Thursday, 3 March 2011
The SDP: Thirty Years On
"We tried out drugs and LSD, now we're trying the SDP. Talking about p-p-p-p-p-proportional representation" is what Spitting Image had The Who singing in 1981.
Not a strictly accurate account of Pete Townshend or Roger Dalrey's politics (Townshend is still Labour man whilst Dalrey campaigns for the Countryside Alliance) but it does say something about the left wing circles who the Gang of Four attracted round them in the early 1980s.
Hindsight has made the SDP a bit of a joke, with quips about David Owen crossing the road to get to the middle and urging tactical voting for the Tories because it was their turn next.
However they did briefly come very close to becoming the second party in British politics. The first-past-the-post electoral system, lack of union support and the 'Falklands factor' dropped them from a high of 50% in the polls at the nadir of Mrs Thatcher's first government, to 25% in the popular vote in 1983 but only 23 MPs - a poor showing considering 30 sitting MPs had defected from other parties prior to the election.
That was really that for them and the years of the Alliance with the Liberals was just a prelude to merger into the Democrats which has then been followed by electoral suicide in the form of coalition with Cameron's Neoliberal Tory Party.
So was the SDP just a flash in the pan, a transient political party cashing in on a few protest votes from disaffected liberals who hated equally the Thatcher cuts and Labour civil war?
To a large extent it was, and the derision with which the party is now held is in no small part because, The Guardian's Polly Toynbee aside, there is nobody who is still prepared to admit to voting for them. Not only did the unions turn their back on the party, but the sensible wing of the Labour Party, who saw off the Militants, regard them as both turncoats who jumped ship in the middle of the battle and closet Tories who should never have been in the party at all.
Glossop Labour Club for instance have a special place in their hearts for Shirley Williams. Allegedly, on the eve of her defection, she visited the club and gave a speech on loyalty to the party. The next day she was on the news as one of the Gang of Four and a few days after that they received a bill from her for the dry cleaning of her fur coat, which she's got oil on after trapping it in the door of the Lada belonging to the local volunteer who'd kindly picked her up from the station.
However if we look beyond the personalities to the politics, the picture becomes less clear. Michael Foot's 1983 Labour manifesto, which included such ideas as nationalising the banks, doesn't seem half so daft now as it did then, but three years after the Winter of Discontent and in the midst of Labour infighting with the Militant tendency, it was never going to be an election winner.
Ignore David Owen's gradual drift to right as the 1980s wore on, the SDP's 1983 manifesto, with voting reform, mild trade union reform and support for the public sector would be popular today if Ed Milliband was to propose it. You can argue that New Labour had become the SDP, but I think they were more right wing than that and resembled, if I'm charitable, Gladstone's Liberal Party.
However politics is about more than just policies, and looking back the SDP appears to be made up of an odd bunch of uncharismatic politicians, most of whom were damaged goods in one way or another. Even the least odious of them, Roy Jenkins, was persona non grata after working for the EU, inspiring the Yes Minister quip that the only way back into British policits after Brussels was to form your own party.
Could these misfits have ever made up a government? Without the Falklands War the 1983 election would have been very different, and if the SDP had become the main opposition party could they, perhaps under Paddy Ashdown's leadership, have beaten John Major's Tories in 1992?
Maybe, but probably not. The Labour Party wasn't about to disappear overnight and would surely have siphoned at least as many votes off the SDP as the Democrats did from them in reality.
And there lies the problem. Three party politics has done the left no favours at all. If you read the figures one way you can see that Blair's big achievement was not to steal voters from the Conservatives, but from the Democrats. As long as there's a strong third party Labour can't form a majority.
Which makes the next election look quite promising for Ed then.