It got out some time ago that in politics the medium is the message. It did not take those sharp-suited men stalking the Labour Party headquarters in Walworth Road to discover the name of a game which was already familiar to Daniel O’Connell and William Ewart Gladstone, even if the apparatchiks’ own discovery of the name of the rose had to await the advent of the cordless telephone. They now speak of having provided suitable ‘packaging’ for a new and improved ‘product’. Marketing claims of this kind inevitably encounter diverse sorts of consumer resistance. Has Labour sold its birthright for a mess of potage, or a potted message, or is the medium now the massage? When Tony Benn describes the Party’s new policy document as ‘profoundly anti-Labour as well as being anti-socialist’, not to mention ‘wildly pro-European’, it is an endorsement which many social democrats will find tempting. For those of us who supported the foundation of the SDP in the early Eighties, a question which has steadily become more insistent since the last general election can no longer be ducked: what price the Return of the Prodigal?

How you read this question probably depends on your preconceptions. The Labour Party has won the battle of institutions, as its supporters always assured us it would. In its hour of crisis it hung on and did not fall apart – unlike the Alliance, when it was subsequently faced with ostensibly less intractable difficulties. Now that David Owen’s ‘continuing SDP’ has gone out of business, some gullible newspapers have written as though the party that was launched nine years ago had sunk with all hands aboard. In fact, of course, constitutionally and numerically, the real continuing SDP is now an integral part of the (admittedly waterlogged) Liberal Democrats. It is understandable, though, that those who talked endlessly about the Labour Party’s roots, and the disabling rootlessness of the SDP, should feel vindicated by events. ‘We told you so’ is their homily, and their long-anticipated pleasure in delivering it to those who have tired of riotous living in a far country may even prompt the hospitable suggestion that the fatted calf’s number is up (given that it can no longer be exported).

But there is another way of reading the same question, which will naturally appeal to those who still do not repent for having joined the SDP in the first place. For it is still arguable that it was not their behaviour but that of the Labour Party in the early Eighties which was aberrant and culpable; that it was Labour which sinned against heaven, which devoured its living with harlots, which began to be in want, and which had to fill its belly with the husks that the swine did eat before it was brought to its senses. Though the SDP lost the battle of institutions, is it not clear that it eventually won the battle of ideas? Thus each party to this quarrel might relish the bitter irony of proclaiming to the other that this thy brother was dead, and is alive; and was lost, and is found.

It is the general thrust of Labour’s policy review as much as the small print of detailed commitments which signals a new seriousness, especially in its handling of economic issues. We see the evolution of a coherent and plausible approach, instinct with Scottish common sense, to the problems of making the system work more efficiently and more equitably, rather than resorting to the stereotypes of capitalism and socialism. Labour has stopped looking like the silly party. The commitment to sweeping measures of nationalisation has gone. Hostility to the European Common Market has gone. Unilateral nuclear disarmament and suspicion of Nato have gone. Pledges to restore the Trade Union legislation of the Seventies have gone. Suppose social democrats had been offered a deal like this in the Labour Party in 1980-81, can anyone believe that there would have been a substantial defection to the SDP?

Underlying many of these policy questions, of course, is a deeper issue about what sort of party Labour is – ideologically, sociologically, constitutionally. In a letter to the Independent (18 May) Eric Heffer not only confessed that ‘the new policy document makes my blood boil’ but went a long way towards explaining why. ‘Labour’s strengths over the years have been that it has based itself on the organised working class movement,’ he claimed. ‘Today,’ he concluded, ‘the party leadership has virtually turned its back on its basic supporters, accepting what are, in reality, Tory arguments about the Unions.’ What Labour is repudiating, on this analysis, is its role as a class-based party, linked to the Trade Unions, in implementing a socialist strategy.

This is, of course, precisely the strategy which social democrats have found increasingly objectionable over the last thirty years. Doubting that the private ownership of the means of production was crucial, and sceptical of the conventional forms of public ownership as the key to a regenerative transformation of capitalism, revisionists of the Crosland-Gaitskell school had actually ceased to be socialist in any but a sentimental sense of that term. But the real flaw in the Gaitskellite position in the Labour Party was in seeking to use the entrenched institutional position of the Trade Unions to stymie the grass-roots strength of the left wing. Though able to mobilise this sort of support, notably on the defence issue in 1960-61, Gaitskell was really its prisoner. He accordingly abandoned the struggle to redefine the Party’s historic goals in unambiguous terms, notably the symbolic attempt in 1959 to redraft Clause Four of the Party constitution. The power of the Trade Unions as the arbiters of the Party was thus unshaken, and, ten years after the Clause Four battle, this power was reasserted in the most blatant fashion over Barbara Castle’s proposals for the reform of labour legislation – another conflict charged with symbolism. Despite its author’s impeccable credentials, ‘In Place of Strife’ was scotched by the sort of blocking alliance between the Left and Trade Union vested interests which was to become the characteristic feature of Labour politics for the next decade. Opposition to the European Common Market became the perfect catalyst for this fusion, cloaking xenophobia and conservatism with windy socialist rhetoric about an alternative strategy. The Party as it emerged from the Callaghan era was thus institutionally locked into a posture of immobilism which was far more chilling in its political implications than allegations about reds under the beds.

From all of this the SDP offered a chance of escape. No more games of leftier than thou! No more block votes! This came as good news to the man in the Clapham omnibus as well as to the woman in the Islington Volvo. Hence the broad but shallow social base on which the SDP was initially able to mobilise, attacking Labour’s constituency in two particularly vulnerable sectors: the upwardly mobile skilled working class and the tender-minded professionals, to neither of whom a Trade Union-dominated party appealed. Of the two, the former – the now legendary C2s – proved the more fickle, readily susceptible to the populist allure of Thatcherism, with the vision of a people’s capitalism based on wider home ownership and personal prosperity. As this vision has turned sour, especially through the impact of high mortgage rates on first-time buyers who had naively seen the property market as a one-way bet, the C2s have vented their disaffection by doing the one thing they regarded as unthinkable during the Eighties: voting Labour.

Where, then, does this leave that remnant of social democratic support, disproportionately strong among the chattering classes and the readers of the London Review, which has watched the Alliance crumble as a repository for hopes of restructuring our political system? Labour is obviously not going to buy their votes, as in a sense it is trying to buy back the C2s. And there is no need for it to try because, punitive personal taxation now being ruled out, it is still one of the comforts of middle-class existence that one can afford to cultivate principles: so the psychic compensations of appeasing the guilt-ridden bourgeois conscience must thus be offset against the marginal financial loss which a Labour government ought rightly to entail. Labour’s new policies, in short, do not needlessly affront this constituency, and in many respects make a more positive appeal. If the Liberal Democrats no longer look like a serious option, is there any substantial reason to hold back from rejoining Labour as the party which, having learnt its lesson, can alone rescue us from the threat of a Thatcherite fourth term?

There are two things which still worry me, both of them touching raw nerves from the experiences of the last decade. One is the constitution of the Labour Party. After all, the issue on which the defection to the SDP finally took place in 1981 was Trade Union domination of the Party and the defeat of proposals for one member, one vote. Since then, there have undeniably been significant moves towards this objective, and more are promised. But until they are fulfilled, it remains the case that the power of the Trade Unions is entrenched. No one would now suppose that their economic power is on a par with what it was ten or fifteen years ago: but this makes the vestigial role of the block vote in the Labour Party constitution the more anomalous. It is not clear that a defensive and embittered vested interest, running scared of further threats, real or imagined, can be relied upon to exercise unwarranted power responsibly. Until these arrangements are actually changed, therefore, the Labour Party is open to the taunt that what the Unions have changed today, they can unchange tomorrow. Moreover, like Clause Four in its day, this is now emblematic.

The second qualm is really the first writ large. For just as within the Labour Party there is a need for constitutional safeguards, so there is in the British electoral system. The arguments for proportional representation are surely overwhelming. It is hardly an accident that Britain is virtually alone in Europe – whether West or East – in resisting them. The Alliance, of course, had its own interest in securing what it regarded as a fair electoral system – the same sort of interest that an innocent person has in securing a fair trial. But the demise of the Alliance does not remove an argument which centres on the manifest failure of our present arrangements as a representative system. Again, there is encouraging evidence of growing support for reform within the Labour Party, but the cynical resistance to PR at the top is disturbing. These two issues of constitutional reform, then, are linked because both of them test the Labour Party’s willingness to countenance a pluralist vision comprehending diversity and dissent and democracy.

The continued existence of the Liberal Democrats is thus salutary in acting both as a spur and a check upon Labour. Under PR this might be fine: but, failing PR, what about the risk that a divided opposition will simply act as a lifeline to the Thatcher Government? Here an examination of the experience of the last sixty years provides unexpected reassurance. For it is by no means obvious that Labour’s electoral performance has been impaired by the periodic success of the Liberals in retaining or reviving their support. On the contrary, in every general election from 1923 to 1979, Conservative electoral success varied inversely with the level of Liberal support. True, in the Eighties, the Conservatives appear to have thrived upon a three-way split. Yet simply blaming the Alliance for fatally dividing the anti-Conservative vote is a reflection of Labour’s deep-seated failure to appreciate that it does not actually hold the copyright on anti-Conservative politics, nor does it possess an inalienable proprietory right to the votes that go therewith. It is surely clear that the bulk of the Alliance vote in 1983 – and even in 1987 – was simply not accessible to the Labour Party as it then stood. The proposition that, but for the SDP stealing all those votes, an unreconstructed Labour Party would have basked in electoral favour seemed implausible at the time and in retrospect seems incredible.

If the SDP temporarily cornered a substantial section of the Labour vote, it was because this support had been alienated by Labour itself. If this was a symptom of Labour’s crisis, so were the very existence of the SDP and the unprecedented voting trends of the Eighties. These indicate unique stresses on the two-party system, which made the outcome highly unpredictable. It is arguable that the only chance of dislodging the Thatcher Government came and went in the early Eighties with the rise and fall of the Alliance as a major electoral threat from Crosby’s dizzy heights in 1981 to Tumbledown in 1982. As things turned out, the triumph of Thatcherism, with Parliamentary majorities in three figures, depended upon the existence of two other parties with levels of support that were distinctly lower – but comparable to each other.

The fact is that these unique conditions no longer obtain. With Labour’s impressive revival in the opinion polls, and the Liberal Democrats’ remarkable survival in the local elections, the party system has reverted to type. The end of unstable three-party politics has not entailed a collapse into a virtual two-party system such as underpinned the Conservative hegemony in the Thirties and Fifties. Instead, we are back to the relatively predictable workings of a two-and-a-half-party system, with a third party that is liable to pick up support in local elections, at occasional by-elections, and even during general election campaigns – without, however, breaking any moulds. In a general election held under these conditions, social democrats may wish Labour well while wishing also to keep the Liberal Democrats in existence. Without PR to protect us, we are faced with second-best options and tactical choices. We may even have to contemplate giving Labour our votes and the Liberal Democrats our money.

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