The very model of a modern social democrat

Considering Labour's recent initiatives, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the SDP breakaway never happened.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The biggest surprise about Tony Blair's decision to answer happily to the term "modern social democrat" is that it should be a surprise at all. The anonymous Labour frontbencher who fulminated to the Sunday Times at the weekend that Blair's remark was a rash and retrospective endorsement of what he called the SDP "traitors" who broke away from the Labour Party in 1981, is missing something important.

Let's not dwell on the pleasing but now irrelevant irony that the term has an impeccably Marxist pedigree, that it was used approvingly by Rosa Luxemburg, or that the Social Democratic Federation was one of the founding factions of the British Communist Party. No: what the Blair critic is missing is the point that all the goals which the Gang of Four decided they couldn't achieve within the Labour Party of the early 1980s, have now been realised - the reversal of unilateralism, the acceptance of the EU, (both by Kinnock) the return of the party to its members (by Kinnock, Smith and Blair), and an embracing of the private sector (most spectacularly by Tony Blair, through the replacement of Clause IV).

You can argue endlessly about whether they were right to break away, but you can't argue that the SDP breakaway would have happened if Labour was what it is today. Every promiment member of the Labour Party has signed up to a party which is now fit, at least in terms of its policies, for an ex-SDP member to live in if he or she chooses. The official line from the Blair office is that this is a trifling argument about terminology and that Blair has always made it clear he is equally happy being called a social democrat or a democratic socialist, the term publicly preferred by John Prescott.

But that does Blair's choice of the term less than justice. "Democratic Socialist" has a cold war origin: it was a term that post-war Labour politicians, from Herbert Morrison on, used to differentiate themselves from East European communists. It was reinvented in the 1980s by Labour politicians precisely to differentiate themselves from the SDP. Both the circumstances which gave rise to the use of the term have now dissolved. Which John Prescott, a politician with a keen sense of Labour history, is certainly intelligent enough to know. Since Tony Blair came into office, there is no substantive change in party policy in which John Prescott hasn't played a part. And in that sense, however reluctant he is to do so, he could justifiably paraphrase Lord Harcourt and say: "We are all social democrats now."

As often, therefore, the spat is about something else. First, Mr Prescott is restive; there are real and unresolved tensions between the leader's office and his deputy's, involving Prescott's status in the hierarchy and the amount of information to which he has access. Secondly, and more importantly, there is continuing unease within the Parliamentary party, from sections of the Shadow Cabinet down, about whether, in the drive for middle class votes, the party is in danger of neglecting its core supporters. The degree of personal sympathy between Robin Cook and Mr Prescott has been greatly exaggerated; but expect a pointed and carefully crafted speech from Mr Cook before too long, reaffirming Labour as the party to offer hope to the urban poor. This is a real enough worry, and Blair will have to address it at the party conference next month. He won't of, of course, resile from modernisation, as he made amply clear at the weekend. But it is a fair bet that he will go out of his way to remind the conference that however modest-seeming the five pledges it will endorse in Blackpool may be - from a better NHS to youth jobs - the impact will be felt most keenly by some of the least privileged. To take just one example, law and order isn't the most fashionable issue among the Labour intelligentsia; but it's precisely in the poorer and least protected council estates that it is most unchecked.

Finally, he can draw on Labour tradition to demonstrate that social democracy has its roots deep in Party history. You don't, for example, have to look further than the pre-war South Wales miners, who furnished themselves with mutual welfare and libraries, to realise that self-reliance and supportive communities don't necessarily rely solely on the state.

It's true that the term "modern social democrat" consciously rejects not only state socialism but also the tax-and-spend philosophy of Tony Crosland. But it also carries the inherent message that the market cannot, alone and unfettered, answer the people's needs. It expresses, for all its connotations in the factional history of the party, the real distinction between neo-thatcherism and its only seriously viable alternative.

It still seems hardly decent to say so, but on the day of John Smith's death I was discussing the possible succession with two Labour MPs, one a member of the left wing Campaign Group, who declared himself for Tony Blair. But, said his astonished colleague, Blair's a social democrat. "Well," said the Campaign Group member: "social democracy is a great deal better than what the country's had for the last 16 years." Exactly. That analysis, rather maturer than the one on offer from Blair's anonymous front bench critic at the weekend, makes two important points. First, for all the huffing and puffing Tony Blair hasn't told us anything wedidn't know already.

But secondly, Blair isn't just distinguishing new Labour from some of its quite recent past: he is also drawing the real, rather than the imagined, dividing line between Labour and the Tories.