Modernising Labour in hard times

In 1983, Labour suffered what was then its worst electoral loss since 1935, reduced to a rump of 209 seats. The party’s survival owed much to the structural inequities of First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), which stymied the burgeoning SDP/Liberal alliance. In the wake of defeat, Kinnock immediately replaced Michael Foot as leader. A former member of the Left-Wing Tribune Group, Kinnock acknowledged the party must radically adapt to survive as a serious force in British politics. This account maps the unfolding events beginning with the founding of the SDP, and concluding with New Labour’s victory in 1997.

Given the depths of unpopularity to which the Callaghan government sunk, Labour’s loss of office in 1979 was not unexpected. Even so, defeat was a traumatic experience. In the aftermath, momentum within the party lay with the Bennite Left following the discrediting of social democratic corporatism. After 1974, Labour governments were unable to reduce unemployment, contain wage inflation, resolve the balance-of-payments crisis or restore the post-war rate of growth. Moreover, Labour’s aspirations for egalitarian redistribution lay in tatters. The Left-Wingjour- nal Tribune attacked Callaghan’s administration as a ‘conservative monetarist government’. 6 Emboldened, the Left battled not only to alter the party’s policies but to seize control of Labour’s institutions, imposing rule changes to reduce the influence of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) then dominated by the Right.

Wilson and Callaghan’s perceived failure together with the impregnability of the Conservatives’ electoral majority led to demands on the Left for ‘extra- parliamentary action’.6 The strategy emphasised mass industrial unrest, seizing control of local authorities creating the fortress from which to confront Thatcherism. In Lambeth and Liverpool, the Trotskyite Militant Tendency dominated local parties. More intelligible was the demand of activists ‘to participate in a meaningful way in Labour party decision-making. Members wanted their elected representatives to be accountable’.7 The party membership was increasingly well educated, reflecting momentous changes in education and the class structure. The white-collar middle class supplanted the blue-collar working class, marking the decline of loyalty and deference. The new breed of activists fought to transform Labour into a democratic participatory party. Benn ‘articulated a vision of a new Labour party as a constituency of different social struggles, drawing on the energy of the women’s and black movements’.8

Against this backdrop, the SDP’s launch was a seismic event threatening to replace Labour as the dominant centre-left party'. An alternative non-Conservative force spelt electoral and political disaster. The so-called Gang of Four, Bill Rodgers, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins, who had all been Labour MPs, resigned from the party in 1981 in a state of despair; Jenkins had left British politics in 1976 to become Britain’s commissioner in Brussels.9 Denis Healey was then beaten decisively for the leadership by Michael Foot following Callaghan’s resignation. The Wembley Special Conference in 1981 endorsed constitutional procedures that made MPs directly accountable to CLPs. The PLP was haunted by the spectre of mandatory deselection. What is more, Labour became a Eurosceptic party that favoured leaving the European Economic Community (EEC) and the North Atlantic Treaty' Organisation (NATO). In a climate where Labour was abandoning its post-war role as a force for moderation, the SDP’s ambition was ‘to break the mould of contemporary politics ... to create a new radical centre, push the Labour party into third place, change the electoral system and usher in a period of multi-party democracy’.10

The SDP’s arrival on the political scene can be traced to Jenkins’ resignation as deputy leader in 1972 following the decision of the shadow cabinet to support a referendum on EEC membership. Along with sixty-eight rebels, Jenkins voted in favour of the Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath’s, legislation to enter the European Economic Community (EEC). The battles over Europe revived the spectre ‘of the savage internal strife that kept Labour out office from 1951 to 1964’.11 Following Wilson’s resignation in 1976, Jenkins was beaten once again, the outcome sealing his fate in the party and cementing the growing divide.12 Yet what encouraged the SDP’s formation was less the attack on the PLP’s sovereignty than the reality of British socialism’s abject decline. The party was gripped by the intolerant culture of ‘illiberal Labourism’. This was a unique moment to construct a new centre-ground position.13 In his 1979 Dimbleby Lecture, Jenkins advocated cultivating the radical centre to ‘break the mould’ of British politics, overturning the traditional party system. In recognising the scale of the governing crisis, Jenkins warned that Britain required not merely ‘more change’, but ‘greater stability of direction’. Continuity in institutions was previously thought advantageous, reinforcing civility and tolerance in British political life. In contrast, Jenkins believed the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system was a ‘straightjacket’. The electoral system meant ‘freezing the current pattern of politics’. The SDP emphasised political reform: fully committed EEC membership, decentralisation of public administration, alongside protection of civil liberties in the face of an ‘elective dictatorship’.14

Jenkins’ vision of the radical centre sought ‘to bring into political commitment the energies of many people of talent and goodwill who . . . are at present alienated from the business of government by the sterility and formalism of the political game’. Jenkins’s lecture called for a decisive shift. The SDP’s purpose was not to win power at Westminster through single-party rule. The aim was to realign the political system, breaking with the sterile ‘winner takes all’ mind-set. Governments should no longer be judged ‘by how many trees [they] pull up from the roots’. Jenkins repudiated the culture of‘excessive political partisanship’ and pointless legislative upheaval, urging the consensual politics of adaptation. The progressive middle class and the ‘great and the good’ flocked to the new party in considerable numbers. Founder members included Keynes’s biographer. Professor Robert Skidelsky, alongside the author of Labour’s 1945 manifesto, Michael Young; the economists Sir Alec Cairncross and Professor James Meade; as well as former Labour politicians, including the former deputy leader, George Brown, alongside Dick Taverne, ousted from his Lincoln constituency by the hard Left.

The year before the Dimbleby lecture, Eric Hobsbawm declared the end of Labour’s forward march. He repudiated the assumption that a political movement dominated by the working class would inevitably seize power, ruling through gradualist parliamentary reform. In a climate where class politics was supplanted by fluid and volatile voting patterns, the centre-left had to rethink its approach to electoral politics. Realignment meant breaking with FPTP, implementing a model of Proportional Representation (PR) normal elsewhere in Western Europe. Hobsbawm was inspired by the electoral success of Mitterrand’s Left coalition in France, alongside the plural alliance of Felipe Gonzalez’s Spanish

Socialist Party. He agreed with Jenkins that governments must be coalitions working to enact social reform in the national interest.

The vitality of the SDP starkly contrasted with the archaic statism of the Labour Right. The SDP’s launch posed a fundamental question not merely about Labour’s electoral viability, but its central political ideas. Political realignment was achievable by marrying the Edwardian liberalism of Asquith and Lloyd George with the social democracy of Keynes and Beveridge. There was considerable interest in the New Liberalism ofJ.A. Hobson, Hobhouse and Masterman, who established the ‘Rainbow Circle’ among the progressive intelligentsia in the 1890s.15 From political ideas flowed electoral alliances. The SDP sought to resurrect the coalition that had been of considerable advantage to Labour in the aftermath of the Second World War. The English middle class was integral to progressivism’s advance, motivated by the ethic of expertise, service and duty. As Paul Addison recounts, ‘in every area of [Labour’s] policy-making the main principles had been defined before 1939 by non-party experts’.16 While Gaitskell told his followers they must show ‘humility’ to the working-class leadership of the unions, he believed the proletariat lacked the capacity for effective political action. For middle-class social democrats, the working class ought to be the object of compassion and pity. The SDP leadership were adamant that social reform was viable only if the working class submitted themselves to the intellectual discipline supplied by the enlightened professional classes. Beatrice Webb once said of William Beveridge: ‘As of old, Beveridge is obstinately convinced that he and his class have to do the job, and the Trade Unionists have to be ignored’. The post-war social revolution was to be achieved ‘by persons with training and knowledge’.17 The SDP’s outlook was redolent of Beveridge. Reform at the behest of the Social Democrats would improve the welfare of the working class rather than transferring political and economic power to citizens. The SDP stood for the resurrection of Victorian liberal philanthropy in 1980s’ Britain.

The altered electoral landscape marked by the ‘growing salaried class of managers and administrators, professionals and semi-professionals’ underlined the political threat to Labour. The burgeoning middle class was ‘politically footloose . . . attracted by the non-ideological mixture of economic and social policies offered by the Alliance’.18 In 1964, Wilson appealed to the strata of technical and scientific professionals who comprised the meritocratic society. Similarly, the SDP sought to exploit new patterns of class and occupational stratification. The party’s founding statement spoke reassuringly of‘reconciling the nation . . . healing the divisions between classes’. Pockets of support were to be found among the progressively minded middle class and ‘caring’ professionals. The cadre of managers and academics employed predominantly in the public sector dramatically expanded in the 1960s. By appealing to them directly, the SDP threatened Labour’s ability to forge an effective alliance between the working class and the sympathetic, enlightened middle class.

Yet while its formation was unquestionably damaging for Labour, the SDP was less dynamic intellectually than is commonly assumed. Ralf Dahrendorf accused the Gang of Four of vainly searching for ‘a better yesterday’. Jenkins identified the SDP with the non-doctrinaire Left, the legatee of the moderate social democratic post-war tradition exemplified by Dalton, Gaitskell, Durbin and Crosland. Yet Gaitskell’s civil service Keynesianism had invested excessive faith in the legitimacy of the British system of government. The SDP leadership were too concerned to re-establish the Attlee settlement rather than confronting the decline of British class structures and institutions, the emergence of new forms of individualism in the face of resurgent capitalism and the shift of power from the West to developing countries. Edmund Dell wrote that ‘the quality of its economic thinking was not the SDP’s finest achievement’.19

Other than advocacy of PR at Westminster, Jenkins lacked a vision for the democratisation of the British polity. Even Bill Rodgers felt that in Dimbleby ‘proportional representation loomed too large as a solution to all contemporary problems’.20 Despite its rhetoric of moral reform the SDP was an elite-orientated party, a movement of mechanical change par excellence. When Dahrendorf criticised the SDP’s vision, he alluded to the party’s desire to restore the residual status and esteem of the British liberal elite. Within Jenkins’s faction, it was not difficult to detect the ‘continuity of assumptions from the days of pre-1914 progressive liberal imperialism’.21

Growing schisms exposed the SDP’s weaknesses, personified by the divide between Owen and Jenkins. Unlike Jenkins, Owen advocated the social market economy, speaking approvingly of the structural transformations unleashed by the Thatcher governments. Owen admired the political energy and spirit of Thatcherism. He had little regard for working-class deference. On the other hand, Jenkins was determined to resurrect the post-war progressive alliance with the liberal middle class. Jenkins detested Thatcherism on moral grounds: the avaricious individualism, the encouragement of the flagrant ‘get rich quick culture’. Yet the SDP soon confronted a crisis of purpose and conviction. As a leading political commentator remarked, ‘What were they offering? What exactly was their alternative? What was the nature of their project? Why were they there?’22

The SDP was enveloped by nostalgia despite its advocacy of the new politics, hankering after a world shaped by patterns of class consciousness that hardly existed now. The historical literature paid attention to adaptations in the British working class as traditional allegiances and ties to the union movement broke down. Just as significant, however, was the re-composition of the professional middle class. Throughout the twentieth century, the Christian philanthropic tradition was dissipating in the face of secularisation. By the end of the Second World War, the English middle class had grown anxious, given declining differentials in living standards — a situation exploited by the Conservatives who promised immediate relief by cutting taxes. The middle class was reconstructed subsequently by economic change: new professions were expanding as the public sector, education, welfare services and social work grew in importance; women entered the professions in large numbers; the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), protests against the Vietnam War, the student movement, and the New Left insurgency radicalised professional ‘brain’ workers.23 The emerging middle class, as well as Labour’s traditional working-class supporters were less receptive to the blandishments ofjenkins’s ‘establishment’ party.

While divided over its purpose, the SDP failed to cultivate a productive relationship with organised labour. As such, it was unable to mount an effective challenge in the majoritarian two-party system. In 1983, the Alliance won 23 seats in the House of Commons on 26 per cent of the popular vote while Labour won 209 seats on 28 per cent. The concentration of support in its Northern and Celtic heartlands aided Labour enormously. The structural characteristics of the political system enabled the party to survive the most traumatic period in its history. The SDP ultimately failed since it was a new party trying to break into a political system where the two main parties still represented the dominant interests in society - the Conservative Party, organised business, and Labour, the organised working class. Moreover, the paucity of the SDP’s ideas ultimately derailed the Gang of Four. Even so, the SDP had a decisive long-term impact in moulding New Labour’s thinking. The SDP’s presence emphasised to Kinnock’s party that it could no longer take for granted Labour’s monopoly over the centre- left vote. As a consequence, the SDP dragged Labour back towards the ‘moderate centre’ to become an effective competitor for votes. As important, whatever its intellectual deficiencies, the SDP offered the dose of doctrinal innovation absent from the Labour Party of the early 1980s. The SDP ultimately proved more influential in shaping Blair and Brown’s party than Thatcherite neo-liberalism.

 
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