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As Labour move ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls, the Westminster bubble is awash with rumours that a cross-party group of anti-Corbyn politicians, businessmen, celebrities and media pundits are plotting to set up a new “centrist” party to oppose “extremism” and keep Britain in the EU.
Names associated with the alleged “plot” include Tony Blair, Chris Leslie, Chuka Umunna, Lib Dem leader Vince Cable, leading Tory MP Anna Soubry and the founder of LoveFilm, Simon Franks.
According to the Guardian, the proposed new party “has access to up to £50m in funding.”
But this is not the first time that worried Establishment figures have sought to “break the mould of British politics.”
In November 1980, Michael Foot defeated Denis Healey to become Labour leader. The left — based around Tony Benn — were in the ascendancy and winning conference votes on policy and on giving members and trade unions an equal say with MPs in electing future leaders.
In January 1981, the so-called Gang of Four – right-wing Labour grandees Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams – gathered at Owen’s apartment in East London to issue the Limehouse Declaration, the formal announcement of the split that was to become the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
Some readers will be old enough to remember the tumultuous events which followed — the SDP’s media-fuelled rise in the polls and Labour’s subsequent defeat in the 1983 election.
Younger readers will have read about this period, but almost certainly from sources which present the schism as a battle between “unelectable left-wing extremists” and “electable moderates.”
What is less well known is that at the time of the split, the Labour Party under the leadership of Foot enjoyed a huge lead in the polls.
The 11 national opinion polls conducted between November 10 1980, when Foot won the leadership, and the Limehouse Declaration on January 25 1981, show Labour’s share of the vote as 43, 50, 46.5, 47, 47, 48, 47.5, 56, 51, 47 and 45 per cent.
Labour’s lead over the Tories fluctuated between 7 and 24 per cent and on the day before the Limehouse Declaration Foot’s Labour enjoyed a 10-point lead over Margaret Thatcher’s Tories (Mori, January 24 1981).
Whatever the SDP split was about, what it clearly was not about was the supposed “unelectability” of Foot.
Arguments about the past matter because they are really debates about the present and the future
If anything, the reverse is true. The split was in part prompted by the well-founded fear that Foot might in fact win an election on a programme that the right in the Labour Party vehemently opposed and would not support in government.
It was only when the SDP began to take votes from Labour that the “unelectability” of Foot became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Unelectability didn’t precipitate the split — the split precipitated the unelectability.
The opening statement of the 1983 SDP manifesto says: “By 1987, if we continue as we are, unemployment will be at least as bad as in 1983. As a reaction, if the old two-party system is allowed to continue, we shall then lurch into the most extreme left-wing government we have ever known.”
Then, as now, the new “centrist” party was about preventing the left from taking power.
In July 2015 Blair said about Jeremy Corbyn: “Let me be absolutely clear: I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”
From the 1980s to the present day, the message is clear: the left must be stopped.
The 1982 Falklands War and the accompanying orgy of flag-waving chauvinism led to a surge in Tory support to 45 per cent — a high watermark which the Labour Party, now fighting on two flanks against the Tories and the SDP-Liberal Alliance, could not hope to reach.
In the 1983 general election, Thatcher’s Tories were re-elected with 42 per cent of the vote. Foot’s Labour finished second with 28 per cent, only narrowly beating the SDP-Liberal Alliance which polled 25 per cent. The myth of Foot’s unelectability was born.
What became of the “gang of four” and their pretensions to govern Britain?
Having delivered the coup de grace to Foot in the 1983 election, the SDP formally merged with the Liberals — their strategic use to the right-wing Establishment exhausted.
Owen led a rump of anti-merger SDPists from unelectability to extinction. The fitting epitaph being the night of the living dead in the 1990 Bootle by-election, when the zombie SDP was beaten into seventh place by the candidate from the Monster Raving Loony Party.
Legend has it that their leader Screaming Lord Sutch offered the SDP an electoral pact.
Not being a loony himself, Owen sensibly wound up the SDP shortly afterwards and re-entered Parliament, this time as a job-for-life unelected member of the House of Lords, where he sits as an “independent social democrat,” whatever that means. He was the future once.
Williams’s political journey ended with her joining David Cameron’s Con-Dem coalition and in the House of Lords voting to push through the Health and Social Care Bill which opened up the NHS, to privatisation.
Jenkins died in 2003 and Bill Rodgers wrote a book.
Judged on the claims made in the Limehouse Declaration, the SDP was a failure. The two-party system remains intact and Labour has its most left-wing leader ever, but the SDP did succeed in keeping Labour out of office for the best part of a generation.
Does any of this matter except to historians and political nerds? I would say that it does. Arguments about the past matter because they are really debates about the present and the future.
Calvin Tucker is campaigns manager for the Morning Star.
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