The ‘London Review of Books’ started with an interest in the Social Democrats, in the days before the party was launched.

David Marquand writes on the eve of their first Party Conference

  • Breaking the Mould by Ian Bradley
    Martin Robertson, 172 pp, £8.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 85520 469 9

The pregnancy was long, difficult and ridden with anxiety, but the birth was easy and infancy has been a triumph. Unfortunately, however, Mr Bradley’s instant history of the first few months of the Social Democratic Party tells us a good deal more about its gestation before the launch on 26 March than about its development since. This was inevitable, no doubt. Even instant historians have to get their books printed; and Mr Bradley’s would not be in the bookshops yet if he had dealt with the final stages of his story in as much detail as the earlier ones. All the same, the effect is curiously lop-sided: lop-sided, moreover, in a way which obscures much of the real significance of the events which Mr Bradley has set out to analyse.

As everyone knows, the SDP – or, at any rate, the Council for Social Democracy which paved the way for the SDP – started life as a breakaway from the Labour Party. The Gang of Four were all senior Labour politicians or ex-politicians; two of them were Labour Members of Parliament. Most of the signatories of the Guardian advertisement appealing for support for the Council were either members of the Labour Party or past members of the Labour Party; until Mr Brockle-bank-Fowler’s adhesion, all the MPs who sat on the Social Democrats’ bench in the House of Commons had originally been returned in the Labour interest. Some of the non-MPs who had hoped and argued and planned for the emergence of a separate social democratic party before it happened had drifted a long way from the Labour Party before the planning started; all of them drifted further and faster thereafter. But it was from the Labour Party, and only from the Labour Party, that they drifted. There were no former Conservatives or Liberals among us; and if any had sought to join us, I have a nasty suspicion that we would have rebuffed them. We wanted an explicitly social democratic party, with a distinctively social democratic philosophy, not what was later to be termed a Mark II Labour Party. Callaghanite Labourism, with its corporatist kow-towing to the Unions and its Tammany Hall approach to political leadership, was, if anything, even less attractive to us than Bennite neo-Marxism. But even we had not quite emancipated ourselves from our Labour Party pasts or from the Labour Party assumptions which we had absorbed at the political equivalents of our mothers’ knees.

We had been to school with Ivor Crewe and the Essex political scientists. From them, and even more from our experiences as MPs, Parliamentary candidates and party activists, we knew that as the two big parties had lurched towards their respective ideological extremes they had rendered more and more of their voters politically homeless. We could see that these homeless voters – non-Conservatives, non-Labour, yet unattracted, or at any rate unimpressed, by the Liberals – formed a potential social democratic constituency, of impressive size and weight. But although we realised that the central electoral objective of a new social democratic party would be to mobilise that constituency, we were still at any rate half-imprisoned intellectually by the notion that there was some special virtue in winning Labour votes and Labour seats.

Hence our behaviour during the long gestation period between Roy Jenkins’s Dimbleby Lecture call for a realignment of the ‘radical centre’ and the establishment of the Council for Social Democracy 15 months later. We differed sharply over our tactics. Some of us – notably Colin Phipps and Michael Barnes – thought that we non-MPs should force the pace: that the way to produce a breakaway from the Parliamentary Labour Party was to make it clear to our old friends there that we intended to set up a separate social democratic party whether they liked it or not, and that they would be welcome to join it when life in the Labour Party became intolerable. Others, of whom I was one, thought that if we tried to force the pace in that way we would be more likely to lock our Parliamentary friends into the Labour Party than to prise them out of it, and concluded that we would do better to wait for them to make up their own minds when to break, in the confident expectation that the Labour Party would continue to disintegrate so fast that they would do so sooner rather than later. These tactical differences, however, subsumed a common strategic aim. We all took it for granted that a breakaway from the Labour Party was a precondition of a successful social democratic party: and we took that for granted because we also took it for granted that it was a precondition of winning Labour votes.

Mr Bradley tells this part of the story clearly and well. More importantly, he also focuses attention on the intellectual currents which were beginning to sweep former Labour right-wingers away from their party moorings well before the Conference battles which made the break inevitable. He shows that Evan Luard’s Socialism Without the State, John Horam’s calls for ‘market socialism’ and David Owen’s evocation of the co-operative, decentralist element in the British socialist tradition exemplified a widespread mood, with which the old Right of the Labour Party had no more in common than had the Left. It was not as new a mood as he seems to imagine. John Mackintosh, whose contribution to the thinking which eventually produced the SDP is strangely and sadly neglected in this book, had expressed at any rate one aspect of it in his campaigns for regional devolution and Parliamentary reform as far back as the late Sixties. There is no doubt, however, that it was given new force and urgency by the Wilson and Callaghan governments of the Seventies. For those governments proved that the stars by which the Labour Right had steered since the early Fifties – the stars of Keynesian demand management, economic growth and rising public expenditure – had now burned out. The old Right’s only answer to the Bennite alternative strategy was a furtive mixture of corporatism and monetarism, disguised by increasingly hollow appeals to class solidarity and buttressed by an increasingly unreliable trade-union block vote. It was a deeply unattractive answer: and, even in its own terms, it was also an unsuccessful one. The decentralism of the Luards, the Horams and the Owens was, in part at least, a reaction to it. But in the Labour Party, the big battalions were all either Bennite or corporatist. There was no audience for decentralism; and the decentralists gradually realised that if they wanted an audience they would have to break with the Labour Party altogether.

Most of this emerges fairly clearly from Mr Bradley’s account. So do the most crucial individual contributions. He shows that the Council for Social Democracy, and hence the SDP itself, was the work of two people above all: of Roy Jenkins outside Parliament, and of David Owen inside it. Roy Jenkins’s Dimbleby Lecture lit the fuse. The pundits who criticised his timing – and, as always, there were plenty to invoke the doctrine of unripe time – could hardly have been more mistaken. By giving the lecture when he did, he put the question of a new party onto the political agenda, as he could not have done had he waited. He had thought the unthinkable: and not only thought it, but talked it, in front of the television cameras. In doing so, he had forced others to think about it too. After fifty years, the ghost of Ramsay MacDonald had been laid. It had become possible, even if not respectable, for Labour politicians to talk openly about splitting the party; and once the tabu had been broken, it could not be put together again. Roy Jenkins himself, moreover, had become a kind of King over the Water, a distant, brooding presence, around whom hopes and fears gathered and in relation to whom others had to define their positions. In far-off Brussels the standard had been raised. No one knew what the standard-bearer would do or when he would do it. But everyone expected him to do something; and those who did not want to be forestalled by him had to decide their own timing with his possible actions in mind. The point of lighting a fuse, however, is to produce an explosion; and the explosion was David Owen’s. He came around to the idea of a new party comparatively late, but once he was converted his conversion was characteristically total. He rallied the MPs, he set the pace and he dictated the tactics. But for him, I doubt if the party would exist today.

All this, however, was the prologue. What matters is the play; and in a whole series of ways the play has diverged from the plot which those who took part in the prologue expected it to follow. In the first place, the SDP is not the breakaway from the Labour Party which those of us who looked forward to it before its emergence assumed it would become, and which the Council for Social Democracy at first seemed to presage. To be sure, most of its MPs and Steering Committee have come out of the Labour Party. But its chief executive, Bernard Doyle, has never belonged to a political party before, and he is much more typical of the membership. The enthusiastic SDP volunteers who made the Warrington by-election the best-organised and most enjoyable political campaign in which I have ever participated were as likely to be ex-Conservatives or ex-Liberals as ex-members of the Labour Party; and, if anything, they were even more likely to have had no political experience at all. The same is true of every local SDP group I have addressed; and I expect it will be equally true of the Party Conference in a few days’ time. The question of whether the SDP will become a ‘Mark II Labour Party’, which Mr Bradley evidently sees as a matter of hot debate within it, is, in reality, beside the point. The SDP is no longer a gleam in Roy Jenkins’s eye. It is a living reality, with a membership of more than 50,000, growing at the rate of 500 a week. It will become what its members make it; and since most of them never belonged to the Mark I Labour Party, I doubt if they would know how to make it a Mark II Labour Party even if they wanted to. The fact is that we are sui generis: not only a new party, but a new kind of party as well.

For parties belong to their members. It is because the Labour Right forgot that, and tried to keep control of their party through clever backstairs manipulation rather than through honest argument honestly put, that the Bennite Left is now making the running at Conference, in the National Executive and in most constituencies. Even if the SDP Parliamentary group were to be doubled or trebled by new defections from the Labour benches between now and the next election, the new recruits would not be able to determine the Party’s character. They would be joining us, not we them. They would find a warm welcome, of course. The SDP is a party of prodigal sons (that is one reason why some of the stiffer and more self-righteous Liberals view it askance), and it is well-aware that repenting sinners should be greeted with fatted calves. But it will expect the repentance to be genuine; and it would take it amiss if the newcomers tried to hoist onto it a lot of old Labour Party baggage. Though Mr Bradley does not seem to realise it, moreover, this applies as much to ex-Labour Social Democrats as to ex-Conservatives and ex-Liberals. Ex-Labour Social Democrats, after all, know more about the shortcomings of the Mark I Labour Party than anyone else; and they have no wish to duplicate them in their new party. It is true that many, perhaps most of them, left their old party because they were appalled by the fanaticism, the intolerance and the incipient totalitarianism of the neo-Marxists who were taking control of it. But for most of them, the neo-Marxist takeover was only the last straw. They knew that more was wrong with the Labour Party than its infiltration by the Militant Tendency or the antics of the Soviet-ophiles on the NEC. Indeed, they knew – or, at any rate, they sensed – that neo-Marxism would not have made headway in a healthy party: that the NEC’s colour was a symptom, not the disease. I know of no Social Democrat who wants that disease to infect the SDP.

But if we are not to be a Mark II Labour Party, what are we to be? That is the central question, of course, but almost by definition no one can yet know the answer. Already, however, one or two points are clear. It is clear in the first place that our fate – and perhaps the country’s fate – will depend on the negotiations between ourselves and the Liberals which start this autumn. Mr Bradley correctly points out that the distortions produced by the British ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system are enormously greater when there are three or four parties with sizable chunks of the popular vote than when there are only two. It is theoretically conceivable that the Social Democrat-Liberal alliance could win more votes than either of the two big parties, without winning a single seat in the House of Commons. It is equally conceivable that it could win a Parliamentary majority as large as Lloyd George’s in 1918 or Ramsay MacDonald’s in 1931 with a minority vote in the country. More to the point than either of these extreme scenarios, it is not only conceivable but probable that if the Alliance wins fewer than a hundred seats – and it could easily hold the balance of power in the House of Commons with fewer than a hundred – most of the constituencies it wins will be constituencies where the Liberals did well in the last election.

Mr Bradley’s conclusion – strongly coloured, it seems to me, by his evident Liberal sympathies – is that the SDP’s main achievement may, and probably will, be to put the Liberals in a commanding position in the next Parliament. The Alliance, he seems to think, is unlikely to win more than a hundred seats. Since most of them are seats where the Liberals are strong, they will mostly be contested by Liberal candidates; and if they are won by the Alliance, they will therefore return Liberal Members to the House of Commons. The SDP will have provided the fuel, but it will be a Liberal rocket which takes off. The truth, I am afraid, is that that is the one scenario which is certain not to be enacted in real life. For if the Liberal negotiators behave in the way that Mr Bradley tacitly assumes they will, no Alliance will be formed. If there is to be an Alliance at all, it will have to be an Alliance of equals, with equal electoral propects. That means that each party will have to have an equal share of the winnable seats, on whatever assumptions winnability is defined. The Social Democrats will have to be sure of a fair share of a 50 or 100-strong Alliance contingent in the House of Commons; and the Liberals will have to be sure of a fair share of an Alliance contingent of 300 or 400. It follows that both parties will have to fight approximately the same number of seats in each category of seat – rural and urban, Northern and Southern, suburban and city-centre, Conservative and Labour – and it also follows that there will have to be about as many Social Democrat candidates in constituencies where the Liberals are strong as there are Liberal candidates. If the Liberals do not accept that, there will be no deal.

In fact, the Liberals are overwhelmingly likely to accept it. It is true that there are sections of the Liberal Party which, in the old American phrase, would rather be right than be President. Indeed, I sometimes come across Liberals who give the impression that they do not want to be President on any terms at all. But whatever may have been the case twenty years ago, these are now in a minority. David Steel very much wants to be President, and quite right too: he knows that he would be a good one. More to the point, I suspect that the same is true of the community politicians and local councillors in the Liberal Party who are suspicious of the SDP and reluctant to come to terms with it. They have chosen a different route to power from David Steel’s, but they want it just as much. They do not want their party to lose all the gains which their patient footslogging has won it, and they are not interested in belonging to a glorified discussion group which has no influence on events. Once they realise that that is what will happen to them if there is no deal with the SDP – and realisation is rapidly dawning – they will want a deal as much as their leaders do. Both teams of negotiators will need great patience, skill, imagination, and sensitivity to the susceptibilities of their negotiating partners. But they will be under enormous party and public pressure to succeed, and they will know that failure would assure mutual destruction. It is hard to think of a better recipe for success; and success in the negotiations will give the British people a credible alternative to the two big parties for the first time for sixty years.

Mr Bradley is right that the mould has not broken yet. But it is undoubtedly breaking. Pieces of it lie all around us, and the noise of further disintegration is loud and clear. I have believed for half a decade that an explicitly social democratic party, with an explicitly social democratic message, could save this country if only we had the courage to form one. Now I believe that we shall.