‘We have defied the laws of arithmetic,’ declared a buoyant David Steel after he had heard the result of the Croydon, North-West by-election, ‘One plus one really does equal three.’ It is now apparent that the public opinion polls were consistently correct in showing that, while support for the Liberal Party as such remained of a traditionally modest order and support for the Social Democrats alone was a similar or even smaller percentage, backing for the two-party alliance as a third force in British politics was a wholly different matter, and promised the chance of a complete breakthrough under the existing electoral system. The evidence for this in the public opinion polls and on the hustings at Warrington and Croydon has been so over whelming that the response at the grass roots of the Liberal Party had already been recognised as decisive, even before the opening of this year’s Liberal Assembly at Llandudno, by such instinctive opponents of the Alliance as the writers in the radical journal New Out-look. Liberals less weighed down with misgivings have begun sporting party buttons that emphasise the word ‘Alliance’ at the expense of ‘Liberal and Social Democratic’.
Why then run the Alliance as two separate parties? It is not because there is much difference in policy between them. Each partner to the match started off the courtship by expecting to find the other partner to the right of him – an expectation that produced manoeuvres of exquisite farce. In fact, the more the Social Democrats aim at defining their policies in a manner which seeks to convey that they are something different from a party of the centre (which is what many of them had hitherto taken the Liberal Party to be), the closer they find themselves to policies already adopted by the Liberal Party. The Liberals want to make clear that they are in no sense to be taken as endorsing the immobilism they associate with some aspects of the Wilson and Callaghan administrations.
That sentiment is also prominent in the minds of those who have been drafting policy documents and making conference speeches for the Social Democrats. It is to be seen, for instance, in the emphasis placed on freedom of information, and on industrial democracy and de-centralisation – causes that made little progress under James Callaghan. But while the Liberals are by now convinced of the genuine radicalism of the Four, they are unable to share in the hard-headed determination of the same Social Democratic leaders to exhibit themselves as overjoyed whenever a Labour office-holder crosses over. It seemed for a time at Llandudno as if the whole debate on the Alliance, given the realisation that the outcome was a foregone conclusion, was being taken over by competitive repudiations of Michael O’Halloran, the much put-down Member for North Islington who had come over to the Social Democrats in the company of a considerable contingent of councillors. The timing of the Islington cross-over enabled Liberal speakers to put a name to what gave them most concern: the association under the rubric of the ‘centre-right’ of the Labour Party of two types of politician – the social democratic radical and the adherents of the status quo of a centralising bureaucracy, with its localised equivalents.
The SDP as a distinct element in the political scene offers four advantages: it is a new party, appealing with marked success to those classes in the community who have not previously taken part in politics; it has experienced, well-recognised leaders, including a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and a Foreign Secretary; it offers a sympathetic channel by which people whose whole lives have been spent in the Labour Party can both leave that party and continue with self-respect in politics; and it is not the Liberal Party (in other words, it does not have the image of the eternal loser). The SDP has, above all, added to the Liberals the vital element of credibility, so that people will now actually vote the way they used to tell pollsters they would have done if they thought the Liberal Party had any chance of winning. But that credibility only exists when the SDP is shown to be in alliance with the Liberals, and not in competition with them.
Shirley Williams felt quite justified, during the Bradshaw-type SDP Conference, in telling some of her Liberal allies quite sharply that it was up to the Social Democrats whom they accepted as members. To a certain degree this is true, but clearly if the Social Democrats do not take care to watch the proportions in which the two different types of Labour Party member of the ‘centre-right’ move into the new party’s positions of influence and power, there may be trouble in the future. One cannot at the same time praise the Liberals’ achievements in community politics (as many Social Democrats are quite properly doing) and work to fortify in positions of local power those same long-established office-holders whom the community politicians have been working to undermine. A difficulty is that many such panjandrums belong to the working class, and local Social Democratic parties tend to be self-conscious about their relative lack of working-class members, and consequently deferential to those who present themselves.
‘We can cope with a few Jimmy Dunns’ – a Liverpool MP who joined the SDP during that party’s Conference – ‘and even a few Islington Sixteens, though they are more debatable,’ wrote a Liverpool Liberal councillor to the Liberal News. ‘However, if the SDP became dominated by their like, there would be no possibility of a political settlement with them, as there is while the SDP is run by the Shirleys and Roys.’
Although the recent converts from other political parties sometimes display withdrawal symptoms or commit generalisations that would pass for received wisdom in their previous political habitat but expose them to unexpected criticism now, the overwhelming evidence is that most are enormously refreshed by the change. They are given an opportunity to express their real views without having to encode them in a way that conforms to a Labour or Tory sense of propriety. (There were some signs, though, of an SDP code emerging as the train moved south from Perth to Bradford, and deposited the greatest moving party conference in the world at Central Hall, Westminster: but perhaps that is all part of the evidence that we have a genuine new party.) The SDP finds itself in a difficult chicken-and-egg situation in regard to policies. As a new and successful contender at elections, it will be looked to for positions across the whole range of issues. Yet part of its charm lies in its emphasis on participation by the membership and the population at large in the formulation of policy, free of ideological preconceptions: definitive pronouncements on any subject now would appear to foreclose that attractive proposition. On the other hand, the moving finger moves on. By-elections and borough elections occur. A body of 22 MPs has to vote in the House of Commons. Something must be said. A political record is already being created. The leaders, who are, after all, the product of the recent history of the Labour Party, denounce ‘manifestoitis’: yet the combination of such scepticism with an emphasis on the freedom of elected members from specific mandates, leaves a suggestion of opportunism and technocracy that is vaguely unsettling. Two themes that surfaced during the Conference were both the impatient rejection of ‘Ya! Boo!’ politics and an insistence on the absolute necessity of not becoming ‘the soggy centre’ of British politics.
The zoological noises which so appalled listeners who first heard the sound broadcasts from the House of Commons and to which many have not become accustomed even by the passage of time are not a new phenomenon. ‘The scene of noise and uproar which the House of Commons now exhibits is perfectly disgusting,’ remarked Charles Greville on 4 April 1835, observing that any subtlety of reaction was ‘drowned in shouts, hootings, groans, noises the most discordant that the human throat can emit, sticks and feet beating against the floor.’ Nevertheless, the bringing of these sounds into every home in a way that suggests that MPs are unwilling to listen to the other side, and can do nothing better than to exchange jibes at a time of economic distress, has not enhanced the prestige of politics.
There had always seemed, to foreign observers of our institutions, to be a contradiction between the British reputation for pragmatism and moderation in the handling of affairs and a political system whose main merit was claimed to be that it simplified politics for the populace by setting up at election time a clear confrontation between one party of the right and one of the left. It was claimed on behalf of the British system, however, that, at the price of some distortion both in presentation of the issues and in the shape and scale of the results, it guaranteed strong government lasting four or five years and uncluttered lines of party responsibility. Some other democracies such as France and Israel, in elections this year, have displayed impatience at the results of fragmentation, and are beginning to approximate to the British pattern – just as the British seem about to vacate it. In fact, the apparent polarisation of British politics, and its adversary style, were contained within a substantial framework of political consensus. This became discredited over economic policy when the opposite to failure was perceived to be, not success, but a different kind of failure. Consensus has also become, in certain major respects, discredited in international relations.
The parties therefore started establishing themselves as what they had all along appeared to be – opposite poles of dogmatic assumption between which an unmistakable choice could be made. When the British discovered that their political system was actually delivering what it had always been supposed to deliver, they deserted it in droves. With this year’s Labour Conference confirming and extending the decisions of last year, the Party will go into battle committed to a policy of rigorous protection and capital controls, compulsory planning agreements in industry, departure from the EEC, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and repudiation of Nato’s deterrence strategy while remaining within its structure of integrated command. The Conservative Conference showed Mrs Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey Howe impaled just as firmly on forms of monetarism which her recent Cabinet colleague, Sir Ian Gilmour, did not hesitate to describe as disastrous, while four surviving Cabinet colleagues were sending out coded messages generally interpreted as meaning that they wanted to get off.
In this contingency, some of the reasons now advanced for changing the electoral system to one of Proportional Representation resemble those hitherto proffered for the existing system. No longer is a guaranteed life for a single-party government of four or five years seen as a mark of strength or stability. It is not stable, it is now being said, because with the mounting practice of each opposition party undertaking formally to repeal the reforms of the party in power, and with each successive government turned out at the end of its term because of economic failure, the system results in a regular yo-yoing of policy so that nothing can be relied upon to stick. It is not strong because in present conditions economic policy requires the active backing of a large part of the population; and single-party government nowadays represents too small a proportion of the people. Whatever the arguments for or against electoral reform before Croydon, North-West, the arguments in favour are now enormously strengthened, because the present system only takes into account a pattern in which the popular choice is mainly distributed between two major parties (or party blocs). Today there are plainly three. The television commentators giggled in embarrassment at the projections that appeared on the screens after Warrington and Croydon, showing that if these results had been generalised around the country the Conservatives would have been left, in the case of Warrington, with one member in the House of Commons and, in the case of Croydon, where the Tories did much better, with nine. These are, however, fair comments on the present electoral system when a third party (or alliance of parties) passes beyond a certain threshold of support. The unfairness is doubled back on both the other parties but not even fairly between the two. The Labour Party would always be there. The Conservative Party would perhaps be there.
It would be a calamity for the Conservative Party to disappear and to no one more certainly than the SDP, into which the conservative element which exists permanently in every country would surely seep, causing it great and permanent loss. Fortunately from that point of view, the members of the Liberal and Social Democratic Alliance are fully committed, if they have sufficient power after the next election, to introduce PR. The case for the change, both in central and in local government, is becoming increasingly formidable. But so may be the problems of putting a government together and keeping it in office after a PR election. The difficulties have not been abolished by the strengthening of the arguments for change. The indecisive results in Ireland, the terms forced on Begin by the small extremist religious group holding the balance of power in Israel, the months of negotiation before it was possible to form a Dutch government which then fell after a month, the difficulty of holding a government in office in Belgium, are all illustrations of the problem. Quite clearly, a fair voting system would be a major challenge to the vaunted ability of the British unwritten constitution to adapt itself sensibly to altered circumstances. Constitutional conventions would need to grow up speedily to respond to the situation – which would be normal under the new electoral system – of a negotiated coalition.
The eight discussion documents that were debated at the SDP Conference give some idea of the directions in which the new party may be expected to go. To judge from some passages, they seem to presage the revival of ‘the Extreme Centre’, an idea launched over thirty years ago in the pages of the Economist by that paper’s editor, the late Lord Crowther. Politics, he contended, should not be thought of as running solely on a straight line between right and left, with the centre in a half-way position. It should be thought of, rather, as a triangle in which it is possible to be as much an extremist for the centre as for anything else. Other passages in the documents were more expressive of a conventional consensus. The principle on which the leaders, and David Owen in particular, seem to rely to establish the new party’s radicalism is decentralisation. It is a good principle. But its execution, in ways that will reduce the size of Whitehall at least as much as regional government is increased, reduce or not increase the number of tiers of government, and reform local government finance so that it will neither be based principally on the rates nor be determined at a centre (such as a distant regional capital) that is remote from the people – this promises major problems. It looks as if the first Parliament run by the Alliance will be stuffed with constitutional change – major structural and financial reform of local government going along with the tremendous upheavals of electoral reform.
It is the failure of economic policy to command the consistent support of the people that has shattered confidence in the existing political structure, and it will be on their ability to conduct the economy that the new majority party will be judged. Here some of the preliminaries to the SDP Conference were too tentative. The speeches from the platform were more firm. Mrs Thatcher has been held up to ridicule for her stepdaughter Tina – There Is No Alternative. But then Tina has been attached to the wrong leading-strings, The Alliance must achieve a simple, clear commitment to a permanent incomes policy. To this there is no alternative if the new party is to be believed by the nation.