Problems for the SDP

David Butler

Six months after its birth, the Social Democratic Party remains an astonishing force in British politics. The opinion polls continue to put an SDP/Liberal alliance ahead of Conservative or Labour – and the SDP ahead of the Liberals. Voting habits have remarkable persistence but the prophecies of last spring that the SDP would soon go the way of all breakaway parties are becoming less confident. It begins to be conceivable that the new alliance will actually break the mould of British politics. Britain is likely to have an SDP/Liberal government after the next election unless one of three things happens:

1. The Conservative Government gets its act together. If monetarism triumphs, so that, within the next two years, the economy develops a strong upward surge and unemployment begins to fall, Mrs Thatcher could win a second term. But few economists see this occurring soon enough to save the Government.

2. The Labour Party gets its act together. This would require either that the Trade Unions, deciding that enough is enough, return control of the NEC to the centre, or that the domination of the Left is consolidated – and accepted by the Parliamentary Party. But a right-wing counter-coup is unlikely to be meekly accepted by the Left, while, on the other hand, continued success for the Left in the struggles over leadership and policy would almost certainly produce massive further defections, among both MPs and voters.

3. The SDP and the Liberals fail to get their act together. This is more likely. Despite the mutual advantages of alliance, the coalition may founder on petty jealousies and, perhaps, on genuine ideological differences. The public may come to see it, not as a blessed escape from the extremisms of the old parties, but as yet another group of inadequate and power-hungry politicians.

The birth pangs of the SDP have been extensively reported in the press. Yet the full story is worth retelling. Ian Bradley has produced an admirable piece of instant history: a journalist’s account of the SDP’s inception that is well-rooted in a historian’s grasp of long-term antecedents and immediate causes. He can liken the EEC issue to the Corn Laws as a catalyst of party realignment while focusing on why each individual in the Gang of Four came to the point of breaking away. His clear and unpretentious narrative is almost free from the misprints and factual errors that so often characterise the quickie book – and he has surely established parts of the story that would be impossible to settle a few years hence. He seems to understand the SDP better than he does the Liberals, but he offers a sympathetic yet not too partisan record of events.

Although Britain’s two-party politics goes back to the 17th century, it has known three drastic realignments since the Great Reform Bill – in the 1840s, in the 1880s and in the 1920s. Yet everyone in active politics today has only known a world dominated by Conservative and Labour. From 1930 to 1970, the two big parties secured over 90 per cent of all votes cast and supplied 98 per cent of all Members of Parliament. The brief upsurges of Liberal strength and the occasional break-aways by individuals did not seriously disturb this duopoly of power. The two-party system was taken for granted, and there were few who read properly the signs of disintegration that began to appear in the 1970s. The sharp rise in Liberal and Nationalist votes in 1974 was an obvious symptom of growing disillusion with the alternating major parties which had presided over the country’s decline. The Labour Party, under heavy attack both for being too left-wing and for not being left-wing enough, began to suffer desertion both by the élite and by the rank and file. But it took that historian, Roy Jenkins, to suggest publicly that the time had come for another great realignment of parties. In November 1979, his Dimbleby Lecture was received as an unrealistic cry from an aging and expatriated politician, not as a clarion call from the doughty gladiator-to-be at Warrington. It required the perverse genius of the NEC and the Party Conference, through the long months of 1980, to consolidate the Gang of Four and create the climate for a successful walk-out.

Politicians – and commentators – tend to be slaves to a linear picture of the political system: all parties, all persons and all policies are ranked in a row from left to right; every change of position is interpreted as a move to the left or to the right and it is assumed that friendships and alliances will always be linked to adjacency on the ideological spectrum. Of course, this useful but simple model can often be a poor guide to reality: there are many issues, and some people, that cannot be fitted neatly into this two-dimensional pattern. Yet it does serve as the basis for the SDP’s strategic assessment of its chances. People may swing to and fro between the parties, but on most policy points the bulk of the British electorate stays in a cautious, slightly Conservative centre postion, suspicious of radical change. But nature’s abhorrence of a vacuum means that, in the marketplace of politics, if the big parties fail to meet the demand for stability and moderation, others will rush in to bid for the electorate’s custom and fill the vacant strip in the core of the spectrum. Although the country may have gone downhill under a generation of consensual, Europhile Butskellism, the electorate has shown little taste for the draconian alternatives: it likes neither a monetarist retreat from the mixed economy nor a fortress Britain with ever greater state intervention. An undoctrinaire pursuit of a middle road has great appeal.

This logic is so obvious that when the SDP was launched, it seemed that its initial success might prove its downfall. Anthony Downs, the leading academic exponent of the linear theory, argues that centre parties always get squeezed by those on their flanks. In Britain in 1981 the demonstration that there was such an eager market for a centrist position should surely have drawn the other parties in the same direction. The Labour Party especially, by returning to its old courses, could readily steal back the clothes that Roy and Shirley had snatched. If the SDP’s obvious appeal could indeed convert the other parties to moderation, its very triumph would destroy its own raison d’être. But so far there has been no reactive change of line by cither Conservative or Labour.

Over the long years parties develop traditions, loyalties and character. The SDP, born so abruptly, has to establish its persona, to show it is a body with a recognisable quality, not just a collection of fairly sympathetic middle-of-the-road politicians, seeking a vessel in which to freight their careers. It is splendidly free from the burden of old organisational habits and old commitments to particular nostrums. It is not constrained by an established base in a particular class, or in the institutions of capital and labour, or even in a particular region or set of special issues. But there are handicaps as well as assets in being free to stand for anything, and the SDP could well come to be seen as standing for everything or for nothing. The Party has shied away from choosing a leader; it has shunned a traditional constituency structure; and, above all, it has professed a horror of manifestoitis, of detailed policy commitments, dreamed up in backrooms without authoritative guidance on the costs or practicability of implementation. A prudent deliberation in its early stages may be good strategy. But soon the SDP has to set up a structure for making decisions and to evolve a broad philosophy, a style of approaching problems that will convince observers that it is credible as a governing party.

The SDP is, so far, a product of image-makers. Its appeal is that it seems to offer a new direction, an escape for those who increasingly feel like experimental rats, trapped in the laboratory of those mad scientists, Dr Thatcher and Dr Benn. After the Dimbleby Lecture, Liberals argued that all Roy Jenkins had to do was to join their party. But David Steel rightly perceived a vast extra reservoir of strength for the centre that could be tapped by a new party, with none of the historic baggage of the Liberals, appealing both to Labour’s disillusioned Right and to many people with no background in politics, who sought something fresh and unsullied.

The SDP are, of course, invading Liberal territory. For a long time the Liberals had not won votes by their policies so much as by being the party least like a party. Under the British electoral system there is only room for one group in the moderate, all-things-to-all-men, middle position. The SDP can succeed only by crushing the Liberals or by allying with them. The Liberals command too much good will for them to be totally crushed: the process would be messy and discrediting and would cost more votes than the SDP could ever spare. But alliance is never easy. In many parts of the country the Liberals are sitting tenants, proud of their name and their past and with no intention of giving place to Johnny-come latelys. Why, in a big city ward, should an aspiring Liberal give up his candidacy to an old Labour councillor who has joined the SDP because the local Trots are refusing to renominate him? Long and painful negotiations will be needed nationally, and, far more difficult, locally, to establish an alliance and to allot places on the battlefield. The negotiations will often be noisily unsuccessful.

Despite some hiccups, the first months of the SDP have more than justified its founders’ hopes. It has attracted membership and money and news stories. Big hurdles remain, however. It may go on being skilful in making headlines, but its novelty value will wear off. Its political opponents, and even its friends in the media, will ask increasingly searching questions. It has to settle its leadership, its organisation, its policy and its relations with the Liberals.

The top personnel of the Party are not understood.‘We’ve got a nice-guy image,’ said one of them, ‘but really we’re bastards.’ Because of Shirley Williams – and a few others – the public thinks of the SDP as made up of good, reasonable people, thoroughly humane if a bit wet. But are they really ‘nice guys’? Some, at least, are tough and ruthless. A weak politician does not try to break up the party that he has given half his life to; he does not quarrel with the bulk of his friends and violate deep loyalties in his constituency. The SDP leaders knew from the outset that it would be a rough and bitter business to break the mould of British politics: they would have to be most beastly to some of their closest natural allies. If they succeed, the people who will be most damaged are among those they approve of most – the Roy Hattersleys and the Denis Healeys. If they succeed, they will have to be brutal to their new colleagues, to the Liberals, whose boat they are swamping.

It may be a symptom of their individual toughness that they have not been able to settle on a leader, and have even spent so long on sorting out a means of selecting a leader. In the short run, the quadrumvirate may have had its advantages: four equally top people who can go out to meetings all over the country and, despite David Steel’s frustrations at trying to do business with four people who are not of one mind, the stories about the SDP leadership have so far played their part in keeping the party in the news.

The question of its leadership has been only one of the organisational problems facing the Party. What happens locally is important. As far as electioneering is concerned, it may matter less than many suppose: after the 1979 campaign only 15 per cent of voters remembered anyone canvassing at their door, compared to 38 per cent in 1964 and 53 per cent in 1951. Despite some notable exceptions, elections are seldom won on the doorstep. But constituency organisation may matter much more in the local bargaining that will go on over candidate selection. In many winnable seats the Liberal Party has an established organisation and a standard-bearer. Its claim to lead the field will not be yielded up unless there is demonstrable evidence of an equally substantial SDP presence. And to make advances in one special arena – local government – there is need for rational, well-regulated organisation down on the ground.

Central organisation matters more. The Party has to produce and distribute literature and to co-ordinate the travels of its leaders. It has to raise money and help with local activities. And it has to keep the media happy. One problem which may matter more than any other when the election comes is access to the air-waves. If they followed the practice of the last twenty years, the broadcasting authorities would allow the SDP only one five-minute broadcast in the next election (as a party with over 50 candidates), and a proportionately trivial share of time in the news bulletins and in discussion programmes. During the vital three weeks of the campaign the SDP would have far less opportunity of putting its case in the main medium of mass communication than the big parties, and than its Liberal partners, even if the opinion polls should be showing it far ahead. Something will have to give. This is one more area where the advent of the SDP is changing the rules of the political game.

However, the SDP is not likely to founder over organisation or publicity. The real shoals ahead lie in policy and in SDP/Liberal relations. The SDP has proclaimed itself a Broad Church and has no wish to get itself impaled on the ideological niceties which helped to drive its leaders from the Labour Party. Its major figures are most obviously committed to the unpopular ideals of the European Community and the more acceptable cause of Nato. On private education they are divided, and on economic policy they are still engaged in a confused search for a way out of the current morass. Mindful of the necessities of a deal with the Liberals, they will have no difficulty in staying European and even multilateral, but they may have problems over nuclear weapons – and nuclear energy. They will have to accept private education and private medicine. They will be able to compromise on constitutional reform and in particular on a version of proportional representation. But the central economic questions promise no easy answers. A compulsory incomes policy? A circle-squaring formula that cures both inflation and unemployment? An agreement on the scale of public enterprise and the limits to its subsidy? If they can demonstrate consensus, good sense and conviction in these matters, the downfall of every government for a generation, they will deserve to win. But there is, as yet, no reason to think they have discovered any new economic talisman.