“Without the Falklands war, the ballooning of the Thatcher legend, and Labour’s panicked swerve back towards the centre, the Alliance [Liberal/SDP] would have triumphed.” So writes Matthew Parris in The Times today.
It would indeed and with the late Shirley Williams very much in our thoughts old SDP members like me remember nostalgically how close we were. The Falklands were the Blessed Margaret’s saviour as the successful COVID-19 vaccination programme has been that of the rather less than Blessed Boris.
The SDP was in a sense in the centre ground – but it was actually rather radical in construct and policies. It’s manual was “The Future of Socialism” Tony Crosland’s brilliant guide book for the Left from twenty-five years earlier. Crosland’s case had been for social reform not ideological clause 4 nonsense and Harold Wilson’s pragmatic administrations of 1964-1970 had delivered it.
It is arguable that the true successors of Crosland and the SDP were New Labour – an even more pragmatic construct that Wilson’s governments. Remember those that fiercely criticised Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s did not unravel much, if anything, of what she did when they took power in 1997.
The gap now may be twofold in its nature. First the urgent need for a return to decency in Government. There is no precedent in my baby boomer lifetime for a Prime Minister as venal as Boris Johnson or a cabinet as shallow as his gang. Secondly a return to principle not Right Wing ideology in policy, not least in the Home Office but across the board as well.
At the moment my view is that the last thing that we need is a new Party as Parris argues. I think the precedents of Wilson and Blair should guide us. And of Hugh Gaitskell before them for that matter. He argued to “Fight and Fight again” to save the Party he loved falling into the hands of the extremists. It was Harold Wilson and later Tony Blair who won this fight.
The Jeremy Corbyn aberration was the greatest threat to Labour since Gaitskell’s day – Foot and Benn were cuddly centrists compared with Corbyn and his wild men of the ideological Left. Keir Starmer must be a man in the Wilson/Blair mould if he is to succeed. I argue this not for the good of Labour but for the good of the country. The Augean stables of government have never been fouler than they are now.
The electors of Hartlepool may well elect a Conservative MP shortly. If this is part of a trend line then the end of Labour as a credible political party is, as Matthew Parris argues, in sight. And so Sir Keir will have to regroup from a slough deeper even than that which preceded Blair. But the solution is the same. A comprehensive rebranding of the Party, decent policies and a focus on the real enemy across the despatch box and in the country. New Labour worked once. It needs to work again.