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Where are the Social Democrats now?

Polly Toynbee reminded us yesterday of who were some of the social democrats in the great Labour break-away of the early 1980s: Andrew Lansley, for example, now a Tory dismantling the NHS, and opposed by his former colleague, Shirley Williams, now in the Lib Dems. Danny Finkelstein advised one Tory leader (William Hague) just as his colleague, Andrew Cooper, now advises David Cameron. Both Roger Liddle and Andrew Adonis advised Blair after a spell in the Lib Dems, though Adonis, after being a rather good Labour Transport Secretary, now backs Michael Gove on Academy schools.

Vince Cable and Chris Huhne are the other two SDPers in the Tory-led Cabinet, and, like ex-SDPer Charles Kennedy, they are to the left of their Orange Book ministerial colleagues. Small wonder, then, that even Left Futures was a bit ambivalent about the daddy of them all, Lord David Owen, knocking at Ed Miliband’s door, warning him “in private meetings as well as in public to cast off Blairism and go back to Labour values.” But how do we explain all this political promiscuity?  Would Neal Lawson (self-confessed tribal Labour) see it as just an early rejection of tribalism?

We can’t speak for Neal, but it was not a rejection of tribalism. It was rather a time when boundaries shifted. Those of us who stayed Labour remained as tribal as ever, and denounced the splitters’ treachery. Almost no-one (Peter Hain aside) moved the opposite way in spite of plenty of radical Liberals who remained deeply uncomfortable with the the SDP. Michael Meadowcroft, for example, onetime radical Liberal MP for Leeds West, couldn’t bring himself to join the merged Lib Dems until 2007 – and must now be even more discomforted. Many of those who moved through the SDP in those years, though united in a period of upheaval, were in fact, it transpires, moving in different directions, most settling into new tribes, a few like David Owen not.

The political boundaries shifted then because of the economic crisis of the 1970s, the oil price shock, stagflation, the collapse of Bretton Woods and the collapse of Keynesian techniques of demand management. The historic attachment to ideologies which rooted people in their tribes loosened. In Britain, the economic crisis saw the end of “Butskellism”, the social democratic policy consensus between the parties. Labour’s cuts were followed by Thatcher’s neoliberal revolution, which eventually encompassed Labour too. But it was an international crisis of social democracy, albeit one that shifted policy in some countries less than others.

The current economic crisis, the crisis of neoliberalism, is also likely to cause boundaries to shift. That shift won’t be the realignment New Labour sought, which was never about change. Their realignment was about perpetuating the neoliberal consensus through an alliance of New Labour and Orange Book liberals as the alternative to the Tories. Ending history, so to speak.

The return of Labour to social democracy will bring new recruits. As supporters, we are already winning Lib Dem voters. Exactly who will join is not yet clear, but returning SDP defectors will be amongst them and we should welcome them. Polly Toynbee is as welcome in Labour as she is at UK Uncut events. But there may well be movement in the other direction too. And we should not mourn them.


  1. Peter Garbutt says:

    I find this argument stale and even unedifying. It’s as if there have been no lessons learned.
    There’s no doubt about it, I believe democracy is absolutely necessary. But don’t confuse democracy with capitalism. In fact, don’t allow capitalism to confuse you at all; it IS the cause of the economic and environmental problems the planet faces. And as long as the Labour Party cosies up to Capital, Labour isn’t even ON the Left, let alone a hope for the Left.

  2. Galen10 says:

    I’d suggest it works both ways. The question for many disillusioned social democrats (whether or not they were actually in the SDP or LibDems) is frankly whether Labour represents what they believe in.

    Given what we’ve seen since May 2010, I think most would say the jury is still out. Radical and progressive aren’t the adjectives that instantly spring to mind when you see the current platform, and the scary presence of so many New Labour ultras.

    I’m not interested in joining “Newer” Labour, any more than I was interested in joining “Old” Labour. I’d like to see a re-alignment on the centre-left, but I’m just not convinced that Labour can be the motor for change that many people assume.

  3. Rich says:

    “Vince Cable is to the left of his Orange Booker colleagues”

    Vince Cable is one of the contributors to the Orange Book…

    That would be like saying that Tony Blair was to the left of New Labour.

    Social Democrats were the frustrated types that left the Labour party as it had become increasingly obvious that the alternative economic model could not work, while the Labour party ploughed on ever into naivety and self-denial. Tony Blair fixed that and offered a kind of Labour that people could vote for.

    You say “the return of Labour to social democracy” and I can only assume you are talking about Ed Miliband’s lurch leftwards, calling that ‘social democracy’ seems faintly ridiculous.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Vince Cable may have been a contributor to the Orange Book, just as Ed Miliband will contribute to the Progress Purple Book, but that does not mean that you should not distinguish between them and the associated political currents.

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