SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party 
by Ivor Crewe and Anthony King.
Oxford, 611 pp., £25, November 1995, 0 19 828050 5
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In the early Seventies I began work on an analysis of the British Parliamentary élite which made very evident both the decline of direct working-class representation among Labour MPs and the rise of an upwardly mobile middle class. As I ploughed through one biography after another, however, I became painfully aware of the generational limits to mobility. The perfect stereotype of meritocratic success was the working-class dad whose son became a teacher, whose son in turn became a doctor or barrister. But there wasn’t a single case of this being completed in two generations. Only slowly did it dawn on me – for this was a time of Labour electoral triumphs – what bad news these data held for Labour. Take, for example, Bill Rodgers and Roy Jenkins (both grammar school and Oxford, Jenkins the son of a miner MP) not to mention Shirley Williams (professional parents, St Paul’s and Oxford): social mobility had already carried them to Labour’s outer limits. At the least, it had to be expected that they and others like them would put their own children in private schools and that the next generation would move away from Labour altogether. What the data suggested was a terrible haemorrhage of talent away from Labour, listless working-class recruitment, indeed a general disassembling of Labour’s old class coalition, and the possibility of a major schism as the successful meritocrats inevitably broke away. Even allowing for the fact that they represented a more substantial group of meritocrats in the electorate at large, could Labour’s meritocrats possibly provide the basis for a new party? One couldn’t be sure; but the basic sociology of the SDP, I later realised, lay before me a decade before the event.

Crewe and King might not wholly agree with this, for their view of the SDP élite which triggered the schism (and it was definitely a revolution from above) is far too friendly for them to enter into such cold sociological calculation. They are open about the fact that they were summoned at an early stage to advise the SDP leadership on their electoral prospects and gave them a fairly enticing prospectus. But the detailed and sympathetic reportage even of minor players’ motives and feelings makes it clear how close the authors are to their subjects. The main beneficiary is undoubtedly Shirley Williams, introduced as being ‘by common consent, one of the nicest people in British politics – warm-hearted, outgoing and genuinely interested in other people’. After that, every popular criticism of Mrs Williams – that she is indecisive, always late, gets on the wrong trains – is dismissed. Even when the authors have to relate how she refused to run in Warrington; watched Jenkins bring off a spectacular result there; tried to take the nomination at Croydon despite the prior agreement that it was the Liberals’ turn; had to back out of that; and found herself forced to take up the next seat, Crosby, which she was bound to lose in the next election – the term used to describe her behaviour is ‘graceful’.

The treatment of Jenkins and Rodgers will also seem extraordinarily kind to those who remember some of Tony Crosland’s or even Jim Callaghan’s remarks, but Owen is beyond saving, even for Crewe and King. From the moment he is introduced – ‘a tendency to begin by arguing passionately on one side of an issue and to wind up arguing equally passionately on the other without seeming to realise that he had changed sides along the way’ – it is clear that the authors are tiptoeing around the word ‘egomania’. Yet, as is always the way, egomania gave Owen a great advantage when others around him seemed to dither, and at many junctures, starting with the schism itself, his was the decisive voice. The key moment came when Owen encountered angry heckling at Labour’s 1980 Wembley conference: it was enough to make up the former Foreign Secretary’s mind for good. After that he always knew so clearly where he was going that the others had to follow, and a fine old dance he led them. The extraordinary thing is that even when Owen had entered on his most openly mad phase, as leader of the separatist SDP when the bulk of the Party had merged into the Alliance, he still carried with him not only a posse of adoring women – Sue Slipman, Polly Toynbee and Rosie Barnes among them – but even such a seasoned campaigner as John Cartwright. One reads their names and wonders how true believers in Elmer Gantry felt when the charisma wore off.

Crewe and King talk of the Gang of Four in almost hushed tones as if they were giants still stalking the land. Yet the fact is that their complete failure made all of them look ridiculous. How can one wax on about Jenkins’s Dimbleby Lecture when it turned out to be largely wrong, a signpost to nowhere? Look around at people you knew in the Eighties as passionate SDP activists and you will find a great sheepishness; or if not that, a curt refusal to talk about what was once so boldly proclaimed, for SDP men (and its members were heavily male) were often upper professionals, men little given to discussing their past mistakes. The Oxford Politics Faculty was, for example, an SDP bastion in the mid-Eighties, but it would be difficult to obtain a true body count now.

What was true of mere activists was, of course, truer still of the Famous Four. They said a lot of things that turned out not to be true, prophesised new dawns that never came, made dire predictions of Labour’s unsaveability which turned out to be plain wrong, and frequently fought one another with scant regard for dignity. Far from breaking the mould, the Gang of Four have all ended up as members of the House of Lords, which is about as far as one can go in shoring up the old mould of British politics. Perhaps they depended more than they realised on the disciplines and resources which come with front-bench rank in a major party. Without that, they never really managed, were somehow reduced in scale. In hindsight, the only figure who commands one’s unequivocal admiration is David Steel. Steel was shrewd enough to want the Four to found their own party rather than join the Liberals. He somehow jollied along the grandee Jenkins, made friends of Williams and Rodgers and, incredibly, even supported several years in harness with the impossible Owen. Yet there he was at the end, seeing them all off the stage and sweeping up the gains they had made into the enlarged Liberal Democrats.

Though the sympathies of Crewe and King are evident, their work is far too impressive, thorough and thoughtful, too full of fascinating personal incident and political insight, for this to matter. It might seem – at times does seem – that the SDP was too brief and risible to merit such a huge and authoritative tome. But their real subject is less the SDP than the coherence and dynamics of the British party system. The SDP, and through it the Alliance, was, they point out, by far the most serious assault on the two-party system mounted in fifty years. In the end, they feel, the SDP vanished like the Cheshire cat and left nothing changed: what is interesting is to see how nearly the challenge succeeded and yet how thoroughly it failed. Their account is rich and detailed, combining careful analysis of intricate personal and institutional politics with shrewd sociological observation.

The authors make much of the agonies many Labour MPs endured at the hands of Militant and other Far Left activists in their constituency parties. They might have added that not a few Labour MPs, supported perhaps too long by the armature of the two-party state, had acquired rather lordly assumptions about their right to life tenure of their seats. Jenkins, it should not be forgotten, made his decisive break with Wilson by resigning in furious opposition to the very principle of popular consultation by referendum. This self-conscious wish to stand apart from the hoi polloi linked up with the sociology of meritocratic ascent. ‘Even when I disagreed with them,’ one SDP MP said to the authors, ‘I used to think of the people at Labour Party Conferences as my people. Then, a few years ago I looked around and realised they weren’t my people any more.’

Ironically, it was the populist politics of the 1975 referendum on the EEC which revealed the potential of the centrist vote and the impotence of Labour’s activists against the power of middle-ground bien pensants with the press behind them. The referendum’s significance is seriously underplayed in Crewe and King’s account of the SDP’s genesis. Similarly, there is an extraordinary amount about Benn but too little on the far more fundamental role Enoch Powell played in undermining the old class-based bipartite order. Between 1968 and 1974 Powell achieved the dubious distinction of making the issues of race and immigration so central that elections turned on them. The effect was to subvert the old social hierarchies of the electoral order: the class cleavage was radically de-emphasised and, remarkably, Powell for a while ran ahead of both major party leaders in the opinion polls. No sooner had the Powell hurricane subsided than the issue of Europe began in its turn to shake up the old certainties of class and party. It is tempting to see the large-scale working-class defections to Thatcher in 1979 and the cross-class movement to the Alliance in 1981 as merely the after-quakes from the initial explosions detonated by Powell, race and Europe. By the time the SDP was launched in an attempt to break the old political mould, that mould had been under concerted attack for more than a decade.

What is important here is not the gossip or the personalities of the Four but the sociology of third-party politics. The SDP’s great disappointment in 1983 was not just that it had elected only six MPs but where it elected them. Since the rise of Labour the Liberals had found themselves confined to the Celtic fringes of Wales, Scotland and the West Country and it had been their recurring dream to break through into suburbia. This was the greatest promise the SDP held, yet in 1983 three of their MPs (Jenkins, Kennedy and Maclennan) were elected from Scotland and one (Owen) from the West Country. Far from their having added a new dimension to the old centre profile, that profile had become theirs – and it was a base from which advance was all but impossible. It is remarkable to read of the hopeful mood which the Gang of Four somehow mustered as they approached the 1987 election, for the failure to break through in 1983 had been crucial. This may simply have been too cruel to accept, for there was no doubt that the old electoral order – the old mould, if you like – was fragile. The temptation to believe in the politics of One More Heave was understandable enough.

Crewe and King have performed a mighty task and their book is a mine of data on the politics of the Eighties. As they wryly point out, their labours have been more protracted than the life of the party they chose to study. Given Crewe and King’s own role in the SDP’s genesis, it was no doubt fitting that the SDP, on its deathbed, donated its archives to the University of Essex, where Crewe and King have exploited them. They have done so to such effect that all who study British politics are in their debt. But, that said, I feel it is possible to add a missing dimension to their account.

The key point about the left activists of the Seventies and Eighties was, surely, that they had not realised that the old political and electoral order was not as secure as before. Effectively they worked on the old-fashioned, indeed archaic, pendulum model of political change: for a while you had the Tories and then, without too much apparent effort, Labour came in. The events of 1970-74 had confirmed this view of life. The Tories had got in, the Left took over within Labour and voted through the most radical manifesto the Party had ever had. Labour’s Right grimly predicted that this would make the Party unelectable but – lo! – February 1974 saw the Tories self-destruct and Labour clambered back. This ‘proved’ that the thing the activists were good at – organisational infighting – was the only thing that mattered, for if you got control of the organisation the magic of the pendulum would, sooner or later, propel you to national power. This not only ignored the long-run truth that in a two-party system the contest for the middle ground is bound to be decisive, but also ignored the much more pointed truth that the ‘pendulum effect’ itself depended on the performance of the Liberals, as the table shows: 

ElectionGovt in powerLiberal vote %Result
1959Tory+3.2No change
1964Tory+5.3Labour win
1966Labour-2.7No change
1970Labour-1.0Tory win
1974 (1)Tory+11.8Labour win
1974 (2)Labour-1.0No change
1979Labour-4.5Tory win

For twenty years it had been an iron law of British politics that a sitting Tory government produced a swing to the Liberals, as voters reacted against the Tories without wanting to go all the way to Labour. Labour governments, conversely, triggered a middle-class revolt against ‘socialism’ which pushed voters directly to the Tories, causing the Liberal vote to fall. These movements in and out of the Liberal column settled the fate of the other two parties. The Tories could not survive a large swing to the Liberals, such as the cumulative 8.5 per cent swing between 1955 and 1964 or the single large swing of February 1974, and Labour could not survive the cumulative Liberal loss of 3.7 per cent between 1964 and 1970, or their 5.5 per cent loss between 1974 and 1979. To put this another way, the only thing that really matters about a third party in a two-party system is which of the two big parties it hurts more, and the answer in Britain was, unequivocally, that Liberal revivals were good for Labour and bad for the Tories. Naturally, left-wing Labour activists were unwilling to acknowledge how crucial this Liberal factor was but it was no less pivotal for that.

Given this situation, we should have expected a large Liberal revival by 1983, after four years of Tory government, even had the SDP not come along to strengthen it. The SDP, though, being a defection from Labour, might have altered this first law of political mechanics by inflicting greater harm on Labour. The remarkable thing is that it did not, at first, do this but acted like the Liberal vote of old, only more so. Thus by May 1981 the Alliance had climbed to 29 per cent in the polls, which cut Labour down to 35 per cent but the Tories to 32 per cent – which would, in our system, have produced a large Labour win. By August 1981 the Alliance was up to 32 per cent, with the Tories at 28 per cent and Labour at 38 per cent.

What changed all this was the Falklands War. Between March and June 1982 the Tories rose from 31 per cent to 45 per cent, the Alliance fell from 33 per cent to 28 per cent and Labour fell from 33 per cent to 25 per cent. That is to say, the crude result of the war seems to have been that those Tories who had defected to the Alliance snapped back to take the Tory salute, while those who had defected from Labour to the Alliance remained defectors – the war having, in all truth, given them less reason than ever to change their minds. Doubtless, the multiple cross-transfers from one party to another were more complicated than this – they always are – but the great crude truth of the thing was that whereas a rising centre vote had, for a quarter of a century, hurt the Tories most, after the Falklands Labour was the principal victim.

Crewe and King miss all this but it is – or should have been – quite central to their work. In the 1983 election the Alliance took a whopping 25.4 per cent of the vote. In any election in the previous quarter-century a centre vote of those proportions would have produced a Labour landslide: this time it produced a Tory landslide. The same was true again in the 1987 election, when the Alliance vote of 23.2 per cent again clearly hurt Labour (31.7 per cent) far more than the Tories (43.4 per cent). What the SDP and the Falklands, working in conjunction, had achieved was a reversal of this first law of political mechanics. The effect lingered on into 1992, when the Liberal Democrats’ 18.3 per cent did not prevent the Tories (42.3 per cent) easily beating Labour (35.2 per cent).

It was the Curse of Kinnock: while he remained at the Party’s helm the ex-SDP bloc withheld its support from Labour, even though the Alliance had long since collapsed in ignominy and farce. Whatever party renovation Kinnock attempted, he continued, in the eyes of the Volvo-and-muesli classes, to personify ‘old Labour’ and they were having none of it. His replacement by John Smith changed everything. In the months following Kinnock’s resignation everything crumbled: the Tory vote collapsed, the Liberal vote collapsed with it and great waves of former Alliance voters headed back to Labour under Smith. After exactly ten years the Falklands spell was at last broken: by November 1992 the Liberals were down to 13.5 per cent in the polls and Labour up to 51.5 per cent, with the Tories slumped at 30.2 per cent. The Liberals recovered but the polls made it clear that the old law had been re-established: Liberal gains once again hurt the Tories more than Labour. Thus when the Liberals reached their 1993 peak of 28.3 per cent in August, far greater damage was done to the Tories (23.7 per cent) than to Labour (42.9 per cent). This situation hasn’t changed: hence the Age of Blair, who has worked to make Labour as SDP-friendly as possible, right down to including several SDP militants within his inner circle and sending his children to selective schools in classic SDP fashion. In doing so, he has given the final lie to all the impassioned rhetoric of 1982-7 about the necessity of schism, of ‘breaking the mould’ and so on, for he has achieved as Labour leader all that the Gang of Four ever set out to achieve from without. He can even offer a deal with the Liberals, knowing that they will once more do greater harm to the Tories than to him.

Looked at another way, Blair is the Gang of Four’s greatest monument, for he has completed the rout of the Left within the Party – which, whatever they said about wanting to beat the Tories, was always the SDP’s target of choice. But that, of course, was where the original mistake was made. However annoying the Trotskyite activists in the constituency parties were, they never represented more than 1 per cent of the electorate. You could build a mountain of righteous indignation out of opposing them, but you couldn’t build a majority party on that basis. What you could do, it turns out, was to punish Labour for a decade by withholding a critical margin of support, thus teaching Labour activists a long and painful lesson about the dynamics of the two-party system, a lesson which neither they nor the neophytes of the SDP should have forgotten in the first place.

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Vol. 17 No. 24 · 14 December 1995

As R.W. Johnson notes, activists aside, most of those who were drawn to the SDP have now drifted back to Tony Blair’s Labour Party (LRB, 30 November). Does this mean, as Johnson suggests, that Blair is the ultimate result of the SDP and one they would not be unhappy about? Perhaps. But many of those professionals who have moved leftwards back to Labour have great concerns not only about their jobs and status but about education, hospitals, the environment and so on. It seems unlikely that, left to himself, Blair will address these concerns, although clearly campaigning pressure could change his mind. The irony is that at least some of the old SDP supporters, having exited Labour to the right of Tony Blair, are now re-entering the political stage to his left.

Keith Flett
London N17

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