Lessons of the SDP
The history of Labour's last split does not bode well for the right, says William Sarsfield
Until recently, the prospect of important defections from the ranks of rightwing Labour MPs seemed very remote. This did not stop some silly wishful thinking/provocation in the bourgeois media in the lead-up to the 2017 general election. There was gleeful speculation about a Parliamentary Labour Party split if Labour did badly - as was widely and not unreasonably anticipated by many commentators, including in this paper.
Purportedly, there were 100 MPs poised to form a breakaway group to force Corbyn to resign.Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper and Keir Starmer were name-checked as key conspirators in a plan which would see MPs resign the Labour whip and sit as independents. Only if Corbyn agreed to quit would they condescend to rejoin the PLP.
The unexpectedly good showing of the Corbyn-led Labour Party in the 2017 election put paid to that little fantasy, although hostility against his leadership was unabated, of course. The would-be saboteurs had serious problems, however. If they resigned the whip, they faced instant expulsion. They had no serious expectation of taking the bulk of Labour voters with them, and apart from a layer of disgruntled councillors they would find themselves without Labour’s much expanded mass membership. The backing of the anti-Corbyn yellow press would be a given, but any support it could drum up would have no deep, historical allegiance to the new organisation - no cohort of loyalists who would stand by the new organisation through thick and thin. A YouGov poll from this period - premised on a major schism in Labour - gave a Corbyn-led Labour Party 21% of the total vote and a “Labour right party” just 13%.
Of course, all this has been deeply disappointing for the establishment. A viable centrist party with a realistic chance of eclipsing Labour would resolve a historic problem for the bourgeoisie - that is, the Labour Party’s contradictory class character as a bourgeois workers’ party. The emergence of the Social Democratic Party in 1981 seemed to offer an opportunity to take British politics back to the 19th century, when two capitalist parties (Tories and Liberals) competed for the loyalty of the working class. Such an ‘Americanisation’ of UK politics would represent a strategic defeat that the bosses would dearly love to inflict on us - and an outcome that they are prepared to energetically hype in their media and to finance generously.
The SDP was founded by four senior Labour ‘moderates’, ironically dubbed the ‘Gang of Four’: Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams. Owen and Rodgers were sitting Labour MPs; Jenkins had left parliament in 1977 to serve as president of the European Commission; and Williams had lost her seat in the 1979 general election. The four deserted Labour in the aftermath of the January 1981 Wembley conference, where elections to choose future Labour leaders were swung in favour of the trade union bureaucracy - deemed a step too far by the Council for Social Democracy.
The ethos of the SDP was laid out by Shirley Williams in her speech to its 1981 founding conference - this remains of interest, in so far as it mirrors the outlook of today’s Labour right. She told delegates they were building a party of “reason, sense and tolerance”: a replacement for the Labour Party which would “build a new Britain, where the scars of industrial and class confrontation would be healed” (The Guardian October 10 1981). In other words, a capitalist paradise, where the working class gives up on the class struggle and the bosses are free to prosecute it without fear of opposition.
The new organisation was vigorously hyped up by the media and did enjoy a brief honeymoon. It went into the 1983 election in alliance with the Liberal Party and won over 25% of the vote, hot on the heels of Labour (28%). However, the punishingly undemocratic nature of the UK’s first-past-the-post system resulted in only 23 MPs for the alliance as a whole - and just six SDPers amongst them. Effectively, the only achievement of the SPD-Liberal alliance was to damage Labour and boost the Tories, who came out of the contest with a triple-digit majority in the Commons.
Decline and unseemly squabbles ensued for the SDP. The party merged with (or rather was swallowed by) the Liberal Party in 1988 to form what became the Liberal Democrats. A miserable end to a peculiarly miserable political project.
So why, with this history of abject failure, would any compos mentis rightwinger entertain for even an instant the prospect of decanting from Labour for the feeble vehicle of a new centre party? Pressure for mandatory reselection of MPs led by International Labour forced a compromise from Corbyn and his allies at last year’s annual conference. The existing trigger ballot process was reformed instead, without any major ructions or organised opposition from rightwing MPs. No doubt, their room for effective opposition would have been limited, but the significance of the reform seemed to pass them by almost totally. True, this error was not on the scale of the ‘morons’ miscalculation when Corbyn was nominated for the 2015 leadership ballot. It is, however, a potentially very dangerous innovation for many rightwing Labour MPs. As Carla Roberts commented last week, “The membership, given half a chance, would have long ago replaced the most ardent rightwing MPs.”
The overwhelming majority of the party’s rank and file are pro-Corbyn and disgusted with the treachery of the Labour MPs who have conducted a dirty guerrilla war against their choice of leader. They now have not only the motivation, but the means, to send them packing via trigger ballots or to panic them into jumping ship before they are shoved.