“Keep Corbyn and it will all end like it did with the unelectable Michael Foot!” is the media mantra. But what really happened to the Labour Party between 1981 and 1983? Here’s my take.
35 years ago, the so-called Gang of Four – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams – gathered at David Owen’s house in East London to issue the Limehouse Declaration and to announce their split from Labour, and the setting up of what was to become the Social Democratic Party, or SDP for short.
Some of us are old enough to remember the tumultuous events which followed: the SDP’s media-fuelled rise in the polls and Labour’s subsequent defeat in the 1983 election. Others will have read about this period, but almost certainly from sources which frame the division as being ‘unelectable left wing extremists versus electable moderates’.
What is less well known is that at the time of the split, the Labour Party under the leadership of Michael Foot enjoyed a huge lead in the polls.
The eleven national opinion polls conducted between 10 November 1980 when Foot won the leadership and the Limehouse Declaration on 25 January 1981, show Labour’s percentage of the vote as:
43, 50, 46.5, 47, 47, 48, 47.5, 56, 51, 47, 45.
Labour’s lead over the Tories fluctuated between 7 and 24 percent, and on the day before the Limehouse Declaration, Foot’s Labour enjoyed a straight-up 10 point lead over Thatcher’s Tories (Mori, 24 Jan 1981).
Whatever the SDP split was about, what it was not about was the supposed ‘unelectability’ of Michael Foot. That’s an example of history being rewritten to scare off Labour members from ever again electing a left-winger as Party leader. And to scare off the voters, if perchance the members ignored the supposed lessons of history.
If anything, the reverse is true. The split was in part prompted by the well-founded fear that Foot might in fact win an election on a program that the right in the party vehemently opposed and would not serve in government.
It was only when the SDP began to take votes from Labour, that the ‘unelectability’ of Michael Foot became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Unelectability didn’t precipitate the split. The split precipitated the unelectability.
But there’s no need to take it from me. This is from the opening statement of the 1983 SDP manifesto:
“By 1987, if we continue as we are, unemployment will be at least as bad as in 1983. As a reaction, if the old two-party system is allowed to continue, we shall then lurch into the most extreme left-wing Government we have ever known.”
Here’s Tony Blair on Corbyn, from July 2015:
“Let me be absolutely clear: I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”
Both the SDP splitters and Blair oppose the left on principle, and they are refreshingly open about it. It wasn’t then, and isn’t now, about “electability”.
The 1982 Falklands War and the accompanying orgy of flag-waving chauvinism (which Foot was powerless to prevent) led to a spike in the Tory vote to 45%+ in the polls; a high watermark which the Labour Party, now fighting on two flanks, could not hope to reach.
What became of the SDP and its pretensions to govern Britain?
Well, having delivered the coup de gras to Michael Foot in the ’83 election as one half of the SDP – Liberal Alliance, they formally merged with the Liberals, their strategic usefulness to the right wing establishment exhausted.
David Owen led a rump of anti-merger SDPists from unelectability to extinction. The fitting epitaph being the the night-of-the-living-dead in the 1990 Bootle by-election, when the zombie SDP was beaten into seventh place by the candidate from the Monster Raving Loony Party.
Not being a loony himself, Owen sensibly wound up the SDP shortly afterwards and re-entered parliament, this time as a job-for-life unelected member of the House of Lords, where he sits as an ‘independent social democrat’, whatever that means. He was the future once.
Shirley Williams’ political journey ended with her joining the Conservative coalition, and in the House of Lords voting to push through the Health and Social Care Bill which opened up Labour’s 1945 crowning glory, the NHS, to privatisation. Roy Jenkins died in 2003, and Bill Rodgers wrote a book.
Does any of this matter except to historians and political nerds? I would argue that it does. Arguments about the past matter because they are really debates about the present and the future.
Calvin Tucker works at the Morning Star