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Ian Bradley
Breaking the Mould?
The birth and prospects of the Social Democratic Party

Martin Robertson, Oxford
(price: 2.95; 178 pages)

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Hugh Stephenson
Claret and Chips:
The Rise of the SDP

Michael Joseph, London, 1982
(price: 8.95; 204 pages)

There's a lot of talk these days* about the Tories being in the same position as Labour were in the 1980s. Don't believe it. The analogy doesn't stand up.

You've got to start with the defeat of Old Labour, and bear with me while we do some history. Back in September 1978 everyone was pretty much convinced that James Callaghan was about to call an election, and - although it was far from being in the bag - the odds were that he was going to win. Demonstrating, however, that uncanny political awareness that made him the British equivalent of Gerald Ford, Farmer Jim decided that everyone else was simply wrong and that the best thing to do was to hang on through the winter.

That, of course, was the Winter of Discontent, when sufficient numbers of unions went on strike to cripple the country. The stories of the dead lying unburied were exaggerations, but behind the tabloid sensationalism, the reality was pretty dire. I was at school at the time, but I remember the start of term being delayed by a week because the TGWU dispute meant no supplies were getting around the country. And I remember that in the mid-1980s when my grandmother died, we found stocks of sugar left over - the panic-driven hoarding had been so substantial that it took literally years to clear the backlog.

The result was a decent-sized victory for the Tories in 1979 despite the fact that their then-leader, Margaret Thatcher, was quite a long way behind Callaghan when pollsters asked people who would make the best Prime Minister.

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The Labour left, coalescing around Tony Benn, took the opportunity of opposition to try to put some backbone into the party - which meant effectively that MPs were to be seen as the servants of their local party branches, and not merely as representatives of their constituents, as they had so arrogantly assumed up to this point. Democracy and accountability were the words that got activists excited in those days. The left's campaign focussed on issues such as the compulsory re-selection of MPs, the control of the manifesto and the election of the leader, all of which was an attempt to stop MPs on the right of the party exercising any real power. The response of those MPs was - somewhat predictably - to look around for alternative options in their political careers. If the people you hang out with tell you often enough and loud enough that they don't really like you, and certainly don't trust you, chances are you're going to start looking for some new friends eventually.

The crunch came at the 1980 Conference in Blackpool. Delegates (by which was meant a couple of dozen trade unionist leaders representing nominal millions of Party members) voted in favour of a withdrawal from Europe and a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament. A decision was also taken in principle to find a new way of choosing the leader, hitherto the preserve of MPs. Failing to decide on a suitable formula for a new settlement, Conference resolved to meet again in January 1981. In an attempt to pre-empt that gathering, Callaghan abruptly resigned as leader, so that his successor could be chosen by the old method.

The entire political establishment - indeed the entire country - knew at this point that the obvious choice to be the new leader was Denis Healey, a former Defence Secretary and Chancellor, an astute politician and one of the few genuinely popular Westminster politicians from either party. So the Labour MPs duly elected Michael Foot. As it happens, stupid though it was portrayed at the time, it was probably the only choice - if Healey had won, Benn would undoubtedly have challenged him under the new system and the result would have been outright civil war on a much more serious scale than anything that actually happened. (On the other hand, if Healey had defeated the Left's challenge...)

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So Foot was elected leader in November 1980. In January 1981 the Wembley Conference decided to split votes in future leadership elections on a 40-30-30 basis for unions, MPs and constituency parties. And in March 1981 David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers left the Labour Party and - together with Roy Jenkins, seven Labour MPs and one Tory MP - launched the Social Democratic Party.

Now all through this period of division - and this is where the comparisons with the Tories post-1997 fall down - the Labour Party were seen as a potential government. Thatcher was proving so hideously unpopular that Labour, however divided, were a perfectly plausible alternative. A poll for Weekend World in mid-January 1981, for example, found that, even with Foot as leader and with all the splits, Labour could command 33 per cent support to the Tories' 29 per cent. Mind you, it also found that 37 per cent would vote for a centre party allied with the Liberals.

Not a great showing by Labour then, but most importantly it was a complete disaster for the Conservatives. This is what gets forgotten. The main story of 1980-82 was the sheer hatred that was felt for the government. Labour were considered to be behaving very badly indeed, but the idea that they were making themselves unelectable for a generation (as the cliché has it) wasn't really around. And the initial impact of the SDP was further to erode Tory rather than Labour support. Thatcher became the most unpopular Prime Minister in the history of polling, Labour held on to its heartlands for grim death and the SDP - in combination with the Liberals - achieved poll ratings in excess of 50 per cent.

Then came the Falklands War. Thatcher became a war hero for defending British subjects from invasion by the armies of a military regime, Foot looked even more pathetic than ever (trust me, Hague and Duncan Smith are masters of the mass media compared to this man), and the SDP bubble burst. At the 1983 general election Thatcher stomped all over the opposition, but the real fight was further down the food chain where Labour just beat the Alliance into third place. It was perceived as a catastrophe, but under the circumstances was a triumphant success: the third party had failed to break through, and the two-party state survived intact. It became apparent that it would eventually be Labour's turn again. (We just didn't expect it to take another 14 years is all.)

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It seemed like the dream of breaking the mould was over. If the centre party couldn't make it in those circumstances, then there seemed little hope of it ever doing so. The acrimonious emergence of David Owen as leader of the SDP at the expense of kindly old Roy Jenkins, followed by the even more acrimonious merger with the Liberals left the whole project looking wrecked and wretched.

As it happens, of course, it was amongst the most significant events in modern British history. Far from being a curiosity in a political museum, the SDP is still with us. But - in line with post-Thatcherite principles of never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-choice - we now have alternative versions of the same tasteless product: there's SDP Classic in the shape of the Liberal Democrats (led for the first time by an ex-SDP man rather than a Liberal), and then there's the SDP-Lite of 'New' Labour. Both are characterised by the old Liberal hatred of the trade unions, both share the SDP obsession with middle England, and both subscribe to the SDP position on the two key planks of policy debate: we stay in Europe, we maintain strong defence. In fact, if Kenneth Clarke had beaten Iain Duncan Donuts, the Tories would have lined up as a third version of the same party.

In short the SDP won every argument. They may not have won power in their original form, but who can doubt that all the real prizes are theirs?

Did the SDP break the mould? No, they just rebuilt the consensus.

These books, of course, are far too early to deal with how things finally shook down. But as snapshots of a very disturbed period in British political history, they're quite fun.

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* This was written in January 2002

non fiction