After Hillhead

David Marquand

Whatever else it may or may not have been, Hillhead was unquestionably a personal triumph for Roy Jenkins. The crowds which packed the silent, thoughtful meetings were drawn by him. The old ladies who switched tremulously and belatedly from the Tories switched to him. The clever-silly London journalists who explained why the SDP bubble was going to burst made their jokes at his expense. Defeat would have kept him out of the leadership of the SDP and perhaps out of the leadership of the Alliance as well. Victory has consolidated his claims to both. After the long, grey years of the Seventies – the agonies of conscience over the European Communities Bill, the frustrations of office in the dismal governments of 1974, defeat in the Labour leadership election, the poisoned chalice of the Brussels Commission presidency – he can now enter his inheritance as the rallying-point for the forces of conscience and reform which have been leaderless since Gaitskell’s death. It is a sweet moment for those of us who followed him.

It would, however, be self-indulgent to savour it for too long. Hillhead has consolidated Jenkins’s claims to lead the SDP and the Alliance. It has not determined what sort of party the SDP is to be, or what strategy the Alliance is to follow. Since the launch of the party a year ago, we have been living on a diet of sub-committees and adrenalin. Like a gawky adolescent, uncertain of his voice pitch, we have been obsessed by the problems of our own growth. All over the country, newsletters have been produced, T-shirts sold, council by-elections fought, leaflets distributed, negotiations with the Liberals held. The draft constitution has been discussed, amended and debated; and then discussed, amended and debated all over again. Huge quantities of time and energy have been spent on the structure of Area Parties, the role of local groups, the desirability or undesirability of ‘positive discrimination’ in favour of women candidates in party elections, the method of electing the party leader. All this activity has been necessary, indeed indispensable. But in the excitement, fundamental, if less pressing, questions of strategy and identity have been left on one side. They will have to be answered if the SDP and the Alliance are to build on the foundations so enthusiastically laid in the last 12 months.

The questions of strategy are the most obvious. So far, the SDP – and a fortiori the Alliance as a whole – has been winning more votes from the Conservatives than from the Labour Party. After every by-election, the computers have forecast a more or less derisory Conservative presence in the next House of Commons, and a more or less respectable Labour one. On the current figures, the computers are right. If the Hillhead result were generalised across the country, the two biggest parties in Parliament would be the Alliance and the Labour Party. So far from displacing Labour as the main anti-Conservative party, the SDP would have displaced the Conservatives as the main anti-Labour party. On a smaller scale, this is what used to happen to the Liberals under unpopular Conservative governments, so it is not at all surprising that it should now be happening to the SDP as well. The SDP and the Liberals appeal to the same sorts of people for the same sorts of reasons. Their attitudes are close and their ideologies indistinguishable. In any case, there are more Conservative votes to be detached than Labour ones. The Conservative Party, after all, won the last election, and it did so with the largest swing to any victorious party since 1950. Other things being equal, one would expect the most volatile voters in this country to be those who swung from the Labour and Liberal Parties to the Conservatives between 1974 and 1979, and it would be strange if the SDP were not doing particularly well among these. The Conservatives are, moreover, in power; and they are in power during the worst economic crisis since the war. In such circumstances, big Conservative defections to the Alliance are entirely predictable.

But, as the Liberals have repeatedly discovered, Conservative defections from an unpopular Conservative government in the middle of its term do not provide a satisfactory basis for a realignment of British politics. The Conservative Party is the toughest and most resilient political force in the Western world. Its roots go deep into British history and British society. It is, of course, divided, but although the divisions are serious, they are not fundamental. The gulf between ‘wets’ and ‘dries’ is wide, but it is not unbridgeable. Mrs Thatcher and Sir Ian Gilmour have different views of the role of the state and correspondingly different attitudes to economic management: but they both accept the fundamental Conservative values of hierarchy and order, and they both see the Conservative Party as the custodian and repository of these values. More important still, the differences between them are hardly reflected in Conservative associations outside Westminster. ‘Wet’ Conservative MPs do not go in terror of ‘dry’ constituency parties. There is no Conservative equivalent of the Tribune Group, let alone of the Militant Tendency or the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. Some nasty people are to be found on the Conservative benches in the House of Commons, and even more are to be found at Conservative Party Conferences. But the Conservative Party is not being infiltrated by Nazis or Fascists. Mrs Thatcher and her colleagues are unsuccessful and unpopular, but the Conservative Party has been unsuccessful and unpopular before and it has always recovered. It is not, as the Labour Party is, terminally ill.

For all these reasons, I believe that the Conservative vote will recover between now and the general election – not to its 1979 level, but to a level a good deal higher than its present one. It follows that if the Alliance is to do as well as it is doing now – and it must do almost as well if it is to win enough seats to bust the system – it will have to win more Labour votes than it is winning now. In Warrington, Roy Jenkins showed that deep inroads can be made into the Labour vote, even in a traditional Labour seat and at a time when traditional Labour loyalties might have been expected to be at their strongest, given the right candidate and the right campaign. But Warrington did not happen by accident. It needed considerable effort, and considerable political skill. Similar inroads can be made into the Labour vote in other seats if the Alliance makes the right dispositions between now and the general election. But they will need equal effort and the same level of skill.

The right strategy for the SDP is, in short, to take the Warrington road and go for the Labour vote. The implications of such a strategy are more complex than they appear at first sight. In particular, the notion that Labour votes can best be won by giving the SDP more obviously Labour characteristics – by trying to curry favour with the trade unions, in the way that Callaghan and his cronies used to curry favour with them, for example, or by giving the impression that public expenditure is in some mysterious way morally superior to private expenditure, or by making strenuous efforts to acquire a ‘left’ image rather than a ‘centre’ one – is based on a fatal misreading of popular attitudes. For Labour voters vote Labour despite these characteristics, not because of them. They are almost as hostile to the unions as non-Labour voters. They are no more in favour of high levels of public expenditure than non-Labour voters. The terminology of the ‘left’, ‘centre’ and ‘right’ means no more to them; and if it did, they would be as likely to vote for a ‘centre’ party in preference to a party of the ‘left’. If the Bennite neo-Marxists are on the ‘left’ of the political spectrum and the Thatcherite neo-liberals on the ‘right’, the vast majority of the British people – Labour no less than Conservatives – are in the ‘centre’. The SDP’s ‘centre’ image was as attractive to council tenants in Warrington as to doctors and university professors in Hillhead, and it would be ludicrous to pretend otherwise.

This does not mean, however, that it should make no attempt to change its image – or, more important, the reality behind it. The SDP is still much stronger in the South of England than in the North, much stronger in the suburbs than in city centres or council estates, much stronger among lawyers and journalists than among skilled workers. Too many of its steering committee members live in the South-East; too much of its policy is made in the London-Oxbridge golden triangle; too often it speaks in the accents of Hampstead or Chelsea. Given the way in which it was launched – and it had to be launched in that way if it was to be launched at all – it was inevitable that it would be like this at the beginning. London is the national capital, after all; and if a nation-wide party was to be created in a period of six weeks, it had to be created in London, and was bound, at the start of its life, to be London-based. But it will not survive and prosper unless it puts down roots beyond its regional base; and so far, at any rate, it has not put them anything like far enough down. The radical tradition in this country is a provincial tradition, not a metropolitan one: a tradition of outsiders trying to break in, not of insiders trying to break out. A party whose raison d’être is to revitalise the radical tradition cannot afford to forget that.