Stephen Meredith writes that while the SDP was marked by ideological inconsistencies, the role of ideas in its formation should not be overlooked. He explains how the wider political fragmentation of the Labour ‘right’ in the late 1970s led to the fracture of the party and the rupture of British social democracy.

Former Labour MP and academic, David Marquand, famously wrote in an Encounter article of July 1979 that to ‘pretend, in this situation, that socialists and social democrats are all part of the same great Movement – that Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers and Roy Hattersley really have more in common with Tony Benn and Eric Heffer and Stanley Orme than they do with Peter Walker or Ian Gilmour or Edward Heath – is to live a lie. But it is a lie which the Labour Party has to live if it is to live at all’. His post-revisionist objective to renew ‘traditional welfare-state social democracy’ in favour of a ‘new-model, libertarian, decentralist’ and overtly pro-European version was unlikely to be achieved within the formal strictures of the Labour Party. It was likely to alienate traditional social democrats and ‘old Right’ as much as the left.

Then as now, in response to issues of national concern and debate, arguments abounded over the durability and constraints of Labour’s tribal party politics and the viability of centrist alternatives. The creation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981 was one such endeavour. With recurring echoes to current dilemmas and underwhelming developments of centrist realignment, various accounts of the SDP’s origins (and likely future success) emphasise the ideological incoherence of its formation and founders and discrete reasons for departure of its political recruits.

Arguably, it was more than personal loyalty or nature of individual relationships to the Labour Party which informed the decision of defectors. As Marquand acknowledged in 1979, those liberal social democrats committed to a ‘new model’ social democratic philosophy and programme of the type espoused by Marquand and John Mackintosh were unconvinced they would find a home or support for it within current party structures. Divisions of erstwhile revisionist social democracy, as well as the hostility of the left, convinced them that an alternative vehicle of modernised social democracy was required.

Divisions over a range of critical policy issues, reflected in latent distinctions of political philosophy, in the 1970s revealed essential tensions of post-war revisionist social democracy. Emerging variations of social democratic thought privileged either collective, comprehensive and egalitarian or pluralistic, decentralist and libertarian priorities. The latter signalled a radical departure from ‘old-style Croslandism’. Prior to his untimely death in 1978, John Mackintosh provided a synthesis of post-revisionist theory, centred around acute anti-leftist, anti-labourist and anti-corporatist positions.

Mackintosh believed that Crosland’s influential earlier revisionist rejection of nationalisation had not gone far enough. It was unable to break sufficiently with the statist strategy of corporate socialism. Principles of democracy, participation and citizenship were compromised by corporate interests which ‘governed’ the country, including the trade unions. The assertive power and influence of the latter in the 1970s particularly acted as a major block on industrial modernisation and national economic development, as well a challenge to the rudiments of individual freedom. In this extended critique of the ‘corporate power of organised labour’, Mackintosh developed the anti-labourism and anti-collectivism implicit in revisionist thinking to a new level. Post-revisionist social democrats were cultivating both an intellectual perspective and political position increasingly remote from those of the Labour Party and traditional social democracy.

Evolving dimensions and differences of social democratic political philosophy in the 1970s were expressed in a series of critical political and policy divisions – of political economy and fiscal policy, industrial relations and trade union reform and commitment to the European project, as well as organised pre-secessionist activity around the so-called ‘Jenkinsite’ group and its nominal leader, Roy Jenkins. Together they offer a neglected dimension of accounts of the ‘considerable defector-loyalist puzzle’ of the SDP.

A common position of pre-SDP ‘exit texts’, as expressed by David Owen and Bill Rodgers, argued that interpretations of socialism as ‘equality’ and as redistribution underplayed the ‘predisposition for liberty’ of any ‘thinking democrat’. A relentless pursuit of socialist equality through distribution alone could be used as ‘justification for abandoning liberty’. Contrary to Roy Hattersley’s judgement of punitive IMF terms in 1976, that ‘socialism is about equality and we cannot have greater equality if we cut public spending’, it reflected an unfashionable post-Croslandite position in the Labour Party; just as public ownership was not socialism, a new preoccupation with public expenditure was not socialism either.

Together with the developing critique of ‘oppressive’ elements of trade union collectivism and authority, ‘Jenkinsite’ theorists were increasingly critical of the perspective that high levels of taxation and public expenditure were by themselves virtuous. Public spending should be dependent on economic growth and rising living standards, and increasingly should reflect ‘value for money’. In the context of a receding economy, scant attention was being paid to wider issues of individual liberty, more freedom from the state and individual control of personal lives, including lower personal taxation and opportunities to participate in decisions governing their lives. The broad thrust of their argument was that Labour should and couldn’t recognise that individuals now placed personal freedoms and consumption ahead of the collective pursuit of equality. Intellectually and politically, the analysis lacked any real sense of commitment to Crosland’s prior egalitarian vision of Labour’s future.

The ideational variation of Labour’s post-war revisionism has, understandably, often been underplayed, concealed as it was within the loosely cohesive framework of Keynesian (and Croslandite) social democracy. As this framework crumbled in the 1970s, giving rise to a new set of political and policy concerns, including Common Market membership, the complexion of industrial relations, emerging weaknesses of social democratic political economy and new radical realignment of trade unions and Labour left, its compound intellectual and political character was exposed.

Accounting for the need to consider the interaction between core ideological positions and political and institutional context, an emerging post-revisionist liberal strand found itself intellectually and politically remote from the new wider party machine and the prerequisites of traditional social democracy. While the formation of the SDP remained a minority endeavour with its own ideological inconsistencies, the role of ideas in political developments should not be overlooked. The incipient intellectual and political schism of revisionist social democracy in the 1970s and evolving liberal philosophy of a small but organised pre-secession grouping have frequently been minimised in accounts of realignment which emphasise institutional and personal narratives of departure.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Parliamentary History (DOI: 10.1111/1750-0206.12446)

About the Author

Stephen Meredith teaches politics and contemporary history in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Central Lancashire.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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