Party like it’s 1981

Imagine that, alongside Michael Foot as leader, Tony Benn had won the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 1981; it almost happened. Would the creation of the SDP then seem wrong even to Labour loyalists and even today? There is certainly a view within the Labour Party, shared with The Guardian editorial writers, that a way must be found to keep the current party together rather than face the alternative: “No one who remembers or knows about past divisions, notably the breakaway of the Social Democratic party in 1981, should want a return to that.”

The argument runs that the SDP split the Left, enabling Thatcherism to run riot in the Eighties without a strong, electable opposition. With many moderates leaving Labour, the hard Left almost triumphed and Neil Kinnock needed a monumental effort of will to turn the party around into something more, though still not quite, electable.

This line of reasoning is obviously flawed. In the Eighties, Benn did not defeat either Denis Healey for the deputy leadership or Kinnock for the leadership. Jeremy Corbyn (Foot without the charisma) and the hard Left already control the Labour Party. Good luck to Owen Smith trying to do a Kinnock, but if, as seems likely, he fails, what then? The Guardian suggests that the answer is Shadow Cabinet elections.

Brilliant: Corbyn gets saddled with a group of politicians who despise him and cannot possibly work effectively with him. The rank-and-file Corbynistas feel cheated. That will neither end happily nor give the country anything like effective opposition to this wretched government at such a critical time for our future.

None of us is getting any younger and it would be wonderful if we could just skip the SDP stage and go straight to the inevitable merger with the Lib Dems but no mainstream Labour politician could stomach that at present, so let’s accept the need for history to repeat itself. The argument against this, from thin opinion polling, is that each side of a divided Labour Party would lose from the split. Realistically, though, there is a lot of difference between a speculative proposition and the existence of a real, moderate, electable, new Labour party (as they obviously wouldn’t call it). In 1981, the SDP bounced to 50% support within months of its creation, winning by-elections. Perhaps a new Centre-Left Alliance might be punished by the electoral system in a general election, as in 1983, where their 26% of the vote gave them just 23 seats, but the more fractured world of contemporary politics is a better battle-ground and it might well be able to achieve at least a blocking minority in a hung Parliament.

Perhaps, as Caroline Lucas suggests, the Greens and Plaid Cymru also need to be part of this pact, to make it a real Coalition for the Future, with Corbyn to the Left of us, May to the Right of us. That quotation from The Guardian above needs only its first word changed: “Anyone who remembers or knows about past divisions, notably the breakaway of the Social Democratic party in 1981, should want a return to that.”

* John Death joined the Liberal Party in 1974 and is a retired teacher.

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  • We are not a left wing party economically, and Clegg, Cable and Alexander have more in common with the Osbornite wing of the Tories. The Greens and Plaid support much of the same stuff economically that Corbyn does (renationalisation, anti TTIP, higher taxes on corporations, restriction on foreign ownership). None of these views are Liberal, they are socialist, statist and protectionist, and very much of the “Little Englander” or “Little Welsh” mentality of the left, where the nation state is supreme (just for different reasons to the kippers).

    We can theoretically work with the moderate Blairites such as Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper, Chukka Ummuna and Jess Phillips, however the party members have rejected them, the unions dispise liberal economics and the traditional Labour vote want something akin to Red UKIP in the Frank Field or Dennis Skinner mould. The aim should be for a Liberal / Blairite pact, whilst reaching out to Tories who do not support May’s petty nationalism.

  • Stimpson 10th Sep ’16 – 12:11pm…………..The Greens and Plaid support much of the same stuff economically that Corbyn does (renationalisation, anti TTIP, higher taxes on corporations, restriction on foreign ownership)…………

    I’d suggest that all the above are far, far closer toLibDem values than your avowed privatisation of EVERYTHING (including police and armed forces)…

  • It was in the manifesto to privatise the Post Office. Equally much of the outsourcing and use of the private sector in the coalition was backed by the Lib Dems.

    We are not a statist party of renationalistion.

    As for privatisation of the police and armed forces, I fail to see why this is any worse than privatisation of the railways or whatever else the socialists complain about. The police have hardly had a good reputation for honesty and competence when run by the state, and the forces desperately need investment. Private military contractors have done a sterling job in many parts of the world.

  • Sue Sutherland 10th Sep '16 - 1:15pm

    There has been concern expressed in recent posts that the Tories are trying to achieve a one party state and Stimpson’s suggestion of privatising the police and armed forces would be a frightening leap in that direction. These bodies are the means by which the state controls the ultimate power of force, preventing factions with armed power from causing revolution and civil war, so the question of where their loyalty lies is of crucial importance. If they are privatised their loyalty will be to the companies that operate them and they in turn will be loyal to the Government that set them up and gave them the contracts. Hey presto! The Tory dream of always being the party in power becomes a reality.

  • Well, link your support for ‘unrestricted foreign ownership’ to ‘private armed forces’ and it is a very short step to a future unfriendly power threatening us with our own armed forces….

  • Andrew McCaig 10th Sep '16 - 1:36pm


    You are correct that Clegg, Cable and Alexander had much in common with the Osbournite wing of the Tory Party.

    That was a disastrous policy which has led directly to us having less than 1/3 of the support we had under Charles Kennedy. I really hope the days of being “Tory-light” are now behind us for good.

    “Why vote for the monkey when we can vote for the organ grinder” was the message the electorate sent us in 2015, but you appear not to have noticed….

  • paul barker 10th Sep '16 - 3:20pm

    I am going to ignore the 6 comments before me because none of them seem to be either replying to the article or speaking from The Libdem mainstream.
    Comparisons with 1981 serve only to muddy the waters. What we have now is the great majority of The PLP & a big chunk of pre 2015 members versus The Leader & most of the new members. Both sides believe they can take The Labour machine & The Labour Name with them, each wants to make it look like its the other thats breaking away. Its a recipe for a long civil war, fought ward by ward.
    This suits us fine, the longer before any formal separation, the more time we have to recover.

  • Yes of course we do not have the same policies as the Greens and Plaid, or to the traditional Labour MPs who are, as Stimpson says, having a tough time with their own members. However, I would be prefectly happy working together with them on the vast range of policies on which we are in agreement rather than trying to stress the differences.
    Unlike Paul Barker, I am not at all easy with the idea of a lengthy civil war in the Labour Party to give the Lib Dems time to re-group. We have the looming disaster of Brexit to avert, The rearguard action fought by Lib Dems and within other parties by the likes of Anna Soubry and David Lammy is heartening, but it is no match for the resources that a functioning, large opposition party would be able to throw at it if it were not so intent on its internal battles and what I see as a futile attempt to maintain Labour unity.
    There is nothing to say that coalitions need be only for government and working with others is the most likely way to avoid what Sue Sutherland mentions, a permanent Tory government. I’ve been in this party a long time and I have to say I was churlish in 1981 about the alliance with the SDP but I was wrong. So, we have differences with mainstream Labour, the Greens, Plaid Cymru, the SNP, which is why we are not in one of those parties. However, I cannot see that there would be huge difficulties to working together, with some such label as Coalition for the Future, not merging, just working together. Of course, that has implications for electoral pacts …

  • Have any offers been received to privatise Stimpson ?

    How about privatising the Royal family to the highest bidder, Stimmo ? We could then have the Sky Sports Coronation with adverts between each hymn.

  • @ John McHugo You’re correct to a point, but the Falklands camnpaign ended in June, 1982.. Despite this, the Liberals won the Bermondsey by-election in February 1983.

    However, this was followed a month later by a totally inept SDP campaign with a weak and inexperienced candidate in the Darlington by-election.The seat could have been won.

    I was there and remember it well because I contested the next door seat of Richmond, Yorks in the 83 election.

  • Richard Underhill 10th Sep '16 - 11:48pm

    In the Richmond bye-election a young Conservative called William Hague was elected as MP although our vote plus the Owenite vote was more. Seven months of campaigning because w knew the outgoing Tory MP was accepting a job as a Commissioner.

  • am not sure it’s correct to say that the sdp split the left in the 80s since the labour party had long since moved away from the liberal party. more correctly, we should say that the sdp failed to unite the non-right wing parties.
    and was never convinced that the sdp was very progressive really anyway …
    also, a bit unfair to say corbyn is like michael foot without charisma, foot was a considerable intellectual who possessed a real desire to govern. corbyn not.

  • Stimpson obviously loathes the idea that the democratically-controlled state should run anything. So the extensions of democracy a long series of Whigs and Liberals fought for become immaterial as one person one vote is replaced by one pound one vote. To claim that Vince Cable shares this sort of view is, well, strange. That Danny Alexander is close to Osborne may well be true, but does Danny Alexander represent the broad mass of our party? Liberals are not ideologically wedded to either nationalisation or denationalisation: the question is, what kind of state and market can deliver individual freedom and strong communities. We repeatedly opposed steel nationalisation but supported the NHS and state schools under local democratic oversight. Social Democrats are clearly not enthusiasts for a small state, though they don’t share the traditional left’s enthusiasm for a huge state.

    I agree with the thrust of the article. In particular, what delivered power to Thatcher was not just a split opposition but also that she seemed on top of the job while her main opponents (unfairly in the case of Kinnock) did not. However, right-wing Labourites are not necessarily close to Liberal Democrats (think Mandelson, Blair, Campbell) and if we draw together with other parties, we need to negotiate with more know-how than we did in coalition.

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