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.

Party atmosphere

Went to my first meeting of my local Constituency Labour Party (CLP) yesterday evening. Not sure how regular an attendee I’ll be, but wanted to show my face given that I certainly won’t be able to make it next month. As requested by D.S. Ketelby, here is my report on the proceedings.

In terms of cross-section of people attending, it reminded me of a congregational meeting in a small- to medium-sized Baptist church. Probably about 20 people in the room, slightly more women than men, a high proportion of grey/white hair, a few younger people (but no-one below 30 as far as I could tell). An elderly couple, clearly among the pillars of the community, who hold to the faith with a greater fervour than many of those around them, and recall fondly the days of the previous pastor/Clement Attlee (delete as applicable).

The main purpose of the meeting last night was to mandate the CLP’s delegate to next week’s party conference. When I arrived, the meeting was working through the six policy commission documents that are to be approved at the conference. We voted on the first couple of documents before it was pointed out that the only vote at the conference will be for or against the whole kit and caboodle, so we just voted the whole thing through in one go. Democracy in action. Ahem.

We then approved various other possible resolutions – previously known as “Contemporary Motions”, now called “Contemporary Issues”, to stop them sounding like they’re intended to achieve anything – ranging from calling for affordable public transport fares in London to support for the democratically elected governments of Bolivia and Venezuela.

Finally, we discussed and passed two motions – one proposed by the constituency secretary, the other by one of the Clement Attlee fans sat behind me – which expressed the CLP’s support for Gordon Brown and general dismay at the Blairite running-dogs who are solely responsible for questioning his leadership (ho-hum), before calling on the government to actually start behaving like a Labour government: reforming the financial system in response to the current situation, building more council houses, that sort of thing.

The support for Brown was interesting to note. I was quite surprised by how strongly supported he was, and how hostile people were to the current ructions assailing the party. But as someone pointed out, it is truly shocking that at a time when the financial system is in meltdown and the economy is nosediving into recession, the only time any Labour figures appear in the media it’s to go yakking on (mainly in code) about the leadership.

I voted for both resolutions – more for the proposals on policy than the pro-Brown sentiments – and I’ll be interested to see whether the resulting cognitive dissonance and the psychological drive towards internal self-consistency make me more supportive of Brown in the days and weeks ahead. 🙂

Name-dropping: the constituency secretary is Nigel de Gruchy, formerly a fairly well-known trade union leader (leader of the NASUWT). Well, I’d heard of him, anyway.