Thursday, January 26, 2006

The SDP - a warning from history

A quarter-of-a-century ago the SDP was established in the UK after the 'gang of four' had concluded that the Labour Party was beyond rescue. There must be many politically active people today who know little of these events.

It's hard to remember quite how dire the situation was within Labour then. I wasn't a member, a branch secretary must have lost my application form*, but I worked with someone who was an activist. He was terminally depressed. He explained how Militant had taken over his neighbouring constituency and their tactics in trying to do the same in his.

Labour Branch meetings were pretty dull then* and few people showed up regularly* (how unlike life today). Militant would pack the meetings and, if there weren't enough of them to form a majority, they would bore everyone else into submission. Then they'd get places on the Committees and do the same to those.

Labour rapidly became unelectable and the Tories were riding high.

Although it's easy now to say that David Owen, Shirley Williams and the rest of them should have stayed on to fight, it was quite understandable that they chose to leave and to establish a new party. I nearly joined partly because of Dr Owen's 'private wealth, public squalor' speech** to their Torbay conference and partly because they were the first party that allowed you to join just by phoning with your credit card number.

For every analyst who will tell you that the SDP's alliance with the Liberals kept Margaret Thatcher in power by stealing votes from Labour there is another who will say that they merely stopped her Tories getting even more votes. I'm coming round to the view that the latter is closer to the truth particularly in view of current mutterings about defections from the LibDems to the Tories.

It's always fun to speculate about what might have happened had something been different in the past. If the SDP had never existed would Labour have come to its senses sooner? If so would they have won in 1992? If so would they have been booted out a few years later after the ERM fiasco? If so would Michael Portillo now be starting his tenth year as Prime Minister instead of scruffing around TV studios for work? We'll never know.

Lesson 1: Labour, like all parties is a coalition. Most of the time the various factions live in reasonable harmony. Neil Kinnock's greatest gift to the party was his part in taking on Militant. His second greatest gift was losing the 1992 election.

Lesson 2: Those who think Labour's heart is on the extreme left are wrong. It never has, and never will, win an election from there.

Lesson 3: The Liberal Democrat party is a marriage of inconvenience between the old Liberal Party and the SDP. There are good reasons why the gang of four didn't just join the old Liberal Party but started the SDP. Now the marriage is falling apart. After the leadership election the LibDems must be forced to come clean about what sort of party they are.

Coming soon - when I found out for sure that the SDP/Liberal alliance was doomed......


* read Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997 by John O'Farrell for a fuller description

** this speech seemed to me to sum up all that was wrong about Thatcherism - that one phrase was particularly telling about the affects on much of the nation of her policies.

3 Comments:

At 16:33, Blogger Recess Monkey said...

feel free to delete this comment
your first line should perhaps refer to the SDP?

 
At 17:25, Blogger Hughes Views said...

Thanks - I'll correct (and insert the missing line feeds). But I get so few comments ;( and I haven't the heart to delete them....

 
At 19:21, Blogger Aunty Marianne said...

I recently laid eyes on a cliometric study that suggested that if the USA had never adopted the infernal combustion engine, to achieve the same economic growth the country would now have to be knee deep in horse manure. (So, no change there.)What-ifs of the past. Entertaining, but in the end pointless. What-ifs of the future - now that's where it gets interesting.

What if there was a split. Could you see a Lib/SDP/Tory coalition take on Labour? Somehow I don't think the time has come. If the Liberals don't stick together, and probably even if they do, Gordon will be up to bat for Labour's fourth term. The only hope is that Labour's majority will be considerably further reduced and the oppositions will work together sufficiently well to rein Labour in, especially on matters such as civil liberties.

And regionalisation. That's a creeping silent agenda, that is. Keep an eye on it.

 

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