The SDP’s Chances

William Rodgers

Parliaments divide, with surprising neatness, into distinct phases. A first phase reflects the initial euphoria of a party winning power (or retaining it). A sober middle period is spent getting to grips with real problems. There follows, finally, a collapse into electioneering. The transition from the middle to the final phase is usually the most clearly defined. There is a rush of Members of Parliament declaring their intention to retire. In the House of Commons the Queen’s Speech takes on a subtle edge: the New Legislation Committee has been beavering away for months producing a package of proposals either popular enough to win votes or so prosaic as to be dropped without penalty if Parliament runs out of time. On the direct and specific instructions of Number 10, ministers are preparing executive decisions (money to be spent, promises to be made) that will win friends among the discontented.

In 1983, few Social Democrats welcomed the prospect of the full five-year Parliament that Mrs Thatcher’s 397 seats guaranteed. Resources would be stretched and morale would need sustaining. Even if by-elections were to add reinforcements to the SDP’s tiny troop of six MPs, the Party would still be overshadowed by its Liberal allies and vastly outnumbered by the big battalions of the old parties. Survival rather than advance would be the order of the day. But, perversely, a full five-year Parliament has been a blessing. The transition to the final, electioneering phase is occurring with three-and-a-half years gone (the average life of a peacetime Parliament). It is also occurring as the SDP completes its own intense process of policy-making and defines more precisely than hitherto its position in the political spectrum. In 1983, a brilliant Tory poster portrayed SDP policy as 12 bottles of claret. Never again.

The intervening period has not been entirely free of tension. On taking charge, David Owen showed a determination to distance himself from his predecessor, Roy Jenkins, and to abandon the collective leadership of the founding Gang of Four. His preference for an arm’s-length relationship with the Liberals was disturbing to a majority of SDP members who welcomed the organic growth of the Alliance and wanted no obstacles to natural convergence. Even before 1983, at a time when the SDP was showing a capacity to move mountains, he had talked of balanced Parliaments and coalitions rather than outright victory. What sort of party did he wish to lead?

There was an agreement that it should not be a Mark 2 Labour Party, backward-looking, bureaucratic, centralised and content to work within the system. A commitment to Proportional Representation was enough to rule that out. But there was still room on the middle ground of politics for alternative positions. In his first major speech as leader, his address to the SDP’s 1983 Salford Conference, David Owen articulated his own understanding of the social market. The principles had been embodied in the Gang of Four’s Limehouse Declaration of 1981 and in subsequent policy pronouncements. But the style and force of his presentation suggested that for him the middle ground might be nearer to the Conservatives than to Labour.

The sources of subsequent anxiety were complex. Premature talk of a merger with the Liberals on the part of a circle close to Roy Jenkins produced an over-reaction designed to enable David Owen to define his own position as being against merger and in favour of a distinct SDP identity. After that, it was easy for commentators to slide into the convenient shorthand of a party divided between Jenkinsites and Owenites, a fiction which the more passionate supporters of both sought to perpetuate. The reality was of members strong in their personal support of David Owen and his decisive leadership but cautious about approving the direction in which he appeared to move the Party.

This uneasy concordance between David Owen and SDP members was complicated by problems of language. Members rallied to him in rejecting the idea that the traditional values of the Labour Party had anything to do with the SDP. They welcomed the assertion that the new politics had no lineal descent from the old. They were prepared to discard the use of ‘left’ and ‘right’ as inappropriate in defining a position off the axis of conventional political polarisation. But they were nervous at any suggestion of becoming a sub-Thatcherite party where idealism had no place and social justice was only a net at the bottom of a ladder of prosperity. In the last resort, they would probably not fight their leader if he led that way. But they would pack their bags and depart, remembering a once glad confident morning in the twilight of their disappointment.

David Owen was aware of the tension but faced two genuine problems. In the first place, the SDP, as a new, small party drawing two-thirds of its members from no other party (the political virgins of 1981), would take time to formulate a coherent overall view. If its leader was not seen to be authoritative, then ridicule would be a weapon to destroy his party. Secondly, there were the electoral realities. Mrs Thatcher’s growing unpopularity, the inexorable rise of unemployment and the neglect of the education and health services made the Conservative vote vulnerable, as Parliamentary by-elections were soon to show. The overwhelming majority of the 300 seats in which the Alliance came second in 1983 had been won by the Conservatives and a fall in their share of the vote to, say, Mr Heath’s 35.9 per cent of October 1974 would offer rich pickings. By contrast, Labour was likely to improve on its 1983 debacle. David Owen would have been foolish not to grasp the tactical advantages of adopting an approach that would detach receptive Tory voters and bring them into the SDP fold. The antithesis of ‘tough and tender’ brilliantly encapsulated the social-market approach. He judged that the dominant mood of ‘tough’ very plainly marked the SDP off from Labour (and also, conveniently, from many Liberals). Apart from instinct, temperament and style, David Owen saw good reason to lead imperiously rather than to listen.

In the autumn of 1986, his commitment to the permanence of the Alliance has been muted. He is comfortable with the party he helped to create and impatient with the sometimes laborious procedures and anarchical tendencies that the Liberals acquired in their wilderness years. He appears to favour a negotiating relationship with them little different from that envisaged with the Conservative and Labour Parties in the event of a hung Parliament and coalition. His closest circle has made a bid to be known as the ‘New Politicians’, drawing a firm line at 1981 as denoting the end of an old era: ‘Clement Attlee,’ one of them declared in a burst of euphoria at the SDP’s Harrogate Conference, ‘is no more than the name of a block of flats in Fulham.’ David Owen has a greater sense of history. In 1981 he accepted without argument the need for an Alliance: but there is little doubt about his preference for a multi-party system, with Social Democrats and Liberals institutionally separate.

Many Social Democrats find this unrealistic. If the two parties had merged three years ago, some of the more active and dedicated members might have left. It could be argued that if Proportional Representation for Westminster were achieved early in the next Parliament the two parties might still have time to go their separate ways. But to a majority of Social Democrats it is already inconceivable that they should abandon their partnership. Social Democrats and Liberals work together in local government, often holding the balance of power and sometimes running councils; they support SDP and Liberal Parliamentary candidates, knowing that target seats cannot be won without harnessing fully the resources of both parties; they meet to discuss and resolve policy differences. As to the voters, it would seem singularly perverse to many if, having achieved electoral reform as a result of a ‘partnership of principle’, Social Democrats and Liberals chose to live apart at different places in the middle ground of politics. It would be far better for the New Politicians to accept the permanence of the Alliance, while seeking – perfectly legitimately – to make it as much as possible in the image of the SDP.

This is the logic of the upset for the Alliance of the vote on defence at the Liberal Conference at Eastbourne. A minority of Social Democrats will say that it only goes to show the impossibility of working with their allies. But in the crucial debate, Liberals weren’t really confronted with fundamental questions of foreign policy and defence or asked to face up to electoral realities. Despite this, the motion in favour of developing a non-nuclear defence contribution to Nato was only carried by a handful of votes. In view of the virtually unanimous support for the Owen-Steel initiative at the SDP’s Harrogate Conference, the apparent split between the two parties hides an almost 3-to-l majority for their European initiative and against a non-nuclear policy.

Arguments about defence in 1986 have not been the sole property of the Liberals. In the early summer, there was an untypical public row among Social Democrats when David Owen chose to rubbish the report of the joint Commission even before publication. But at Harrogate, the SDP put internal disagreements on defence behind it. If the Alliance is to go into the election with a single policy – as it must – David Steel needs to find a way of exercising his authority in the constitutional jungle of his party. Social Democrats will find no difficulty in endorsing any agreement that he reaches with David Owen.

In advance of its Conference, the SDP had been apprehensive about the defence debate. It was greatly relieved that its leaders were now steering in the same direction. A certain flatness remained, however. The publication of some thirty substantial policy documents over three years was a remarkable achievement: the Party had shown that it was intellectually tough, and a thoughtful, coherent SDP view had been established on virtually every issue. But where was its heart? Deep concern about unemployment was reflected in its intention to get a million men and women back to work over two or three years; anxiety about education, health and housing was documented in plans to get value for money from better management, consumer preference and a modest increase in spending. Everything was intelligent and defensible and would appeal to fair-minded men and women. But it was not quite enough.

Rescue came under the thoroughly prosaic (and rather typically SDP) title of ‘Merging Tax and Benefits’. Here was an original proposal to overcome poverty, radical in its purpose, bold in its conception and brave in the political risks it involved. Above all, it identified a fundamental and deepening crisis in society: as many as 16 million people – nearly a third of the population – are living on or just above the poverty line in Britain. There had been a long debate in the Party about its intellectual roots. Did it owe more to R.H. Tawney or to John Rawls? In a free society, what relative importance should be attached to the values of liberty and equality? How could Social Democrats distinguish themselves from Croslandite democratic socialists if the Labour Party’s temporary recovery was sustained? ‘Merging Tax and Benefits’ showed that the SDP was tender after all. It has also demonstrated to many concerned men and women, finely poised in their voting intentions, that the Alliance rather than the Labour Party has the vision, intelligence and courage to tackle a major sickness in our society.

Where will those voters be on Polling Day, perhaps as early as next May, but probably in October 1987? At the time of the Limehouse Declaration of 1981, two underlying themes were dominant in the minds of the Gang of Four. The first related to the growing polarisation of politics, marked, on the one hand, by the era of Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party and, on the other, by the steady leftward movement of the Labour Party and the strengthening of its institutional trade-union ties. In 1951, 82.6 per cent of the electorate had voted, and over 96 per cent of these votes had been cast for either the Conservative or the Labour Party: by 1974 a turn-out of under 80 per cent involved the two parties together getting only 75 per cent of the vote. Disillusionment was plain. By 1981, distaste for the style and consequences of adversarial politics had reached a peak. There was space for a new party of the Centre-Left ready to form an alliance with the Liberals and offer the voters a credible choice.

Secondly, the 1950s had witnessed a change in the economic circumstances of the working class. This had created new aspirations and diminished old loyalties. Despite the rise of unemployment in more recent times, this em-bourgeoisement had continued. Mrs Thatcher’s policies had greatly accelerated the growth of home ownership; and the number of men and women in full-time higher education had increased by a quarter in about a dozen years (part-time higher education having almost doubled, thanks to the Open University). In turn, industrial change meant fewer unskilled manual jobs and more white coats and white collars. Mrs Thatcher had clearly sought to capture this new meritocracy. But – so the Gang of Four argued – many of these classless voters wanted to break free from the old class-based parties. They believed in the opportunities of a more prosperous society marked by greater mobility. But they also had a social conscience and remembered their origins. They welcomed private affluence, but not when it was taken to the point of public squalor.

These two themes persist. There is overwhelming evidence – from opinion polls as well as doorstep conversations – of strong public antipathy to the shrill, uncompromising antagonisms of the old parties, as illustrated in radio broadcasts from the House of Commons. As to credibility, in Parliamentary by-elections since 1983, the Alliance has won, in aggregate, a larger share of the vote than either the Conservative or Labour Party and made a remarkable advance in local government. Apart from its victory in Fulham, Labour has generally failed and its present lead in the opinion polls represents a very modest plateau of mid-term support for Her Majesty’s Opposition. It has always been likely that the Labour Party would do better in the next election under Neil Kinnock than it did in 1983 under Michael Foot: but a small percentage increase in its vote, and even thirty or forty more seats, would not take Labour back to the level even of its 1979 defeat. It would only be a temporary remission in its terminal decline.

The publication a year ago of How Britain votes[*] gave independent backing to the idea that the Alliance has a distinct social base and its voters a distinct ideological profile. They favour a mixed economy (dislike of nationalisation but no enthusiasm for privatisation) coupled with social justice. The Alliance is strongest among highly-educated professional and semi-professional workers on salaries rather than weekly wages. Clearly this is an inadequate share of the total electorate to return many SDP or Liberal MPs, let alone an Alliance government. The point and this is crucial – is that in two decades, manual workers – still Labour’s most loyal supporters – have declined from 47 per cent to 34 per cent of the electorate: the salariat (managers, administrators and professionals) has risen from 18 per cent to 27 per cent. The natural constituency for the Alliance is expanding.

The Alliance could throw away its opportunity. There can be no realignment of British politics if the Centre-Left fragments and the collapse of the Alliance would set back the prospect of change for a generation. Nor can the Alliance afford a fall in the level of its electoral support. But even an advance of four or five percentage points on the 25.4 percent of voters it won in 1983, or a doubling of its 23 seats, would be significant. And there remains a chance – if the Alliance fights to win – of an electoral earthquake more dramatic than this century has hitherto seen.

[*] Reviewed in the LRB of 21 November 1985.