What the Social Democrats should try to achieve

David Marquand

  • The Socialist Agenda edited by David Lipsey
    Cape, 242 pp, £7.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 224 01886 8
  • The Future of Socialism by Anthony Crosland
    Cape, 368 pp, £8.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 224 01888 4
  • Politics is for people by Shirley Williams
    Allen Lane/Penguin, 230 pp, £8.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 7139 1423 8

It is too soon to tell whether the month-old Social Democratic Party will replace the Labour Party as the main anti-Conservative force in Britain. What is certain is that the omens are far more propitious than anyone could reasonably have expected as recently as three months go. The death-wish which has gripped the Labour Party for the last two years shows no sign of loosening its hold. Though it is hard to believe that Tony Benn can actually win the deputy leadership, his attempt to do so is bound to inflict yet more damage on his torn and battered colleagues. Roy Hattersley’s quaintly-named Solidarity Campaign may reverse some of the wilder decisions taken at the Wembley conference in January, but even if it does the Party will still be committed to an electoral college of some sort, and the leadership will still be even more obviously in thrall to an incompetent and unpopular trade-union movement than it used to be in the past. Meanwhile the issue of compulsory reselection is ticking away in the background, and is almost certain to produce more Parliamentary defections to the Social Democrats as and when it explodes. More important than any of this, it is now as certain as anything in politics ever can be that Labour’s right wing has lost the battle over policy: that the positions which the Party took up at Blackpool last October will not be changed in any fundamental way and that Michael Foot and Denis Healey will therefore have to fight the next election on a programme closer to the French Communist Party’s than to that of any other important working-class party in the Western world.

Labour has been losing support since the early Fifties. The gap between its voters and its activists has been widening since the early Seventies. Between them, these two trends have already created a big popular constituency of politically displaced persons – anti-Conservative, but non-Labour. That constituency has been growing steadily from election to election. Almost certainly, it would still be growing even if Denis Healey had won the leadership election five months ago, and were now engaged in a heroic Gaitskellian battle to undo the Blackpool decisions. As things are, it can hardly fail to grow even more rapidly in the next two years than in the last two.

So far, however, this constituency has had no home to go to. The Labour Party has alienated it, but although enough of it voted Conservative at the last election to put Mrs Thatcher in Downing Street, it is not Conservative by nature and the Conservatives are unlikely to win many votes from it in 1983 or 1984. Nor, however, is it naturally Liberal; and although the Liberals have made some inroads into it here and there, they have so far failed to capture it. It is, in fact, instinctively social democratic; and the Social Democrats ought to find it easy to give it the home it has lacked hitherto. If they do so, they have every chance of doing to the Labour Party in the next five years what the Labour Party did to the Liberals between 1900 and 1930.

Yet there are dangers in this as well as opportunities. Faced with the Labour Party in the throes of a peculiarly unattractive exercise in public hara-kiri, and a large ex-Labour constituency waiting to be mobilised, the Social Democrats may calculate that the way to replace the Labour Party is to duplicate it – not, of course, as it is now, but as it used to be in the good old days, before it was corrupted by Harold Wilson and infiltrated by the Militant Tendency. That Labour Party, after all, was the party most of us joined and went into politics to fight for: if it had survived, we would be in it still. It is tempting to assume that what is true of us must also be true of the ex-Labour voters who have been politically displaced during the last fifteen years. And if that assumption is right, the obvious conclusion is that the way to appeal to them is to create that Labour Party anew: to confront the new Labour Party of Benn, Heffer and Foot with the old Labour Party of Attlee, Bevin and Gaitskell.

Unfortunately, the Labour Party of Attlee, Bevin and Gaitskell has vanished with the society that gave birth to it and the popular culture that sustained it. Indeed, one of the reasons the new Labour Party has been taken over by the Benns, the Heffers and the Foots is precisely that the life has drained out of that culture. With all its nastiness, the Labour Party of Benn and Heffer – though not, it must be admitted, the Labour Party of Foot – is, at any rate, a party of the 1980s. It cannot be fought by appealing to the ghosts of the 1940s, or even of the 1950s. In traditional Labour areas like the North-East and South Wales, the Social Democrats will be tempted to establish their Labour credentials by invoking the memory of the glorious dead. They should resist the temptation. In that game, they will always be beaten. If they are to win, they must appeal to the future, not to the past.

What applies to style applies even more strongly to substance. The Steering Committee of the SDP are all, so to speak, born-again Labour revisionists – old disciples of Hugh Gaitskell and Tony Crosland, who have spent their political lives fighting the fundamentalists on the Labour Left. Painfully, reluctantly and at different speeds, we have all been forced to recognise that that battle cannot be won inside the Labour Party: that it was an illusion to think that we could succeed where Gaitskell failed, that the old dream of a Labour Godesburg Conference, in which the Labour Party would transform itself into a British version of the German SPD, will never be realised. Indeed, it is this recognition that differentiates us from our fellow revisionists who have remained in the Labour Party.

Having conceded defeat inside the Labour Party, however, we may be tempted to fight the same battle all over again from outside: to turn the Social Democratic Party into a bigger and better version of the Manifesto Group or the Campaign for Labour Victory. That temptation is even more dangerous than the first. For the crisis which is now destroying the Labour Party is, in large measure, a crisis of revisionism. Though Gaitskell failed to make the Labour Party explicitly revisionist, Harold Wilson succeeded in making it implicitly so. Though the Labour Governments of the Sixties and Seventies did not publicly announce that they were governing according to the maxims set out in Crosland’s Future of Socialism, they were nevertheless predominantly Croslandite in approach. However painful it may be to admit it, the fact is that those Governments failed: in spite of his captivating verve, energy and intellectual courage, Crosland turned out to be wrong.

By an irony which Crosland himself would probably not have relished, a good way to see how wrong he was is to read the volume of essays which Messrs Lipsey and Leonard have dedicated to his memory. Not, it must be admitted, that they themselves concede anything of the sort. On the contrary, they have managed to turn their mentor – perhaps the greatest iconoclast in the history of British socialism – into a kind of icon, ‘In The Future of Socialism,’ David Lipsey writes in the first substantial essay in the book, ‘Crosland had erected a towering castle. The rest of his life was devoted to defending it against all comers.’ There is an element of truth in that, but to the extent that it is true it points to a weakness in Crosland, not to a strength. For The Future of Socialism was not a castle at all. It was a temporary shelter, clearly designed by its architect to last only for a time; and it is in that that its greatness consists. The Crosland of the Fifties – the daring and imaginative intellectual saboteur, whose greatest delight was to demolish outworn pieties and explode ancient myths – understood perfectly well that society moves on, and that social thought has to move with it. The last thing he wanted to do was to lay down a doctrine which would be true for ever. He knew that doctrines which are intended to be true for ever are rarely true at all. If the Crosland of the Seventies forgot that – and there were times when he behaved as though he did – so much the worse for the Crosland of the Seventies.

Although the editors cannot bring themselves to admit that Crosland made any mistakes, their fellow contributors give the game away. Like most such symposia, The Socialist Agenda is a bit of a rag-bag. Some of the essayists – Lord McCarthy on incomes policy is the most painful example – have nothing new to say. Others – notably, James Meade on fixing money rates of pay, Ian Little on ‘Social Democracy and the International Economy’, Raymond Plant on ‘Democratic Socialism and Equality’ and Colin Crouch on public expenditure – serve more appetising dishes. And they all show, albeit in some cases only by implication, that Crosland’s revisionism now needs revising.

One reason, as Colin Crouch implies, is that Crosland took the traditional structure of the British state for granted, and failed to see that the centralist, élitist logic underlying it was incompatible with his own libertarian and egalitarian values. Another and more important reason is that the economic growth on which he relied to provide the wherewithal for redistribution has not occurred. Crosland realised that equality could be reconciled with liberty only if it could be achieved peacefully, and he also believed that without growth peaceful redistribution would be impossible. Thus the failure of growth to materialise has thrown his whole system into disarray. Either growth has to be resumed, or redistribution has to be abandoned. But, as James Meade and Ian Little both show in different ways, growth cannot be resumed without a conflict with the trade unions, whose monopoly power is now the chief cause of inflation and therefore the chief impediment to the expansion of demand which, in present circumstances at any rate, must be a necessary condition for a return to growth. Yet Crosland was anxious to avoid conflicts with the unions, opposed the ‘In Place of Strife’ proposals of the Sixties because they had provoked such a conflict, and supported the Social Contracts of the Seventies, which gave the unions even more power than they had already.

For that reason alone, Croslandite revisionism is now a blind alley, and if the Social Democrats are content to tread where Crosland trod, their policies will get no further than his did. But although many, perhaps even most, Social Democrats are uneasily aware of this, no one has yet produced a satisfactory alternative to Croslandism. That is the real significance of Shirley Williams’s tantalisingly brief, but potentially explosive attempt to sketch out a social democratic approach to a world of low growth, expensive energy, scarce resources and high unemployment. Shirley Williams has played a crucial part in the emergence of the Social Democratic Party. Not only is she its most popular member: in an important sense, she has so far been its one indispensable member. If she had refused to join it, as seemed possible at one stage, it might never have come into existence at all. Having joined it, she is its best guarantee that it has a heart as well as a head. She cannot, of course, decide its policies all by herself. All the same, her book is bound to be seen as the most important single pointer to the direction the Party is likely to take.

It points in a strikingly different direction from Crosland’s. Mrs Williams has not abandoned growth altogether, but she puts it well down her list of priorities. Low growth, she insists, is all we can expect in the world in which we now find ourselves; and although she does not say so in so many words, she gives the strong impression that she would not be surprised if we turn out to have no growth at all for a long time to come. Having thrown Crosland’s central commitment, not perhaps out of the window, but certainly onto a distant corner of the window ledge, she is then free to discuss the problems of the new, cold world of the Eighties from a standpoint which Croslandite orthodoxy ruled out. In place of growth, she puts employment; in place of productivity, job satisfaction; in place of Crosland’s obsession with measurable, economic equality, equality of power and of rights – in work as well as at the ballot box.

Mrs Williams has, in short, rejected the economism which is still the dominant strand in the political tradition to which her new party appeals and from which it draws its inspiration. Not all her colleagues will welcome this rejection. Some will dismiss it as ‘unrealistic’. Others will argue that it spells electoral disaster. I suspect that the kind of realism which she has flouted is not only out-of-date but unpopular as well. She has not provided the alternative governing philosophy her party needs. But she has at least pointed the way to one. What is more, she has pointed in the right direction.