Matthew Oakeshott was on fine form about the banks and the ratings agencies on last night’s Newsnight. What with that, and the resistance to the abolition of the NHS by Shirley Williams and now also by David Owen (an ally of Ed Miliband’s), an old wound might now be healed at last.
The creation of the SDP was premature. Those who had determined upon it ought to have waited until the new Electoral College had given the Deputy Leadership to Tony Benn, casting their own votes in the MPs’ section to that end. Benn as Deputy Leader would have made it unanswerable that the Labour Party they had joined no longer existed. A new party would have taken with it half or more of Labour MPs, most Labour peers, huge numbers of councillors, great tracts of the activist base, and a good many unions. At least one, and possibly both, of the former Labour Prime Ministers then alive would have joined it. Victory in 1983 would have been quite plausible, and victory in 1987 would have been practically certain. There would have been no need, if there ever really was, of the Alliance with the Liberals. A rapidly Benn-led Labour rump would not have been “split”; it would simply have been replaced.
But instead, although (for want of a better term) the Labour Right’s internal differences over incomes policy and over devolution were, up to a point, carried over into the SDP, its diversity over Europe hardly was. Almost all Keynesian, pro-Commonwealth defenders of national sovereignty remained in the Labour Party, as did almost all of the right-wing Labour MPs who were not easily young enough to start again, or who had any real roots in local government or the unions, or who could not have been certain of making at least as much money if they had lost their seats as if they had kept them. The new party’s character was thus fixed from the start: a very readily identifiable post-War type that was still relatively young in 1981, had few or no roots in wider civil society, and was on the up economically. The 1980s were to be those people’s decade.
Apparently unable to see that the trade unions were where the need for a broad-based, sane opposition to Thatcherism was greatest, the SDP was hysterically hostile to them, and instead made itself dependent on a single donor, later made a Minister by Tony Blair without the rate for the job. It betrayed Gaitskellism over Europe. It betrayed both Christian Socialism and, contrary to what is usually asserted, Gaitskellism over nuclear weapons. It adopted the decadent social libertinism of Roy Jenkins. It adopted the comprehensive schools mania of Shirley Williams. And it carried over her sense of guilt at not having resigned over past Labour attempts to control immigration. Today, both the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat components of the Coalition are replete with its former members, and David Cameron’s court is stuffed full of them as advisors and general hangers-on. But read the Limehouse Declaration, and see if you can spot anything remotely redolent of the Coalition’s programme.
Except that, faced with Bennism and Trotskyism on one side, and with the forces around Margaret Thatcher on the other, that Declaration advocated exactly the wrong thing, “more, not less, radical change in our society”. Alliance with the Liberal Party committed the SDP to constitutional agenda scarcely distinguishable from those of Tony Benn, many of which have now been enacted and most of which are now the policy of all three parties. Yet imagine if the flagship Bennite and Alliance policy of abolishing the House of Lords had been enacted. Who would now be providing the parliamentary defence of the responsibility of the Secretary of State for the provision of healthcare, the responsibility that simply is the NHS? Which parliamentarian would be talking sense about the banks and the rating agencies on Newsnight? No wonder that Jim Callaghan once threatened to resign as Labour Leader if required to fight a General Election on a policy of abolishing that House as it was constituted in 1980.
Yet the need has never been greater for a party of those whose priorities include the Welfare State, workers’ rights, trade unionism, the co-operative movement and wider mutualism, consumer protection, strong communities, conservation rather than environmentalism, fair taxation, full employment, public ownership, proper local government, a powerful Parliament, the monarchy, the organic Constitution, national sovereignty, civil liberties, the Union, the Commonwealth, the countryside, traditional structures and methods of education, traditional moral and social values, economic patriotism, balanced migration, a realist foreign policy, an unhysterical approach to climate change, and a base of real property for every household to resist both over-mighty commercial interests and an over-mighty State. A party for those social democrats who were alienated from Labour by the rise within it of forces inimical to Bevan’s eschewal of class conflict in favour of “a platform broad enough for all to stand upon”. People whose views on certain issues have, if anything, returned to the Gaitskellite tradition during the intervening decades.
Where is that party? Roll on electoral reform. And in the meantime, what is Ed Miliband doing to bring David Owen to greater prominence while reaching out to figures such as Shirley Williams and Matthew Oakeshott?