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.

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