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    It's Not 1981: Why Labour Shouldn't Fear a Breakaway 'Centrist' Party

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    Neil Clark
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    The resignation of veteran MP Frank Field from the Labour Whip this week has led to renewed speculation that a number of Labour MPs, opposed to the party's left-wing leadership, are about to break ranks and form their own party.

    This has, of course, happened before, in 1981, when the formation of the SDP (Social Democratic Party) caused Labour great electoral harm. The SDP and later 'The Alliance' the name given to the grouping when they formed an electoral pact with the Liberals, helped split the progressive vote and enabled the Conservatives to remain in power for all of the 1980s- and indeed up to 1997. 

    So bearing that in mind you can understand why leading Labour figures might be worried by talks of another breakaway today. 

    However, a closer inspection of the situation in 1981 and today reveals some very important differences.

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    In 1981, the so-called 'Gang of Four' were responding to a gap in the market. The post-war consensus, based on a mixed economy, prices and incomes policies and Keynesianism had been rejected by the Thatcherite Conservatives, who had embarked on a major programme of privatization and neoliberal economic reform. 

    The Labour Party too wanted to go beyond the post-war consensus, by increasing public ownership. Rightly or wrongly, a sizeable chunk of the electorate thought that the trades unions- whose disagreements with Labour over its anti-inflationary incomes policy had led to the party losing the general election of May 1979,  had too much power.

    The SDP offered people a 'let's keep to the pre-1979 consensus but with some added constitutional reform' option. It advocated no privatisation, but no new nationalization either. It strongly criticised Mrs Thatcher's monetarist policies while opposing a 'siege economy'. Yet the SDP's genuinely left-of-centre outlook should not be downplayed. In a speech in early 1981, Roy Jenkins, the driving force behind the party, declared that the 'central issue' was how Britain used its new found North Sea oil wealth. 'It is essential that we use a large part of the oil revenue for productive public sector investment: railway electrification, public transport generally, the expansion of British Telecom, energy saving and insulation work, the development of renewable resources, the renewal of outdated water and sewage systems', he said.

    A clear sign that the SDP's policies had genuine voter appeal was the stunning success the party enjoyed following its launch. The first opinion poll taken after it was formed gave the SDP 36%- and up to 48% if it formed an alliance with the Liberals. Within days the party had 43,000 members, many of whom had never belonged to a political party before. Was this the consequence of favourable media coverage?. Hardly. As John Campbell in his biography of Roy Jenkins points out, not one national newspaper postively endorsed the new party. Campbell relates how the 'Gang of Four' were invited to lunch in March 1981 by the 'kingmaker' Rupert Murdoch, who had just bought The Times. 'The occasion, unsurprisingly was not a success… 'He (Jenkins) led off by summarising their critique of Thatcherism which went down like a lead balloon'. After they had gone, Murdoch denounced them to be 'all crap'.

    The public clearly thought differently. At the Warrington by-election in July 1981 Roy Jenkins cut a Labour majority of 10,000 to just 1,759. Better was still to come when Shirley Williams stood in Crosby in November. She received 49% of the vote and as John Campbell notes turned 'a Tory majority of nearly 20,00 into an SDP/Liberal one of more than 5,000'.

    'This was a staggering swing, which appeared to leave no consitutency in the country beyond the reach of the Alliance's ambition' Campbell writes.

    An opinion poll in late 1981, put the SDP/Liberal Alliance on 51%, with 24% for Labour and 23% for the Conservatives.

    Do we honestly think that a new 'Centre Party', based on unpopular reheated Blairism  would make anything like the same impact today, even with strong media support, which the SDP didn't have in 1981?

    While in the early 1980s there was a public appetite for a genuinely 'moderate' party, committed to Keynesianism and the mixed economy, 'centrist' policies today, which really mean neoliberalism at home and neoconservativism abroad,  with a 'progressive' sugar-coating of identity politics, are widely discredited. We've had nearly thirty years of them and they have left us with a massive increase in poverty, and rapidly falling real wages. Not to mention the endless 'wars of intervention' which have greatly increased the terror threat and helped cause a refugee crisis of Biblical proportions.

    Tony Blair was a vote winner in 1997, but Blairism is a big vote loser in 2018. And Blair's acolytes know this, which is why there is unlikely to be a breakway. 

    Instead, Corbyn's enemies in Labour are seeking to use the threat of an SDP-type split to pressurise the party leader to move the party back towards the right. Corbyn, if he's as wise he looks, will call their bluff. The truth is that the Labour rebels have nowhere to go, unlike the Gang of Four in 1981. 

    Another  important difference between then and now which needs to be mentioned is the calibre- and personal appeal- of the breakway politicians. Roy Jenkins was a former Home Secretary and Britain's most successful post-war Chancellor of the Exchequer. A very erudite and cultured man, and unashamed bon viveur, he read Voltaire and Simenon in the original French and later wrote critically acclaimed biographies of Roosevelt, Churchill, Gladstone and Asquith.  

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    Dr. David Owen was a dashing former Foreign Secretary with 'matinee idol features' (to use the phrase of Denis Healey), who went down particularly well with female voters. Shirley Williams was a former Education Minister, who had gained a reputation as a 'housewives champion' when Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection in the mid 1970s, while Bill Rodgers had been a highly competent Transport Minister. You may have disagreed with the 'Gang of Four'  and cursed them for splitting the anti-Thatcher vote, but they were undoubtedly political heavyweights.  

    You can't say the same about the Corbyn critics today. They are lightweights, who don't enthuse the electorate, and only are MPs because they stood under a Labour banner. A new 'Centre Party' would, to quote the great Bill Shankly, lose four-nil-and they'd be lucky to get nil.

    Which is precisely why the 'Bitterites', for all their sniping, will want to stay put.    

    The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Neil Clark and do not necessarily reflect Sputnik's position.

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