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David Owen – Would Labour want him back?

It’s almost 30 years since the Social Democratic Party set out to “break the mould of British politics”. Now its principal successor, the Liberal Democrats, is finally in government but, at single figures in the polls and increasingly seen as a fig leaf for a Tory government, has conspicuously failed to “break the mould”. And now, the SDP’s big beast (or at least biggest ego) is seeking meetings with Ed Miliband, saying “my heart belongs to Labour still.” So do we want him back?

The issue arises because Rachel Sylvester in  the Times (£) reports:

I am told that Lord Owen, one of the original Gang of Four, has written twice to Mr Miliband in the warmest terms and that a meeting between the two men is planned. At the weekend, the peer said his “heart belongs to Labour still”, and that he hoped to be able to vote for the party again.”

This seems to be based on a forthcoming BBC documentary reported in the Scottish Herald at the weekend, in which Owen, who now sits as a crossbench peer, is quoted as saying:

I want them (Labour) to succeed, I want them to be better. To this day, I call myself a social democrat. I am not going to join any other party than a social democratic one and if Labour becomes a social democratic one, I will eventually vote for them. I hope that will happen before I die.”

Now this may all be just speculation — the meeting with Ed Miliband is unconfirmed although Owen did meet with Gordon Brown three years ago. If Owen did return to Labour, you could argue that it isn’t a big deal. As Labour Uncut pointed out yesterday:

What was New Labour if not an SDP variation? The Social Democrats wanted the unions kept down. Done. It was happy to work with Tories. Done. It was generally in favour of close ties with Europe. Well, partially done. So surely Tony Blair should be described not as the heir to Thatcher but as the heir to Roy Jenkins and David Owen?

Blair’s office at No 10 was stuffed with ex-SDP advisers: in 2002, for example, they included Andrew Adonis, Roger Liddle, and Derek Scott. What’s more, another member of the Gang of Four which founded the SDP, Baroness (Shirley) Williams of Crosby, who also says that she feels closer politically to Labour than to the Conservatives, was clearly well to the left of most members of Labour’s cabinet on a host of issues including comprehensive education, civil liberties and even nuclear weapons.

Labour is a social democratic party — or at least that is where it is returning under Ed Miliband, departing from the neoliberalism of the New Labour years — is it not the right place for social democrats to be? It is hard to argue that it isn’t. Left Futures‘ policy prescriptions may well be rather different from David Owen’s (as they are from David Miliband’s) but that does not mean that we cannot co-exist in the same party. It is surely right that Labour is a “broad church”, provided that we are prepared to work together, respect our differences and accept democratic decisions.

The latter was, of course, a problem for David Owen back in 1981. He was not prepared to accept decisions on the EU, on nuclear weapons and on the structure of the party, and so he left. We didn’t ask him to go, but once he did, there was no love lost. And the SDP’s early success, damaging Labour and thereby sustaining Thatcher. created a level of hatred that cannot have completely dissipated even after 30 years. Nor was that hatred restricted to the Labour Left. The Labour Right resented the defectors for absenting themselves from their battle for control of Labour — a battle they still won — and the SDP no doubt resented Healey and Hattersley just as much for not leaving with them.

We can also make some points specifically about David Owen. Not that he has a gigantic ego — though he has even by the standards of politicians — but that he allowed his ego to so distort his judgement that he wrecked his own career, and the political project he led. His refusal to accept democratic decisions was not limited to his previous membership of Labour. Perhaps we should be grateful that his stubborn refusal to accept the SDP’s decision to merge with the Liberals ultimately destroyed the merged LibDem party’s prospects of “breaking the mould”.

But all of that was a long time ago. Political circumstances have changed. If David Owen now truly believes Labour represents his views, let him join. Forgive us if we don’t welcome him too profusely. The best we can say is we’ve had to get used to feeling a bit uncomfortable about some of our members, and he won’t be the worst. But please, Ed, don’t offer him any inducements. Save them for those who really represent a body of opinion, and bring something that’s worth having to the party.


  1. Syzygy says:

    I particularly agree with your last paragraph. The tragedy of the left has always been its sectarianism.

    However, in the past, the ‘broad church’ has usually meant that the majority left has had to compromise too far to accommodate the right, who, I would argue, have historically been more of a threat than the extreme left. The neoliberalism of New Labour was no compromise but a wholesale rejection of socialism…. this has left the door wide open for this government and the final destruction of the welfare state.

  2. Richard Abbot says:

    It was never a matter of what he was FOR but what he was AGAINST – i.e. the extreme left. His achievement was to destroy the electoral chances of the left-dominated Labour Party.
    Where Dr Owen is now is largely irrelevant, but as an aside the destruction of the Lib Dems and any semblance of a return to the old two party dominated system at the next election might not play out so well for Labour. What did Tony Benn say about polarisation – it forces people to choose. But choose what?

  3. james says:

    If there are two words that I would like to ban from usage in political discourse it’s Left and Right. They’re abstractions but they’re also distractions.

    The real divide in politics is between little-L labour and capital, surely?

    The SDP were about deference to capital – a tacit acceptance of neoliberalism. Many SDP activists found this approach didn’t help them advance in the Labour Party since it involved labour paying the price.

    I’m not suggesting that this was conscious on the part of Owen, mind. And if he wants to join Labour, fine. The more the merrier.

  4. Richard Abbot says:

    Agreed James, they can be unhelpful, but no more so than ‘capital’ and ‘neoliberalism’. The definition of all these terms is easy, what’s less so is the classification of people within them.
    Does acceptance of capital always equal deference to capital?

  5. david says:

    who cares

  6. james says:

    Richard, I’m not so sure that it’s that difficult. Most people in the UK live by labouring, no?

    “Does acceptance of capital always equal deference to capital?”

    No. I accept that people own capital, but I share the traditional view of the co-operative movement that returns to capital should be capped.

  7. Bob Kurac says:

    The man’s a catastrophe! As an opposition “leader” – a theoretician of the middle ground, really – he was jointly responsible for splitting the opposition and condemning the country to over a decade of minority rule by an evil right wing government that, in theory, he opposed.

    So grateful were the arch-capitalists that they’ve kept handing him little projects since. Perhaps their biggest laugh at his expense, having seen just how preposterously inept he was at the tactics of politics, came when they sent him as special envoy to Bosnia along with Cyrus Vance. How they guffawed in the clubs over a stiff snorter at images of him dodging a bit of sniper fire and then, after inordinate expense and as the death toll continued to rise, as he finally presented the “Vance-Owen Plan” ~ a scheme so utterly ludicrous in its premise – of dividing a country not much bigger than Wales into dozens of separate, i.e. not interconnected by transport routes, enclaves, and assigning each to one of three warring ethnic entities (well, two ethnic and one that the West insisted as defining by the religion some practiced) – that even the people dying in the streets of Sarajevo because of his ineptitude pissed themselves laughing at the absurdity of it.

    He’s either an idiot or he’s the ultimate undercover cop: his life’s work seems to have been about developing schemes that have, in practice, completely derailed their stated purpose and allowed his opponents to triumph, every time.

  8. Ryan Thomas says:

    On one level, I suppose this is welcome news, as it shows Labour is slowly backpeddling to the left away from Blairism toward social democracy. David Owen may be many things, but he is not an idiot, and can see that Ed Miliband is changing Labour for the better. Personally, I hope this direction of travel continues leftward, but I am (surprisingly) encouraged by this.

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