‘I wish I could have produced more of a promised land for those who have followed me ‘- Roy Jenkins
‘Three Cheers for the attempt’ say I
This is the third post and covers the key events in the few months leading up to March 26 1981. An earlier post on January 20th gave a general account of the struggle for social democracy within the Labour Party and the early signs of a breakaway party. Then the second post on January 22nd covered the period post - 1975 EEC Referendum and ended with the election of Michael Foot as Labour Leader.
In the week's before Foot's election as party leader there was a view that if Denis Healey had been victorious then most of the moderate social democrat MPs would have given him up to a year to try and pull the party round. But I have to say I always thought that was a forlorn hope. Labour had been in self-destruct mode for some time.
After Foot’s election it was mooted that Bill Rodgers should stand for deputy leader in order to see how many social democratic followers there’d be among the Labour MPs. That, however, did not materialise although Bill stood for Shadow Cabinet and got elected. Numerous references have been made of rows with Foot as to his shadow cabinet portfolio responsibilities however.
Again reading from various sources David Owen was increasingly preparing to leave the Labour Party and was having meetings in his office with like-minded MPs. He had already announced on November 21 that he would not stand for the Shadow Cabinet and this was taken as a clear sign of his future intentions. Then a few days later Shirley Williams informed her former constituency in Hertford & Stevenage that she was not going to stand as Labour candidate and defend the current policies. She told them:
'Britain needs a party of liberty, equality, comradeship, common sense and internationalism’.
There had been a certain degree of coolness between Roy and David in the second half of the 1970’s but eventually they met towards the end of November at Jenkins’s home in East Hendred in order to exchange ideas and talk things through. Following that that meeting Owen wrote a memorandum that was leaked to the press - apparently after it was stolen from his office!
Much of the memorandum, which was now in the public domain, was about the timing for the creation of the New Party with the options of either after the Labour Special Conference of January 1980 or allows a period of gradual breakaway aimed at an October 1981 launch. It also contained references to two vexed questions that divided the two of them the first was the method by which the leader of the new party should be elected and the second concerned the merits of Roy Jenkins being leader.
In his book ‘A Life at the Centre’ Roy Jenkins gives a revealing insight into his relationship over the years with David, Shirley and Bill, including the run-up to the birth of the SDP – pages 527 - 533.
Then on December 10 a meeting took place in Shirley’s flat with around 8 Labour MPs present. Also there were Ivor Crew and Anthony King, the highly experienced academic and political commentators, observers and researchers, they told those gathered that a new social democratic party would have significant electoral support - this was indeed borne out by poll findings that I refer to later.
By the first week of January Roy Jenkins’s 4 year term as President of the European Commission had come to an end. To my certain personal knowledge Roy had already made up his mind some time before then about forming a new party and that he would go it alone if necessary. The fact was he would not have been alone several Labour MPs including Tom Ellis and Bob Maclennan, a few Labour Peers, many local Councillors and party members would have left the Labour Party with him. In addition the leadership and members of the Social Democratic Alliance, which had been proscribed as an organisation within the Labour Party in Dec 1979, were determined to set up a breakaway party from the grass roots come what may.
The reality was that by December 1980 the Gang of Three plus one (RJ) were at various stages on the road towards the formation of a breakaway party. Roy Jenkins, along with a number of close allies in and out of Parliament, arrived at a decision to launch a new party by the end of March 81 – regardless of events in the Labour Party.
In his autobiography ‘After The Dust Has Settled’ the Former Labour and SDP MP Tom Ellis that he had made a decision in November that he would not stand as a Labour candidate at the next election. In December he wrote a position paper on the formation of a Social Democratic Party. I was one of twelve people that received a copy – the others included Roy, Shirley and David Steel. The full text is on pages 236 – 241 of his book and it makes for a good read.
David Owen, although equally as determined to leave Labour, was still involved with his group of people in mounting a final effort to see whether the Labour Party would show signs of any change of course. Their last hope was the outcome of the Wembley Special Conference that was to be held in January. Bill Rodgers was still in the shadow cabinet – although he was soon to resign from it - and Shirley Williams was the most uncertain of the four about leaving.
It was becoming evident that in order to make serious progress with the formation of a new party it was essential that some reconciliation would take place between Jenkins and Owen – after all both had their loyal band of supporters. The relationship had not been too good between since the early 1970s when they disagreed over whether the Labour Party, when next returned to Government, should commit itself to holding a referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the Common Market. Reference was made to this in the second post.
In his book ‘Breaking the Mould’ Ian Bradley refers to two crucial meetings in early January 1981. The first was at Roy’s home on January the eleventh - just 5 days after his term of office in Brussels had come to an end. Only David and Shirley were there. By now they were ‘The Gang of Four’.
The second was at Shirley Williams’s flat on January 14th and all four were present. Ian Bradley recounts that it was the first time they had met together since the whole idea of forming a new party had been mooted some year previous. It was at that meeting that forming a Council for Social Democracy was first raised. Jenkins went along with it only on the understanding that it would lead to the formation of a new party upon which they were agreed.
It was also agreed that a further meeting would be held four days later to draw up a joint statement to be issued after Labour’s Special Conference in Wembley.
By all accounts it was a difficult meeting Shirley was furious that details of the meeting had been leaked to The Observer. There was difference of opinion between them as to when the new party would be launched. Jenkins and Owen wanted it to be set up by end of March and Williams and Rodgers by end of May at the earliest.
Whilst all this was taking place a number of MPs were talking openly about forming a new party and they publicly welcomed David Steel’s launch on January 12th of the Liberal Party’s 10 point plan for economic recovery. More and more stories were emerging in the media and elsewhere with plenty of gossip over how many Labour MPs’ were set to break away.
Michael Foot was also desperately trying to hold it all together and was apparently ‘lavish’ with his promise of Shadow Cabinet posts! However on the central issue of how future leaders of the party would be elected he could not deliver on the principle of ‘one member one vote’
The decision of the Wembley Special Conference on January 24 settled matters once and for all. The decision was that in future the trade unions would have biggest share of the electoral college vote (40%) in choosing future leaders.
So the following morning at David Owen’s house the Gang of Four met and the Limehouse Declaration was agreed and signed and the Council for Social Democracy was launched. The following day nine Labour MPs announced they were joining the Council. David Owen announced that the launch of the SDP ‘was very close’.
Interestingly opinions within the Liberal Party were divided. David Steel welcomed what was taking place but others such as Cyril Smith took a different view. He famously said the Liberals should make sure that a new fourth party ‘was strangled at birth’. Again in his book Roy Jenkins comments how he and David Steel got on well possibly because
‘he was a good social democrat and I was an Asquithian Liberal’
To steer the setting up of a new party a Steering Committee was established on February 5th and on the 9th an office was opened in Queen Anne’s Gate. Two key figures in the office were Alec McGivan as Organiser and John Lyttle as Press Officer. Other than that the offices were entirely staffed by volunteers.
For a short while there continued discussion among them all about when the new party should be formed with three dates being mooted – March, May or even after the Labour party Conference in October 1981. But in reality matters were no longer under their control.
The growth of the Council for Social Democracy was staggering. Over 30,000 letters of support were received and with already £80k in the bank!
Then there was increasing pressure coming from several MPs who were uncomfortable being members of Labour Party and of the Council for Social Democracy at the same time Also local branches of what were of the Council started referring to themselves as branches of the SDP.
So it all led to a series of resignations in February including Shirley Williams and Tom Bradley from the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. Shirley saying:
‘The party I loved and worked for over so many years no longer exists’
Bill Rodgers had already resigned from shadow cabinet. Then on March 2nd twelve Labour MPs resigned the Labour whip and sat as Social Democrats. Nine Labour peers did the same! More followed later in the month.
The level of popular support on the day of the launch was extraordinary with 51% supporting an SDP/Liberal alliance, Conservatives were at 26% and Labour at 22%. Throughout the next three months the figures roughly averaged out at Con 27% Lab 29% and the SDP/Lib 44%.
So the SDP was launched with huge publicity, complete professional competence and a lot of razzmatazz on March 26 – ‘too much of a professional show’ writes Jenkins in his book. The Gang of Four covered many provincial centres in England as well as Edinburgh and Cardiff. In addition to the Limehouse Declaration the guiding principles of the party was contained in a publication released the same day 'Twelve Tasks for Social Democrats'.
Along with the prolific amount written about the SDP it is reputed that the best is by Ivor Crew and Anthony King called ‘The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party’. In the last page of his 600 page book
Roy Jenkins, in reflective mood, wrote ‘I wish I could have produced more of a promised land for those who have followed me ‘.
I can only say ‘three cheers for the attempt’
Also on my Blog see 'From the Vault' series on the events during the 1980's up to the merger with the Liberals and the formation of the Social and Liberal Democrats.