs to be added, however, is that Scargill is the enemy within for the Labour Party. He is an authentic product of the radicalisation of Labour politics in the 1970s, and is acting with a predictable instinct in using his members as cannon fodder in a wider war of attrition. As he said last October, ‘we want to prepare the way for a transformation, rolling back the years of Thatcherism.’ Above all, he is such an embarrassment to the Labour leadership because he is ready to exploit the leverage of the NUM in such a way as to oblige the Party to support his strategy.
The miners’ strike certainly presents a number of awkward dilemmas, some of them already illuminated in the columns of the LRB. For the SDP, however, these need not be disabling, even if unkind critics carp that this is merely because Volvos don’t run on coal. Geoffrey Hawthorn (LRB, Vol. 6, No 17) seized on ‘the extraordinary fact about Thatcher’, that ‘no one is standing up to her,’ as affording ‘some reason, even if one is not a miner, and even if one accepts the most optimistic view of the supply of affordable energy at the end of the century, to be grateful for the fact that Scargill is’. Perhaps the gratitude of ordinary miners, now impaled on the barbed wire, has waned since those words were written. The gratitude of the Labour Party may also leave a lot to be desired. But the notoriously ungrateful SDP may find itself doubly vindicated. Having opposed Thatcher by debating-society methods for four years, with precious little to show for it, it knew that Scargill’s victory would simply render such methods redundant. As it is, they may seem rather ‘uneconomic’, but at least they have not been made ‘unworkable’. This is the first consolation. The other is that the torments of the Labour Party over the strike, with a three-way split between the Parliamentary leadership, the Unions and the Left, have been fully predictable. For they stem from inherent flaws in the institutional role of the Unions within the Party which provided the raison d’être for the SDP in the first place.
With the Labour Party already preparing for the long, bitter, internecine recriminations which will follow the NUM’s defeat, it is plainly no use looking there for salvation. Yet even the spectacle of Scargill’s head upon a charger is hardly likely to draw as much applause as Galtieri’s, or to distract attention as successfully from the cumulative failures of Thatcher’s economic policies. In an imperfect world, therefore, these are grounds for cheerfulness about the prospects of the Alliance. It would be ironical, to say the least, if at this point it faced its own enemy within.
Everyone in the SDP acknowledges that David Owen is the best leader we have. This is a mark of the mixed affection and respect in which he is held. There is no alternative. But the Party needs to assert itself against such a powerful leader if it is to be more than a supporters’ club, and it needs to be free to develop on lines of its own choice. An illustration of the potential hazards can be seen in the affairs of the Cambridgeshire Area Party, which is among the strongest in the country. The Area includes three constituencies, in each of which the Alliance is in second place to the Conservatives, with polls of over 30 per cent in 1983. Relations with the Liberals are good, based on even strength and mutual respect. Indeed it is sometimes difficult in policy discussions to remember who belongs to which party. There are known to be prominent members of the SDP who believe that joining the Liberal Party as well is the most natural way of cementing the Alliance.
It is not surprising, therefore, that an agreement was drawn up between the local officers of the SDP and the Liberals, providing for joint selection of Parliamentary candidates. When the constituencies were allocated by national negotiation before the last General Election, much heartburning resulted from the decision that the SDP was to fight Cambridge. The choice of candidate was confined to Social Democrats, which many felt to be slighting to the Liberals: but even these procedures could not thwart the close co-operation which ensued in the campaign. Building upon this, joint open selection offers all Alliance members within each constituency the chance of selecting their candidate, irrespective of party. Locally, this proposal met with overwhelming support in a ballot of SDP members last September: 308 voted for, 14 against. Nationally, however, the SDP has thought otherwise.
The constitutional difficulty is that the National Committee must approve selection procedures, and that joint selection is currently allowed only in ‘exceptional circumstances’. The real difficulty, as usual, is not constitutional but political. David Owen is against joint selection and Mike Thomas is his appointed agent of retribution against Area Parties which propose it. They are made to quake in their boots for their temerity. On these occasions there is a good deal of talk about authority, and the importance of authority. No one in the Cambridgeshire party is spoiling for a fight, and there is a good deal of residual good will for the national leadership. It is only natural therefore that there has been an adroit effort to shift the issue to one of confidence in the national party versus ill-disciplined defiance. In the further ballot of the membership which is currently under way this factor may well erode the known support for honouring the agreement with the Liberals immediately. Whatever happens, there is likely to be some delay, which may not matter if the final outcome meets local wishes. But the National Committee will have to show itself more responsive in future if it is to avoid some kind of crisis.
Internal crises, replete with constitutional mumbo-jumbo, incipient factionalism and leadership rows, were not what attracted anyone to the SDP, not even those who allegedly hanker after a Labour Party Mark Two. It is only realistic to recognise that the Gang of Four (of blessed memory) could not have maintained unsullied unison indefinitely. No doubt it is all a part of growing-up, and the SDP may simply be going through a difficult phase. But if it turns in on itself, the Alliance cannot flourish. David Owen needs to remember that he did not lead us into the Alliance and to recognise that he cannot lead us out of it if we do not wish to go. Most of us know that we have good friends within it and that the only enemy is without.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.