Thursday, August 29, 2013

The last political "realignment"

There is some talk going on about the need for a political realignment, for new parties to make a break-through, for old parties to split according to ideas and even ideology - it seems to be leading nowhere. What with the talk and with the many reminiscences of the seventies and eighties that followed Lady Thatcher's death this is undoubtedly a good time to recall the last time an attempt at political realignment seemed to fail though it probably succeeded in the long run and in an unexpected fashion.

In 1981, two years after what turned out to be one of the most significant elections of modern British history, dissatisfied members of the Labour Party, led by the "Gang of Four", Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers, set up a new party, which, they hoped, would carry on the more Social-Democratic tradition of the Labour Party, which had been, in their and many others' opinion, taken over by left-wing Marxist activists.

While David Owen and Bill Rodgers were still sitting MPs, Shirley Williams had lost her seat in 1979 and Roy Jenkins had more or less opted out of British politics, which was becoming unpalatable to him in 1977, when he became President of the European Commission. After January 1981 Wembley Conference, which committed the Labour Party to unilateral disarmament, they finally faced up to the fact that they had only two choices: either conform with the left-wing Marxist movement that was taking over the party or to break away and form a new one.

The summary of the party's history on Wikipedia is, in fact, quite good, though many of the details and twists and turns necessarily had to be left out.

The new party formed an electoral alliance with the Liberal Party very soon after its formation and this continued till 1988 when the two parties merged more formally, the mould not having been broken though somewhat dented. As Charles Moore points out in the first volume of his Thatcher biography, the Gang of Four had not been paying enough attention to what was going on in the Conservative Party, underestimating Thatcher and her increasing influence on British politics. One could say that they had made the decision to break away from the Labour Party too late. If only they had done so when the first calls for a new, centrist, Social-Democrat party had started in the mid-seventies ....

For the story of that attempt at political realignment goes back  to some years before 1981, though many of the players are less well remembered than the Gang of Four and their followers. There is the story of the Social Democratic Alliance, a group of Labour politicians at various levels who struck out boldly against the extreme left-wing infiltration of the party and what they saw, with a good deal of justification, as the pusillanimous behaviour by the party leadership and its Gaitskillite social-democratic wing. Though there was half-hearted support from Roy Jenkins, the other later "rebels" shied away from the fight. Indeed, I recall Shirley Williams appearing on TV to tell us all that she could not understand what the SDA's members were complaining about: she could see no extremist infiltration and Militant was not a problem. She might have been that stupid (you can never tell with Baroness Williams as she is now) or she might have been frightened to tell the truth or she might have thought it was a clever manoeuvre.

Then there were the deselection fights in several constituencies with moderate or right-wing MPs, which were painful and long-drawn with varying results. The most important of these was in Newham North-East where the battle against Militant and various Trostskyist infiltrators was fought by the man who probably did more than anyone else to bring the truth out into the open and whose apparently hopeless struggle produced a curious success eventually: Reg Prentice.

It is wonderful to find that his name is being restored into its rightful place in modern British political history  by Geoff Horn's new biography, published by Manchester University Press, called Crossing the Floor - Reg Prentice and the crisis of British social democracy.

Dr Horn, an expert on social-democratic politics in the Labour Party, has produced an exhaustive and detailed account of the gradual disintegration of that party in the seventies and eighties and of the gradual control exerted over trade unions, local party organizations and, eventually, the national organization. Perhaps, it is a little too detailed for a non-geek. After a while, one gets exhausted by the account of all the meetings and all the resolutions but it is worth persevering as much of what happened afterwards in British politics is rooted in those apparently boring squabbles, hastily called meetings, dubious votes, legal injunctions and, most of all, inability on the part of Labour's right, the Gaitskillites to throw off their political paralysis.

There were exceptions to the latter and one of the most important ones was Reg Prentice, a man of impeccable socialist credentials who, nevertheless, stood up against union violence, political intimidation and extreme left-wing ideology, proclaiming over and over again the need for law and order, for sensible economic compromises, for parliamentary democracy. For his pains he was deselected in his constituency and was subjected to a good deal of harassment. He tried to fight back but did not succeed, thought of standing as an independent when he realized that his idea of a new, social-democratic party was not being taken up by his colleagues and, eventually, crossed the floor and joined the Conservative Party.

Prentice was a decent and honourable man though not an easy one to deal with. Men who feel inspired by a political mission rarely are and if they are losing the battle even less so. For all of that he was right as many in the Labour Party recognized too late.

The book tries to be objective but one cannot help feeling some contempt for the so-called Right in the Labour Party, the supposed Gaitskillites and self-defined social-democrats who did not have the courage to back either the rebels of the SDA or Reg Prentice when these tried to persuade the grandees that the Labour Party had to split and a new political alignment was needed. Nor does Dr Horn spare the two leaders of the time, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan who turned out to be incapable of dealing with the clearly evidenced infiltration. Their punishment was to watch the Labour Party's decade of growing political irrelevance.

The realignment did not happen as envisaged even when the new party was formed. By this time many of the electorate who might have supported it in the mid-seventies had decided that they quite liked Thatcher's Conservatives and voted accordingly. The left-wing activists of the Labour Party were right in one thing: the post-war consensus was failing the country and changes were needed. They simply were wrong as to which kind of changes and the Labour establishment was powerless to fight them.

It would not be correct to say that there was no realignment at all. After a decade or more of progressive destruction and disintegration, after the split that created the SDP, after Michael Foot's spectacularly inept leadership of the party, there was a concerted effort to sort the mess out. It took a few years and a good deal of money but Militant tendency was defeated and its influence in the party negated. It took another few years for the policies to be changed and for the party to become electable under the much disliked yet highly successful Tony Blair.

Dr Horn discusses briefly whether New Labour is, in fact, the social-democrat party that Reg Prentice and the others would have liked to see. Perhaps it is. But one can also argue that we now have two or even three social-democrat parties and, confusingly, the electorate do not seem to like any of them all that much.

Geoff Horn:                 

Crossing the floor - Reg Prentice and the crisis of British social democracy

2013                          Manchester University Press


  1. I do remember Shirley Williams standing on the Grunwick picket line to burnish her left wing credentials.

    This strike was broken with the help of the Freedom Association, inspired by Norris McWhirter. They arranged for lorries to cross the picket lines and collect all the developed films. Then they wee taken to pre-arranged distribution points where members took them in their cars and distributed them around post offices and boxes all over the country so they could not be intercepted and "blacked"..

    Stirring times!

    People forget the extent of the union stranglehold then.

  2. I remember living in Essex when the SDP got started, and hearing someone who was not at all political talking about going to an SDP meeting and describing how it was packed. There was a definite appetite for change, long before Obama appeared. This was at the height of the early 80's recession, and people were walking around with Don't Blame Me I didn't vote for her t-shirts. I imagine people wanted something between the Labour love in with the Union movement, and the perceived Thatcher free market free for all. The 80's boom put an end to it all though. As Bill Clinton said later It's the economy stupid.