Who will split the splitters? SDP lessons for “True Labour”

Will Labour split if/when Jeremy Corbyn retains the party leadership? Should it split? And if it does, along what lines? Who would be the target voters for any new centre-left party?

A lot has been written about all this in recent weeks, such as this Economist piece arguing that an anti-Corbyn “True Labour” offshoot could do better than nervous Labour MPs fear. However, Danny Finkelstein contributed a useful perspective in yesterday’s Times, based on his experience on the national executive of the SDP back in the 1980s.

What I hadn’t previously appreciated is that the SDP was, from the start, divided along a faultline that still afflicts Labour: between the regional working class and metropolitan liberals. This division was personified, in the SDP, by the conflicting ambitions of David Owen and Roy Jenkins.

As Finkelstein writes:

Owen’s conception of the SDP, which was formed in 1981, is that it would be a tough-minded, hawkish party of the left. It would appeal to an aspirational working class, particularly in the north, who had tired of bureaucratic socialism and saw the point of Margaret Thatcher, but were not Tories.

When the future Labour foreign secretary was a student working on a building site he had been struck by the reaction of his fellow workers to the Suez crisis. It had been instinctively nationalist, uninterested in political protocol, and robust. It was these people he wanted the SDP to appeal to.

In the metropolitan liberal corner, by contrast, was Roy Jenkins, who had been President of the European Commission immediately before returning to the UK to set up the SDP:

Roy Jenkins, former Labour chancellor but also biographer of the Liberal prime minister HH Asquith, wanted a centre party that reflected his own liberal instinct. This would be a southern party of the middle class, disdainful of Thatcher, fastidious rather than bulldog-like on international issues, avowedly centrist.

As Finkelstein points out, by the end of 1982 Jenkins had won the battle:

The SDP would be a liberal party. It lost almost all its northern and working-class seats, was not able to compete in the south because the Liberal Party took all the best constituencies, and ended up being swallowed up by its partner.

The same quandary that faced the SDP faces Labour now, especially post-Brexit: should it stand up for “the 48%”, even if this costs it votes in the English regions? Or should it tilt towards a more eurosceptic line, opposing unrestricted freedom of movement, for example? Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith are both attempting to square this circle (“get you a party that can do both!”), neither especially convincingly.

It would face a new party of “True Labour” splitters even more acutely. Do they follow the siren calls to form a “progressive alliance” with Greens and Lib Dems, thus doubling down on the middle-class liberal vote, or do they risk alienating liberals by pursuing the traditional Labour base, much of which remains (as Finkelstein describes it):

conservative on constitutional questions, culturally sentimental and nostalgic, cautious on issues of individual freedom, opposed to mass immigration, monarchist, nationalist, patriotic and militaristic.

Of course, the only way Labour (or any new party) can win is the way it has always won: by managing to hold together its uneasy coalition of working class traditionalists and middle class liberals. This coalition has come under so much strain in recent decades that it’s hard to see how Labour can reinvigorate; harder still to see how a new party would rebuild such a coalition from scratch. As Finkelstein concludes:

Neil Sedaka was wrong. Breaking up is not very hard to do. It’s easy to disassemble a political alliance. It’s putting one together that is challenging.