Sunday 31 January 2016

Can hear the sound of horses being hitched up to the wagon

Will the parties build enough trust to bind themselves in to an agreed reform programme before the election to enable them to work together after the election?
I have argued for some six months and more that the Liberal Democrats should be in the forefront of a campaign for voting and constitutional reform and that to enable this to happen a cross-party Convention needs to be established. The aim being to agree a progressive reform programme say by early 2018.
So I am delighted that the SNP, Greens and Welsh nationalists have united to call for an electoral pact with Labour and the Liberal Democrats to agree sweeping changes to the voting system for Westminster elections.
In a letter published in The Independent on Sunday, the leaders of the three left-of-centre parties call for an agreement on electoral reform to be included in each of their manifestos in 2020. 

In the letter, the SNP leader in Westminster,  the parliamentary leader of Plaid Cymru, and the Green MP Caroline Lucas welcome the talks that seem to be going on between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Although I have read somewhere that Tim Farron has downplayed them!.
The three MPs write :
“By working together we believe it’s possible to transform British politics – and that a fairer voting system will help deliver a fairer Britain.
“We would like to see Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the parties we represent joining together at the next general election in a joint manifesto pledge to introduce proportional representation for the House of Commons. This would give every voter a say in future elections and provide a mandate for the early introduction of legislation.”
The three MPs pledge to work with other party leaders further “about how this pledge can be achieved”.
But what are the views of the other party leaders?
Jeremy Corbyn
He has admitted that he is “open” to an electoral pact with other parties to force through electoral reform.
Asked if he would be willing to talk to the Liberal Democrats and other parties about agreeing changes to the voting system, the Labour leader said he “could be”. But pressed whether he was open to it, he replied: “Obviously.” 
Tim Farron
Well it is reported that Tim’s aides are talking to a Labour MP, someone who is a close ally of Mr Corbyn and who is acting as a conduit between the two leaders. .
A senior Lib Dem source!! Said “Tim has always said electoral reform is a key part of reshaping British politics. He will work with anyone, in all parties and none, to deliver that.”
It is also claimed that the Liberal Democrats are understood to want a respected elder statesman in the Labour Party to take on a formal role as a go-between between the parties.
UkIP also backs electoral reform, but is unlikely to enter into a pact with Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

One senior figure who has raised over recent months the need for a progressive alliance and a cross-party constitutional convention and last week in a post on this blog is David Owen. I found his post constructive as to the way forward.

He says:

‘Labour can win the next election in 2020 – but only through a “progressive alliance”. But this demands realistic compromises from Corbyn, the party conference, the National Executive Committee and the PLP. It means creating a constitutional convention in 2017 alongside the SNP (the likeliest next-biggest party), the Liberal Democrats (if they will change their policy on a market in health), Plaid Cymru, the Green Party and any MPs from Northern Ireland. Agreed reforms in their respective manifestos could then be legislated on in the first session of parliament.’

The question now is Will the Wagon roll?!

Two earlier posts on this blog:

Reflections on a chaotic and fragmented Union , its survival prospects - June 27 2015.

The Governance and the Voting System of the UK Union is Bad for democracy,bad for government and bad for the voters - Aug 20 2015

Friday 29 January 2016

David Owen puts the case for a Progressive Alliance and a cross-party Constitutional Convention

Guest post by Lord David Owen 

‘Can the parties build enough trust to bind themselves in before the election to work together after the election’?

‘Another progressive alliance building block must be establishing a cross party Constitutional Convention with the aim of bringing forward draft legislation for a federal structure for the UK’.

There are other ways of introducing democratic reform than rolling out referenda after referenda. The present Conservative government have made it clear that there will be no all-party Constitutional Convention before the 2020 election (1).

A cross party Constitutional Convention crucially depends on the Labour Party working with the SNP to ensure it has the widest possible support, authority and participation.

A first order question for such a cross party Constitutional Convention is can they and should they break the assumption hitherto that it will be followed by a referendum? A demonstration of both the unpredictability and the capacity for the manipulation of a referendum is the national Alternative Vote referendum conceded by the Conservative Party in the negotiations with the Liberal Democrats as the price for a coalition government in May 2010.

Every poll in the second half of that year showed AV being won in a referendum. By February 2011 Ipsos/MORI had "Yes" on 49% and AV looked certain to be endorsed  ten weeks later.
Cameron was forced to focus on the issue by Osborne who is reported to have said,

 "we have to win this .... thing; who cares what Clegg thinks?" (2)

Cameron true to his reactive "Flashman" character moved fast. Money was found to overpower the "Yes" to Fairer Votes campaign. More people became aware that AV was neither truly proportional nor fair 16 and can have bizarre results. Some saw it as another manipulation agreed post-election inside the coalition by Conservatives with no electoral mandate.

The "No" campaign spent the last few weeks exposing the three 'Cs': cost, complexity and Clegg, who was lampooned. Cameron now talked of AV being "bad for democracy".
On 5 May the referendum resulted in the "No" campaign achieving 67.9% support with 30.1% voting "Yes" to AV. The turnout was a miserable 42.2%. It is hard to see referendums after this AV debate as the only respectable, let alone only legitimate, way for a democracy to change the constitution and/or voting system.

Certainly the manifesto mandate route will and should be tried at some point in the future on voting reform, deliberately excluding referenda. House of Lords reform is also, after even modest reforms, is being sabotaged and the place even more dominated by patronage, a subject better dealt with through a manifesto mandate and stem from a Convention based on a federal UK.

This raises the question of the design of a people-led broad-based Constitutional Convention that should be established by opposition parties in 2016. It needs extensive public consultation and academic input but it will fail in Parliament unless there is cross-party involvement from people close to the party leaders that can help ensure its recommendations are carried through into party manifestoes by the 2020 General Election. This was what happened over the creation of the Scottish Assembly and the practical steps on devolved government where Donald Dewar played such an important role.

What the coalition government of 2010-15 demonstrated is that the post-election horse trading to form a coalition government, with no prior manifesto authority, is not a sufficient let alone a satisfactory basis for ensuring legislation. Yet the introduction of Fixed Term parliaments having survived one General Election has demonstrated some staying power for a post-election "fix". If it survives post 2020 it may become which case it is likely to be a key precondition in place for proportional representation, itself the glue for a Constitutional Convention.
The ‘West Lothian question’ will need to be addressed but that will never have a simple answer. The McKay Commission chaired by the Clerk to the House of Commons from 1998 until 2002 (3) made a good start with the delicacy of watchmakers, and crafted with the skill of seasoned and acute observers of Parliament. Sadly the House of Commons has not been able to reach agreement.

The other important aspect to the Scottish referendum has been how it has inspired a sensible concept if not schemes in England to devolve more decisions to the bigger cities: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle, to Cornwall and elsewhere. In part this follows the success story of the gradual introduction of powerful elected mayors.

The time has surely now come for a small elected four-national second chamber, revising laws across the UK. If some appointed members were to be retained they could vote on non-legislative matters, while speaking on any subject, but only elected members would vote on the floor of the chamber. This proposition was a compromise discussed in 1911, the last time the Lords was seriously reformed. The present Lords is exploding under the load of its own contradictions. Broad reform across the UK through a Convention offers a path to enlightened federalism.

I will highlight only one possible model for a second chamber and that is the US Senate where the elected Senators are a reflection but not an exact copy of the population of the USA. Every State with its own legislature sends two Senators to Washington irrespective of the size of its population. What if the House of Commons continued to follow the UK population like the House of Representatives but the reformed second chamber of the UK followed more closely US Senate representation.

Such a second chamber even though elected would have mainly the existing powers of delaying as well as revising legislation, but in addition it could be empowered to block and to instigate constitutional change in the UK.  Its membership, by not exactly following the populations of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, could more easily establish, as in the US Senate, a significant vote percentage where representatives in such a UK federal chamber could have a legitimate blocking vote on constitutional matters that could not be overridden by English votes within the second chamber.

This is a delicate mechanism to devise but if the right balance is achieved it could be a powerful unifier for the UK and seen as such by fair-minded people.

It is an important sign that Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the UK Labour Party, elected by close to 60% of paid-up members without counting supporter votes, aims to give priority to a constitutional convention. The Labour Party historian, Greg Rosen, interestingly uses the term 'progressive alliance ' in relation to the breakthrough period in the party's history 1901-1906 under Keir Hardie.

Hardie was always an uncertain supporter of 'a progressive alliance' but he went along with MacDonald's covert negotiations on a secret electoral pact with Liberal Chief Whip Herbert Gladstone in 1903. As a result Labour secured a clear run from the Liberals in 30 seats at the forthcoming election (4).

Here there is a choice. Can the parties build enough trust to bind themselves in before the election to work together after the election?

The first issue that looks as if it might face any progressive alliance, in terms of today’s parliamentary timetable, and could perhaps be the first building block of any progressive alliance for the next election, would be the NHS Bill (5) designed here in Queen Mary’s by Allyson Pollock’s team.

This is UK-wide in its significance but focused on England and will challenge the slogan English votes for English legislation. The Bill is before the House of Commons in the name of the Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas. Before the General Election as well as after the Election its cross party sponsors were Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and all SNP MPs, including their present health spokesperson in the Commons. That Bill (6) is due for its Second Reading on 11 March 2016. Whether it progresses could be the litmus test as to whether a progressive alliance is possible.

The Liberal Democrats face an early choice of whether, under their new leader, Tim Farron, they are ready to divorce themselves from their earlier support for the Health and Social Care Act 2012. No 'progressive alliance' worth the name will survive with one party keeping the option open on doing a deal with the Conservatives again in 2020 and supporting the marketization of the NHS.

Another progressive alliance building block must be establishing a cross party Constitutional Convention with the aim of bringing forward draft legislation for a federal structure for the UK. That could be accompanied by a commitment to legislate any agreed recommendation early after a successful General Election and as they would be entitled to do to act without a referendum.

Any Convention seriously addressing the UK which has to include individuals close to the separatist SNP would be making a massive mistake to exclude Sinn Fein which has cooperated with power sharing. It would have Liberal Democrats but would not have the Conservative Party and sadly possibly not the DUP. But by choosing people as individuals it can be easier to forge a consensus in the UK as a whole.

Nicola Sturgeon said in 2012 that Scotland had to focus on – and here I quote - “the most effective political and economic unit to achieve the economic growth and the social justice that the Scottish people want. It is, in many ways, our version of the same question being asked across all mature western democracies: how to build a thriving but sustainable economy that benefits the many, not the few. The Westminster system of government has had its chance – and failed. Today, independence is the pragmatic way forward."

On this basis she can, I imagine, conceive at least of a progressive alliance, a Convention establishing a better pragmatic way forward than Scottish separation from the UK. Already many of the gas and oil revenue assumptions on which the SNP campaigned in 2014 have been shown to be invalid. There are many critical constitutional questions and techniques for cooperation to study and fulfil. To start to establish a Convention infrastructure, appoint research workers, and agree on an independent Chair of the proceedings might be possible early in 2016 but start after the May elections.

Then its recommendations could be submitted before the end of 2018 or 20 early in 2019 allowing the political parties, who would be well represented in all its decision making, to have time to absorb it decisions at their conferences and agree recommendations well before the General Election. This would give time for party politicians to compete for votes while at the same time presenting themselves as ready to fight for constitutional change as a cross-party manifesto commitment not subject to a referendum.

Sometimes people talk of constitutional reform as an academic subject something to be done only by all party reform. That is rubbish and we should remember, for instance, how, on the 24 July 1911 during the Parliament Bill, the Conservatives howled down Asquith as Prime Minister for 30 minutes in partisan rage while he remained on his feet unable to speak until Foreign Secretary Grey intervened (7).

My great grandfather, Alderman William Llewellyn, Liberal leader of Glamorgan County Council was also Chairman of his Liberal and Labour Association. They made 'seat deals' for the 1906 Liberal victory and I have no hesitation in saying that Labour will have to become more open-minded on individual seat deals with any parties who wish within a truly progressive alliance if they are to stand a chance of becoming the government in 2020.

Pacts or deals do not involve merging of parties or the loss of their identity, but they can be the means to legislate for a constitutional accord. Such an accord might be one where the parties that want to separate agree to stay in the UK, to participate in a federal union and have proportional representation across the UK. To help achieve all that it is surely worth persuading some constituencies to stand down, particularly where two seats are contiguous and they can have a better chance of victory in the other.

This is radical politics such as we have not seen for many years, but it is cross party, not one party; inclusive, not exclusive. This is not hard left, nor Trotskyist but socially responsible and capable of uniting the UK.

1. House of Lords Hansard, 2 July 2015. Column 2167 (Lord Dunlop)
2. Anthony Seldon & Peter Snowden, Cameron at 10. The Inside Story 2010-2015 (William Collins, 2015), p. 118.
3.  Report of the Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons, March 2013.
4.  Greg Rosen, Old Labour to New Labour (Politico's, 2005) p. 32.
5.  David Owen, The Health of the Nation. NHS in Peril (Methuen, 2014).

 7. David Owen, The Hidden Perspective. The Military Conversations 1906-1914 (Haus, 2014) p. 131.

Friday 22 January 2016

Roy Jenkins - ‘Things were never quite the same for the Labour Party after June 1975’

‘When your allies won’t come out and fight, that really takes the heart out of you’ (Shirley Williams)

‘I knew we had  to fight for one member one vote in January (1981 ) and if we went down in that conference, then either we created a new party or I would leave politics’ (David Owen)

Part 2
In his book ‘A Life at the Centre’ Roy Jenkins takes the reader through all the background manoverings that went on inside the LabourParty at its highest levels and indeed the other parties as well in preparation for the EEC Referendum Harold Wilson had promised would take place should Labour be returned to Government.

Jenkins had fought hard against Wilson’s plan of promising renegotiations with the EEC and then to hold a referendum. It was on the question of the referendum that he had resigned as Deputy Leader in April 1972 as also did George Thomson and Harold Lever from the Shadow Cabinet and Dick Taverne and David Owen as front bench spokesmen.

But as circumstance often does Roy Jenkins found himself at the centre of the referendum campaign. Approaches had been made from the other parties via John Harris - a very close confidant of Jenkins who had, without offending, adopted all of Roy’s mannerisms! – and Bill Rodgers that Roy should head  a cross-party ‘umbrella’ organisation to campaign for a ‘yes’ vote.  When this was agreed upon Wilson and Callaghan were far from best pleased with this turn of events and the account in the book of what transpired is quite fascinating.

There was of course another delicate matter to settle and that was since Mrs Thatcher had just unseated Ted Heath as Leader of the Opposition Jenkins needed an assurance that she was going to be on board..However Jenkins did lead the cross-party campaign organisation for my part I was one of the campaign co-ordinators in Wales. The final outcome was a resounding ‘yes’ vote with over 65% voting to remain in the EEC.

From the left:
Jo Grimond, Cledwyn Hughes, Roy Jenkins, Willie Whitelaw, Reginald Maudling and Con O'Neill

It was during that campaign that Jenkins came to know David Steel and he comments:

‘Of all the people I dealt with during the campaign he was one of the best’

It was inevitable that the pro-EEC members of the Labour party having worked in such a cross-party atmosphere totally at variance with the mood and views of the majority of their Labour colleagues found the experience pleasant, interesting and thought provoking.  Roy Jenkins commented:

‘Things were never quite the same for the Labour Party after June 1975’

Back in 1972 he had warned Wilson and the Shadow Cabinet that a referendum

‘Would have a loosening effect upon the tribal loyalties of British party politics’

So it proved to be.

Throughout the second half of the 1970’s  a few moderate MPs were being subjected to the same treatment as Dick Taverne had been through some years earlier. These included in particular Eddie Griffiths, Frank Tomney, Eddie Milne and Reg Prentice. 

The Reg Prentice affair had far reaching consequences. First there was a NEC commissioned report on ‘entryism’ into the Labour Party by a group known as the Militant Tendency. Although the report was never published it was clear that there was extreme left wing infiltration into constituency parties. Although he survived the onslaught Reg Prentice eventually resigned from the Labour Government in 1976 and sat as an Independent MP for a while before joining the Conservatives in 1977. After the 1979 Tory General Election victory he was returned as a Tory MP and also served as a Minister in Mrs Thatcher’s Government.  Labour social democrats felt betrayed and were far from best pleased with Prentice because his action did not help their cause in fact he made it a bit more difficult .

There were three groups within the Labour Party that were campaigning in their different ways for moderate policies and social democracy. First a small group of right wing Labour MPs had established the Manifesto group in December 1974 and it was also a forum for putting together a distinctive social democratic philosophy. In March 1977 they published a document entitled ‘What We Must Do – A Democratic Socialist Approach to Britain’s Crisis’. Then there was a group of moderate Labour local councillors launched a pressure group in June 1975 called The Social Democratic Alliance (SDA). But as the turmoil and divisions intensified within the party a much larger group of social democrat MPs came together in early 1977 to form the Campaign for Labour Victor (CLV) – which was a link to the Campaign for Democratic Socialism of the early 1960’s.

The formation of CLV was a clear sign that people meant business and that a split from the Labour Party was one day inevitable and it was indeed the CLV that first raised the issue of ‘one member one vote’ within the party. Of the Labour Government of the time only David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams joined the group – some other cabinet members declined to commit themselves including Roy Hattersley, Dennis Healey and Merlyn Rees.

By this time Roy Jenkins was on his way out of Labour Party and British politics as he was to become President of the EEC in January 1977 so the ‘effective leader’ of the social democrats was leaving the scene. In the same year Tony Crosland died, Brian Walden left to become presenter of ITV’s programme ‘Weekend World’ and then John Mackintosh died in 1978.  But despite the loss of these gifted individuals the pact with the Liberals from March 1977 to the autumn 1978 enabled the social democrats within the party to be in a relatively optimistic frame of mind. But it wasn’t to last long. 

Jim Callaghan, who was now Prime Minister after Harold Wilson’s surprise resignation in 1977, had been widely expected to call a general election in the autumn of 1978, when most opinion polls showed Labour had a narrow lead. However instead, he decided to extend the wage restraint policy for another year in the hope that the economy would be in a better shape in time for a 1979 election. This proved to be a big mistake – repeated by Gordon Brown in 2010!

The extension of wage restraint was unpopular with the trade unions, and the government's attempt to impose a "5% limit" on pay rises caused resentment among workers and trade unions, with whom relations broke down. During the winter of 1978-79 there were widespread strikes in favour of higher pay rises which caused significant disruption to everyday life. 

The strikes affected lorry drivers, railway workers, car workers and local government and hospital workers. Rubbish was not collected for weeks, the burying of the dead the same, there was a three day working week and a schedule of domestic power cuts, These came to be dubbed as the "Winter of Discontent"

After the winter of discontent and Callaghan’s fatal prevarication over calling the election Mrs Thatcher won the 1979 General Election. The result was not good for Labour with its share of the popular vote dropping to its lowest since 1931 (36.9%).  So this gave added impetus to the moderates and social democrats and in July 1979 David Marquand , who after a period with Roy Jenkins in Brussels was Professor of Contemporary History and Politics at Salford University wrote an article headed ‘ Inquest on a Movement’ and he concluded:-

‘I do not believe that the job of revising traditional welfare-state social democracy can be done within the Labour Party or that active Labour politicians can contribute much to it’

Then Stephen Hasler the co-founder of SLA concluded in his book ‘The Tragedy of Labour’ (1980):-

‘The emergence of a new political force in British politics – whether created by the transformation of one of the major parties, a realignment, the Liberals, or from outside the political elite – will break the cycle of alternating failures’

Gradually from the second half of 1979 onwards the three groupings began to find common ground so that a year later the birth of a new party was within sight. It is true to say that the three groups had for some time differing reasons for being dissatisfied with the Labour Party. The Jenkinsites had always been the most enthusiastic about a new party, the SDA initially hoped it could help to purge the party of its left-wingers and the CLV which by now was led by the ‘Gang of Three’ (Owen, Williams and Rodgers) possibly were the most reluctant to break with Labour until a train events in 1980 finally made it clear to them that Labour was a lost cause on Europe, unilateral disarmament, the proposed system of choosing the party leader and the principle of ‘one member one vote’.

The question as to whether a new party would one day be formed became a more public matter when Roy Jenkins, as his term of office as President of the European Commission was to come to an end in 1980 delivered the Dimbleby lecture in November 1979 ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’

Its impact in the media and the country was immediate and although Roy never uttered words about a new party he left little room for the imagination as to what would happen after his term of office in Brussels ended. This led Bill Rodgers, speaking a week later,  at a meeting in Abertillery to give the Labour party ‘a year to save itself’.

Matters grew apace after that and then came the May 1980 Special Conference at Wembley  which must have been a chastening experience for those social democrats unsure of whether or when to give up on the Labour party. The policy document that was put before the conference and was endorsed was strongly anti-EEC and pro-unilateralist. I remember watching David Owen being booed as he spoke when he tried to defend multilateralism.

I cannot vouch for his emotions and feelings but it must have been the end of the line for a former Foreign Secretary with considerable talent and gravitas. He must have known then that he would never now become leader of the Labour Party. So it was that on June 7 1980 the ‘Gang of Three’ issued a statement that they would leave the party if it adopted withdrawal from the EEC as official Labour Party policy.

But despite all that, according to all the records, there was still a lot of uncertainty and apprehension in the air as to the way ahead for the social democrats. Roy Jenkins was fully aware of all this uncertainty and addressed the Westminster Press Gallery on June 9 where he compared any new party like an experimental aeroplane which might either

‘soar in the sky’ or just ‘finish up a few fields from the end of the runway’.

In mid –June the Labour Party Commission of Inquiry supported for the establishment of an Electoral College as the new system to choose its next leader and endorsed the mandatory re-selection of MPs. Within a month the SDA moving at a quicker pace than others announced that it would be running up to 200 candidates against the official Labour Party candidates at the next General Election if the proposals became party policy at the September Conference. But these intentions drew little support from Labour social democrat MPs except Neville Sandelson.  

But events were moving inexorably leftwards inside the party and when the list of conference resolutions was published it was clear that the Labour Party was going to be for unilateral disarmament, withdrawal from the EEC, renationalisation without compensation of industries that the Tories had denationalised and would introduce the Electoral College to elect the future leader and deputy leader.

The response from ‘The Gang of Three’ came in an open letter published in the Guardian on August 1 1980 and in many ways whilst referring to the possibility of a ‘new democratic socialist party’ they continued to remain ambivalent about a new centre party. 

The Jenkinsites however were pursuing a different approach and were engaged in informal talks with the Liberals and David Marquand spoke at the Liberal Party Assembly in September.

Most certainly Roy was greatly attracted to Liberalism and some have argued that he was more of a Liberal and Steel more of a Social Democrat. I know there is a lot of truth in that because from conversations and several exchange of letters between the two of us in 1979 – 80 as well as seeing him in Brussels and East Hendred the possibility of joining the Liberals was certainly on the agenda albeit that it was the second option only to be pursued should the Gang of Three not deliver!  Roy also told me that David Steel would rather that the social democrats waited until there was a bigger breakaway from the Labour party and then form a new Social Democratic Party.

So it was all in the hands of the ‘Gang of Three’ and their supporters who were still hoping against hope that their threats to leave the party would cause the Shadow Cabinet, NEC and the Conference to have a change of heart and back down. Of course I was nowhere near the action but it all seemed to me at the time a forlorn and futile hope the left were now fully in control and on the march.  Shirley Williams was desponded and referring to Hattersley and Healey in particular said

‘When your allies won’t come out and fight, that really takes the heart out of you’

However there was to be one last throw of the dice. Although the Conference voted to change the method of electing the leader it failed to agree on the composition of the Electoral College. So the social democrats  at a CLV meeting in London October 25 made it clear that if the voting system was not going to be ‘one member one vote’ then they would leave the party . In fact David Owen said that when the shadow cabinet in November agreed to oppose the ‘one member one vote’ proposal:

‘that was the time I knew we had  to fight for one member one vote in January (1981 ) and if we went down in that conference, then either we created a new party or I would leave politics’

On November 10 1980 Michael Foot was elected Leader of the Labour Party!

Part 3 to follow 

The imminent return of Roy Jenkins from Brussels; ‘The Gang of Three’ become the ‘The Gang of Four’ some insight into the goings on as the social democrats moved ever closer to the inevitable and to March 26th 1981 

Wednesday 20 January 2016

This week thirty five years ago was the signing of the Limehouse Declaration

The struggle for social democracy and towards the SDP with some personal recollections
Part 1.

On Monday January 25 it will be 35 years since the signing of the Limehouse Declaration which led to the Social Democratic Party in March 1981. Those are the official starting points but as with much else the story goes back much further.
It took well over twenty years for the party to come into being because the more one delves into the events of the 1970s the more one gets dragged further back into the events of the 1960s so that in actual fact the SDP’s historical lineage goes back to the end of the 1950’s.
The same is true when examining the histories of the Labour and Liberal parties. 

The historical timeline of the political parties greatly interests me because it teaches us so much about where we are now and what is taking place these days. Also it is always the case that when we are too close to the action there is invariably a tendency to miss the key signs.

The fact is that where it is today the Labour party has been there before and indeed one can say the same to some extent about the Liberal Democrats (Liberal party).  

But to return to the Social Democrats and their ultimate emergence as a political party, the divisions really started with the struggle between the Aneurin Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell in the late 1950’s.

The Labour party has always been an uneasy coalition It was born out of an alliance between working class trade unionists and middle-class socialist intellectuals. So throughout my lifetime it has never been able to decide whether it is a party of gradual reform in the liberal and social democratic tradition or a left-wing and socialist movement. So the party has more often than not engaged in a struggle between socialists and social democrats.

The first period where the social democrats inside the party were strong and in fact had a controlling influence was between 1955 and 1963 under Hugh Gaitskell’s leadership. He also had very powerful support from a group of loyal and right-wing trade union leaders as well as a strong group of intellectuals like Roy Jenkins and Anthony Crosland.

The latter’s book ‘The Future of Socialism’ was the clearest and most influential expression of Gaitskell’s philosophy. In his book Crosland built on the ideas of Keynes and Beveridge and stated that the Labour party should exist for the pursuit of equality, preservation of personal freedom and representative democracy. Most crucially he argued that nationalisation should no longer be the key goal of a modern social democratic state.

Of course all this was anathema to Aneurin Bevan and his left wing followers and so there followed bitter struggles. As a teenager, brought up in a predominantly mining environment these struggles were well rehearsed in the communities where I lived.  Indeed I recall going to hear Bevan speak in vast market hall in Carmarthen – I would have been no more than14 years old. Apparently there were some 4,000 there and I remember to this day the heckling and shouting that went on as he was speaking and also the crowds’ roars of laughter as invariably Bevan got the better of the hecklers with his oratory and wit.

Labour lost the 1959 General Election and Gaitskell at a two-day conference that followed the defeat proposed that Clause Four of the Party’s constitution should be done away with and consequently the Labour Party would abandon its commitment to public ownership. There was fierce opposition from the left and indeed even some moderate trade union leaders gave it a cool reception. So the proposal was quietly dropped in the interest of party unity and compromise. It’s worth noting that it took the party over 30 years to drop Clause 4 when Blair became leader and he also proceeded to change the party’s name to ‘New Labour’ (SDP Mk2)!

The left were buoyed by Gaitskell’s retreat and at the 1960 Scarborough Conference the party’s defence policy of multinational nuclear disarmament was replaced in favour of unilateralism. Although Gaitskell indicated that neither he nor the Parliamentary Party (PLP)  would feel bound by this decision and angrily displayed his defiance during his Leader’s speech to ‘fight and fight and fight again to save the party I love’.

So the first open schism emerged then and the social democrats agreed a manifesto and formally launched in November 1960 ‘The Campaign for Democratic Socialism’. It is interesting for me to recall some of the names associated with that group as I became to know them so well in the 1970’s – Dick Taverne, Brian Walden, Denis Howell, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams who did not get too involved as she was Secretary of the Fabian Society at the time. The group achieved its aim – unilateralism was defeated at the 1961 party conference and a number of these social democrats were selected as parliamentary candidates by 1963.

The pendulum swung back by 1963 and the social democrats were in full control of all major organisations of the party – PLP, National Executive (NEC) and the Conference. So believing that their victory would be permanent the ‘Campaign’ movement as an organisation was disbanded.  

That January Gaitskell died and there followed a leadership contest between the social democrat George Brown and the more left wing candidate Harold Wilson who was one of Bevan’s disciples in the 1950’s.  Wilson won for a variety of reasons that I won’t dwell on here. .

Labour won the 1964 and 1966 General elections through the sheer campaigning genius, oratorical skills and the relaxed and clever television appearances of Wilson. His government were typical of the man himself – non-ideological and pragmatic. Also his cabinet was dominated by social democratic heavyweights such as Jenkins, Crosland, Healey, Brown and Callaghan.

Because of his pragmatism, compromise and fudge style of leadership Harold Wilson succeeded in alienating the left and the right alike and this led to bitter in-fighting and feuding that carried on well into the 1970’s. Ironically his two governments also marked the decline of the social democratic influence inside the party.

The second Wilson administration 1966 -70 saw the left wing of the party gathering much more influence and strength, the new members joining the party were more socialist in their beliefs and they were supported a newer and more left wing group of trade union leaders. Hence increasingly there were conference resolutions more critical of the Labour Government.

However following the 1966 General Election young and very able new social democrats arrived in the Commons – David Marquand, John Mackintosh and David Owen – and in 1967 the three published a pamphlet ‘Change Gear’ that interestingly included establishing elected assemblies for Scotland, Wales and the English Regions. Of course they did not get far with their social democratic ideas and they were dismissed out of hand.

This was also the time that I became really aware of what was going on. Before what was taking place had been nothing more than of general and academic interest to me even though I had been a party member since about 1960.  In 1967 I became candidate in Carmarthen then later in early 1969, at the request of Jim Callaghan, I found myself the Research and Public Relations Officer for the party in Wales in 1969 and then MP in June 1970. So the events of that period are very well known to me as I was closely involved in quite a number of them.

I entered Parliament as a sort of Lib/Lab type politician with clear views on many aspects relating to Wales particularly the Welsh language, devolution of power and party democracy. But I soon realised that the Labour Party I believed in was not the party that was represented in Parliament. In fact it didn.t take me long to believe that I was probably ‘in the wrong party’. But more about all this when a book on my life and times will emerge later this year!

My recollection is of a PLP that was perpetually divided on the questions of Europe, defence, public ownership, role of the trade unions and economic policy. Then in addition to that list the Welsh Labour group of MPs were divided not only on those issues but also the Welsh language and devolution. At the time the Welsh MPs who were social democrats included Cledwyn Hughes, Ifor Davies, Wil Edwards, Tom Ellis, Ednyfed Hudson Davies, Jeffrey Thomas and myself.

Within the PLP the social democrats were divided mainly into two groups of MPs – the Roy Jenkins group some 60 strong often referred to as the ‘Jenkinsites’ and the Anthony Crosland group of some 20 MPs. The latter grouping was more accommodating towards the Wilson leadership and the general leftward slant of the party at the time.

What caused a more serious chasm than hitherto and one which led ultimately to a complete fissure was the Labour party row over whether or not Britain should join the European Common Market (EEC). Wilson’s was ambivalent on the issue working hard to keep the party united . On the one hand he had a deputy leader in Jenkins who was pro Europe and a PLP that was seriously split but then the NEC, party conference and general membership in the country were opposed to Britain’s entry.

As far back as 1959 Roy Jenkins and others had set up a Labour Common Market Committee which became in the mid 60’s the Labour Committee for Europe. So Europe had been for a long time a matter of principle just as much as the struggle over nuclear disarmament was in 1960. Throughout the months of long debates in Parliament in 1971 over whether Britain should join the EEC the ‘Jenkinsites’ – 69 of them - voted with the Conservative Government. In fact they operated as a party within a party with Bill Rodgers acting as unofficial whip to the group.

Sometimes I voted with them but at other times not, particularly on the issue of whether the party should declare itself in favour of a referendum on EEC membership. To me that seemed not a fudge or a compromise position to take but the correct policy so I parted company with Jenkins on that issue and some others as well most notably the likely impact (as it was perceived at the time ) joining the EEC would have on Wales in terms of industrial and economic development. In April 1971 Jenkins resigned as deputy leader on the issue that the next Labour Government should hold a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EEC. Nevertheless from 1972 onwards I became ever closer to Jenkins and the social democratic wing of the party for a number of reasons that would take too much space to explain.

Increasingly over that period the pro- EEC group of MPs were effectively becoming disengaged from the party and the atmosphere within the PLP was not good or a happy one. So by 1974 Europe had become to many of them more important than remaining members of the Labour Party. Indeed many Labour MPs had difficulties with their local parties over their pro-EEC views throughout the period and none more so than Dick Taverne.

There was a history of disagreements between Taverne and his local party going back a few years and eventually in 1972 his constituency party in Lincoln voted that he should stand down at the next election. He appealed to the NEC and his appeal was turned down so Dick resigned his seat which resulted in a by-election. I recall the events very well and to be honest social democrat MPs did not take kindly to what he had done. He on the other was pushing for a breakaway party and that Jenkins should lead this breakaway. I recall Roy telling me that Dick had been pushing that line since November 1971 but felt the time was far from being ready for such an outcome.

At the by-election March 1 1973 Dick stood as a Democratic Labour candidate and won with a massive 13,000 majority. Later in October that year he launched a national Campaign for Social Democracy with the intention of fighting elections across the country but before much else could happen to his plan Heath called an early General Election in February 1974 at the time of the miners’ strike and the three day working, power cuts and so on. His motive was clear and his belief was that the electorate would back him.

However it was not to be and to everyone’s surprise Heath narrowly lost the election. He did try and hang on to power by trying to persuade the Liberal to come into coalition after a few days of internal rows within the Liberal Party the venture failed. So Harold Wilson was Prime Minister again for the third time and Labour was back in Government.

So the referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EEC was once again back on the political agenda and a very serious storm if not a hurricane was soon going to be on the way. By now I was Roy Jenkins’s Parliamentary Secretary and a Member of the Council of Europe and I realised that inside the Labour Party in Wales I was very much a ‘marked man’ – there wasn’t going to be much of a future for me in the party after that! 

I had only managed to hang on to my Carmarthen seat by 3 votes – one of the most historical elections in Welsh political history so I firmly was of the opinion that the leftward lurch was damaging to the party. It was also a time when Tony Benn was upping the stakes and beginning to call the tune and dictate matters through the NEC. So much so that I released a press statement that included the sentence:

‘The captain of the ship (Wilson) in the middle of a storm does not attend a meeting called by the first mate (Benn)’

I was interviewed by Robert Kee on the ITN lunchtime news and when I returned to the central lobby of the Commons there was Wilson’s PPS waiting for me seeking an assurance that I was not ‘having a go at Harold’! 
My next intervention was possibly the one that sealed my fate when on June 27 1974 in a letter to the Executive of the Carmarthen Constituency Labour Party I warned the members of what was happening to the Labour Party

cannot any longer conceal my acute concern about some developments in the Labour Party which will in my view not enhance the prospects of the party and will also affect the longer term unity of the Labour movement …….I happen to believe strongly in the principles of Social Democracy …..Some doctrines which are propagated on the extreme left of the Labour Party are neither cherished nor supported by the majority of those who vote Labour’

Those same sentiments I also voiced to a crowded meeting of the PLP.

A month later Roy Jenkins delivered a speech in Haverfordwest on July 26 and one that both of us and Mathew Oakshott who travelled with us from London knew would cause a major furore within the party. Roy himself recounts in his memoirs ‘A Life at the Centre’ that the speech was:

‘one of the most explicit and critical speeches that I had ever made about the Labour Party’s drift to the left’

It received extensive press coverage and on reading the papers he said it was with ‘a mixture of excitement and trepidation’. I also spoke at this meeting where there must have been 600 present and it was like a rally and a call to action. Again Roy recounts that after the speech ‘I had a lot of letters… more than at any other than when I resigned the deputy leadership’

After that meeting both of us knew that, as we had discussed several times before, it was ultimately going to lead to only one conclusion. Then Christopher Mayhew joined the Liberals.

Part 2 to follow
The EEC Referendum and beyond.