Was Marx right? Does history repeat itself “first as tragedy, then as farce”? When the SDP split from the Labour party in 1981, it was a very UK phenomenon. It drew on mounting anxieties from amongst the social democratic tradition in the Labour party that demographic changes were threatening the hitherto class-based appeal of the party, and also that internal fissions (largely between MPs and party activists) had produced unacceptable policies – mostly on security and Europe – as well as machinations to shift control from the parliamentary Labour party to trade unions and activists. The incursion of Militant into the party was also a factor, exacerbated by then leader Michael Foot’s initial reluctance to take it on.
These demographic and social changes weakening traditional voting allegiances did later come to impinge on our sister parties across Europe. They were compounded by the lack of a new left narrative to replace the post-war priorities of health, housing, jobs and pensions, and the progress in the 1960s towards greater equality, expanded education provision and higher living standards. In addition, the whirlwind changes following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, with the subsequent reconfiguration of defence, foreign and European policy, were not built into a left agenda for the 21st century.
Just as the SDP split was caused by internal party factionalism, a failure to respond to the changing demands of the electorate and policy issues, so the 2019 version also draws on internal party dynamics and a particular – albeit single – policy issue: Brexit.
Brexit – unlike the policy disputes of the 1980s – does not sit neatly on the left-right spectrum, either between or within the parties. It also – unlike the fissure over unilateralism of earlier times – is not a long-standing totem within the Labour party, having reared its head only in the summer of 2016. The failure to stamp out antisemitism is also recent, albeit of major significance to the 2019 breakaway.
It is for these reasons – that the new grouping is based neither on long-simmering issues, nor on academic or philosophical differences – that today’s split raises a bigger question than the SDP faced: what gap in the market has it identified?
Talk of “broken politics” is both nebulous and draws on no empirical evidence. At local and national level, most votes remain with the two established parties. Turnout in elections is not very different from other European countries, and participation in party activities has hardly changed and certainly not more so than involvement in other social groupings, all of which are affected by the internet and social media.
The new grouping has yet to set out what it wants from a realignment of British politics. If it is merely a response to the current ineptitude of the May government and Labour’s reluctance to oppose Brexit, this hardly makes a recipe for ‘breaking the mould’ as the SDP (unsuccessfully) set out to do. Indeed, once Brexit is “over” – that is decided one way or another – the cause célèbre might just fade away.
Importantly, the new grouping has failed to articulate a set of values (as the Council for Social Democracy, the SDP’s forerunner, sought to do). Neither has it identified its appeal, or “USP” – unique selling point – other than dissatisfaction with Labour and Theresa May. To date, it is not clear how the new grouping differs from the Liberal Democrats. In 1981, with a small, and ineffective Liberal party, there was undoubtedly some clear water in which the SDP could fish.
There are other differences between 2019 and 1981. The breakaway back then was led by some nationally recognised ’big hitters‘: four former cabinet ministers plus a dozen MPs. They had already worked together (albeit with some non-defectors) in the Manifesto Group – a parliamentary alliance of British Labour MPs – and earlier in the Fabian Society, had considerable support amongst local council leaders, and had the beginnings of a sizeable mailing list.
Today’s grouping has few of these advantages save the ‘second referendum’ movement – and this will prove to be short-lived.
However, the biggest issue is not whether the two breakways look or feel the same. The real question is: did the SDP help Labour mend itself? And, if it did, will TIG do the same today?
Looking back from 2019, the SDP can appear to have been a damp squib. But without the intervention of the Falklands War, there might have been a different story to tell. Before that invasion on 2 April 1982, however, major developments in the Labour party had already meant a corner had been turned. One was the inept challenge by Tony Benn to wrest the deputy leadership from Denis Healey. Not only did this force MPs and others to decide which side they were on, but it also energised the new (secret) trade union caucus – the St Ermin’s Group – to mobilise speedily to defeat him, and thus to set up the system and contacts gradually to change the composition of the NEC, build a majority to take on Militant and provide political backing for Neil Kinnock once he became leader in 1983.
Today, there is neither a war, nor a St Ermin’s Group, to force the Labour party to use the shock of the breakaway to renew itself and cast out the scourge of antisemitism. Rather like Michael Foot – for too long in denial about Militant – Jeremy Corbyn, because he sees himself as a good person and free from racism, was reluctant to accept what was actually happening before his eyes. So whilst the Brexit issue might play itself out, the current intolerance in the party, with its desire to deselect MPs, remains and is all too reminiscent of what Militant did in the 1980s.
Then the damage was done in general committees, today it is on social media as well as in party meetings. But the arguments for the activists on the left are similar: we, the party members, are the vanguard, the one true way, so their story goes, and all those who differ should be silenced (this, often, from people who have been in the party for a couple of years, addressed to those with a lifetime of dedication and work in the movement). These arguments are dangerous for the same reasons as they were in the 1980s: they are dismissive of parliamentary democracy and also of the views, the interests and indeed the rights of Labour voters (and the wider electorate).
Detailed scrutiny of the Brexit vote shows how many of the ‘democratically dispossessed’ voted leave, and how different the votes of university-educated or city dwellers were from the votes of people in towns and rural areas. Indeed, Scotland apart, the further from London you live, the more likely you were to vote to leave. Unless the Labour party thinks long and hard about this, and about the views of those our movement was created to serve, we will remain without a strong narrative and appeal. However, this is even more the case for the Independent Group. The more they are a pro-remain grouping, the less they are likely to appeal to core Labour voters outside of London and similar areas.
But while the Independent Group may not have a policy offer to appeal to the whole nation, there is no room for complacency. The group’s effect on Labour will be driven less by what they do than by how the party reacts. If we hunker down as if nothing has happened, they can make hay. If we think about why they left and why they felt Labour was no longer their home, then perhaps we can be stronger rather than weaker for their departure.