There is a spectre haunting Westminster. The spectre of Roy Jenkins.
As news began to break on the morning of Monday 18 February that a group of MPs was about to split from the Labour Party, the parallels with the Limehouse Declaration of 1981 were quickly drawn. The seven disaffected backbenchers were the Gang of Four de nos jours; their self-styled Independent Group was the beginning of the SDP Mark II; and Chuka Umunna was the nascent party’s leader-in-waiting – Roy Jenkins with a ‘tinge’, if you like.
For all the rhetoric of breaking with the past, the impression of history repeating itself was even stronger in the politics. The seven splitters affirmed their commitment to Britain’s membership of the European Union and NATO, and placed a market economy and anti-discrimination at the core of their ‘values’. They also decried the polarisation of the two main parties, setting themselves against (and between) the hard-right European Research Group in the Conservative Party and the hard-left takeover of Labour under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn – just as Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams had rejected a choice between Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn in 1981.
Yet for all the similarities, the real continuity on show this Monday was not with the founders of the Social Democratic Party, but with their most famous son: Tony Blair.
Upon Roy Jenkins’ death in 2003, Tony Benn described him as ‘the grandfather of New Labour’, claiming that the SDP ‘brought Tony Blair’s ideas to the forefront’ sixteen years before Blair became prime minister. And there was good reason to put the influence in familial terms. After Blair became Labour leader in 1994, he and Jenkins indulged the mutual vanity of a protégé-mentor relationship, the older man seeing the younger as the great hope for his last grand causes: the EU single currency, electoral reform, and the reuniting of the radical Left.
Blair disappointed him on all three, of course.
The good intentions were there, spelt out in the 1997 Labour Party manifesto. We were promised a referendum on whether Britain should join the euro – though only after first the cabinet and then Parliament had agreed to sign up to the project, and of course we never reached that stage. British membership of the single currency was scuppered by a combination of Gordon Brown’s lack of enthusiasm and the Eurosceptic Conservative Party of William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. Had Kenneth Clarke become Tory leader, things might have fallen out differently.
On electoral reform, the manifesto was much more definite:
We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system.
That commission was indeed set up – under the chairmanship of Jenkins – and duly reported back in 1998 with a proposal to implement an electoral system dubbed Alternative Vote Plus. It sought to blend the single-member constituencies of the existing arrangement with proportional representation, and it made no progress whatsoever. There was opposition from senior Labour figures – after all, First Past the Post had just delivered a huge majority for the party – and Blair lacked the courage to pursue it. The promised referendum never materialized. There were changes made to the constitution in the New Labour years – the first stage of Lords reform (the second stage was forgotten), devolution to Scotland and Wales, mayors in London and then other cities and regions – but the really big issue, reform of the House of Commons, went untouched.
Stripped of the European and constitutional elements of social democracy, what remained was economic and social liberalism: the mixed economy and the mixed society. In 2005, the Conservative Party elected a new leader in David Cameron who professed to support New Labour’s equalities agenda, and so the new consensus was secured.
Meanwhile the promised reunification of radicalism was quietly shelved. Without the solvent of a more proportional system, the old parties survived intact, and such realignment as there was came not on the Left but on the Right: first with the Coalition of Cameron’s new Conservatives with Nick Clegg’s ‘Orange Book‘ Liberal Democrats in 2010-15, and then in the galvanizing of a nationalist, reactionary politics in UKIP.
Yet it had become apparent during the protracted battle to ratify the Maastricht Treaty that the two main parties were no longer fit for purpose. In a post-Soviet world, where the idea of a state-planned economy was off the agenda, the new fault-line in British politics was Europe. For Jenkins, its resolution lay in fostering a new pluralism. Instead Cameron reached for the opposite solution: he held a referendum.
So here we are with the new Independent Group – currently standing at eleven MPs, eight ex-Labour, three ex-Tories* – attempting to do what Jenkins dreamed of a quarter-of-a-century ago. But they’re doing it in far less propitious circumstances. There is little public faith in the political process, and no obvious enthusiasm for a more European politics, even though a growing minority of voters view Brexit with horror.
And, as many – including us – have pointed out, Chuka Umunna is no Roy Jenkins. But then Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are no Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot either. What Keith Joseph might have called ‘our human stock’ of politicians has been somewhat diminished in recent times.
One of the factors that sank the SDP in 1982-83 was the Falklands War – not because of the public support for Britain’s military, but because it changed the popular perception of Thatcher herself. Her stubbornness and refusal to compromise came to be seen as strengths rather than weaknesses, while the SDP, which articulated the need for compromise, began to look less like the party of the future and more like the steering committee from yesterday’s crisis.
Should May successfully pass her withdrawal agreement, the same fate could befall the Independent Group. While the prime minister will never regain the level of public confidence she enjoyed prior to calling the 2017 general election, her doggedness may yet come to be seen as patient resilience. But, more likely than not, she will be succeeded by a leader from the free-market Brexiter wing of her party, confirming Sarah Wollaston’s warning that the Conservatives are being transformed into ‘Blukip’.
More importantly, from a Labour perspective, the trade union movement is much weaker than it was at the dawn of the SDP. The final straw for the Gang of Four was the Wembley conference of January 1981 that resolved on an electoral college for selecting future leaders, giving the unions 40 per cent of the vote. ‘A handful of trade union leaders can now dictate the choice of a future prime minister,’ protested the Limehouse Declaration. Sadly for the Gang, the power of the unions was also a strong defence against incursions into Labour’s vote.
That no longer exists. The unions themselves are enfeebled, largely confined to the public sector, and the electoral college was abandoned in an act of rank foolishness during Ed Miliband’s leadership. Power in the Labour Party increasingly lies with the membership. And Labour is weaker as a consequence, resting on a shifting mass of individuals, rather than on carefully constructed foundations.
The leadership has also become dangerously focused on an individual – far more so than during the Blair years, when the Labour frontbench boasted personalities as big as Brown, John Prescott, Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam, David Blunkett and Peter Mandelson. Corbyn’s supporters resent being referred to as a cult, but the term is not entirely inappropriate. So much has been invested in him personally that he’s seen by all but the faithful as being the most vulnerable element in Labour. While his personal polling slides, the response of his followers in the party and the media is to close ranks, as if the Corbyn project is too fragile even to withstand friendly critique.
But still the memory of the SDP’s electoral failure lingers. Can a third party ever break through the Tory-Labour duopoly under First Past the Post?
Well, it did. And it did so as recently as the general election of 2015, when Labour lost forty of its forty-one Westminster seats in Scotland, and the SNP gained thirty percentage points and fifty MPs.
There was groundwork here – Alex Salmond led the SNP to minority and then majority government in the 2007 and 2011 Scottish Parliament elections – and there were special circumstances: the excitement of the 2014 independence referendum. Those factors are not present now, but even so that extraordinary landslide, when the SNP won all but three of the Scottish constituencies, suggests that the major parties should take nothing for granted.
And then there’s the additional factor of the Tory defections. This was never an issue with the SDP, which attracted just one Conservative MP, in the shape of Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler (he later joined Tony Blair’s Labour Party). But at the time of writing there are already three MPs who’ve given up on May’s government, and rumours are rife of further recruits to come.
For some on the Left, the presence of former Conservatives in the Independent Group merely confirms what they always believed to be the case: that those who are against Corbyn are all neo-liberal Blairite Tories.
Outside the encampment of the ideologically pure, however, this kind of thinking has little resonance. Indeed, the opposite may well be true. The SDP-Liberal Alliance attracted disillusioned voters from both Labour and the Conservatives in the 1980s – even though there was little or no Tory input. There is no reason to think things would be any different today.
Corbynite cheerleader Owen Jones argues that the Independent Group merely represents the failed politics of the past: ‘The new group is the Cameron-Clegg coalition resurrected.’ But this assumes the electorate share his distaste for the Coalition, and we don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Certainly the Liberal Democrats have paid for their adventure in government, but the Tory vote – both in raw numbers and in share – increased in the last two elections; in 2017 they gained another 2.3 million votes, while Labour suffered its third election defeat in a row. A new party that combined elements from both sides might well catch the mood of the nation.
Moreover we suspect the Left is a little drunk on its own rhetoric. Austerity has left Britain ill at ease with itself. The human cost of cutting public spending is becoming ever more visible, most shockingly in the return of homelessness to almost every high street. Yet a popular rejection of austerity is not the same as a mass acceptance of the Left’s diagnosis (the failure of so-called neo-liberalism) or its cure (dirigiste socialism). A party promising more public spending, but focused on Britain’s already stretched public services, rather than, say, free university tuition or nationalising the water industry, could do very well indeed. Ironically, Corbyn’s path to power might be blocked by a rival deploying ‘the language of priorities’.
Among the first group of defectors to announce themselves, the only clear leader was Chuka Umunna, but the addition of the Tories has enriched the mix. Heidi Allen is a plausible leadership candidate, Anna Soubry is personable and authentic, Sarah Wollaston has credibility on health issues. The new group may not be bristling with household names, but who are the proven vote-winners among the leading politicians of the other parties?
The Independent Group have a long way to go; they need a name, and apart from opposition to Brexit, there’s no policy at all. This isn’t insuperable. An initial raft of broad-brush middle-of-the-road ideas wouldn’t be hard to construct. To pluck a few out of the ether: a second referendum, a Royal Commission on social care, the humanizing of universal credit, free child care for all, abolishing the reduced minimum wage for the young – and implementing Jenkins’ electoral reforms. In any event, policy doesn’t matter a great deal at this stage; what’s important is to look different and here there is an enormous benefit in the fact that of the eleven Independent MPs thus far, seven of them are women.
What none of it looks like, though, is a Jenkinsite project to bring together the Liberal and Labour traditions. The clearer precedent is that of Tony Blair, triangulating away to carve out new space in the middle. Blair himself has fallen into public disfavour, but there’s no reason to assume that his position is electorally dead.
Or, of course, the whole enterprise might yet turn out to be another of those half-cocked stunts that have bedevilled British politics in recent times – from David Davis’s self-provoked by-election in 2008 to the Labour MPs’ 2018 vote of no-confidence in Jeremy Corbyn.
* Half an hour after this piece was posted, the Labour MP Ian Austin announced that he too had left the Labour Party.