We lost, but Son of SDP will win

Splattered with each other's blood, the comrades scattered. But a legacy remains: Tony Blair
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The Independent Online
David Sainsbury, chairman of the grocery chain and philanthropist, has announced that he will be voting Labour at the next election. This is the man who was the SDP's modest and retiring eminence grise during the Eighties, a close supporter of David Owen and the biggest financial backer of the party.

Like thousands of others, I left the Labour Party and joined the SDP the day it was founded in 1981. With Thatcher in the trough of depression and Foot at the height of irresponsible unelectability, most of the country felt disenfranchised by this Scylla and Charybdis of a choice. Even larger battalions joined the new SDP with no previous party affiliation, the "political virgins". But virginity didn't last long: steel-capped Doc Martens kicked in right from the start over the party constitution: Owenites wanted one man, one vote to elect the leader, Jenkinsites wanted the leader selected only by MPs. Owenites wanted quotas for women on selection shortlists, Jenkinsites largely resisted it.

By the time the party fell apart in bitter schism and I left in 1988, just about everyone was splattered with one another's blood, SDP vs Lib Dem mergerites, with that peculiarly ferocious hatred we reserve for those nearest. I forget exactly what I did now in one of the last fearful National Committee meetings to make Roy Jenkins turn purple in the face, point a finger at me and explode "Madame Defarges!"

Now, like many others, I look back with a mixture of regret for our failures, but pride in Tony Blair, our ultimate success. Many of us said at the time that if we didn't succeed, we would still win in the end by forcing the Labour Party to turn social democratic. Well, we did. Even in our failure we succeeded in changing the face of British politics. The shock of our coming within 2 per cent of Labour in the general election of 1983 started that sea change, from which waters Tony Blair emerges as a fully baptised social democrat.

So David Sainsbury agrees, but what of other old comrades? In the years since the split I have run into fragments of the dispossessed diaspora of the SDP, many now dropped out of politics, like myself unwilling ever to join a party again. I scan the faces at Lib Dem conference time but search almost in vain for ex-SDP faces, beyond one or two tokens on the platform. We are like a secret sect, sharing obscure memories of long- gone motions and old by-election glories. Remember the time we topped 50 per cent in the polls, after Shirley won the Crosby by-election? Suddenly there were cabals in corners discussing who would get what Cabinet job - oh, the infinite delusions!

As for Owen himself, he declares himself hors de combat, no longer in politics, no comment, except on international affairs. And he means it, more's the pity. I regret the loss of that thread of radicalism and daring.

So where are they all now? In the early days after the split, there was a quick scuttle to the Tories by some. How the Labour left chortled and said, wrongly, that it proved Owenites were secret Thatcherites all along - so little did they understand social democracy then. John Horam, ex-Labour, ex-SDP MP, has, astonishingly, become a Tory minister. One ex-young SDP is special adviser to Jeremy Hanley, another is special adviser to Virginia Bottomley, part of the clutch of young SDPs who hurtled into Downing Street for a photo opportunity joining the Tories in the middle of the 1992 election. Chief among these was Danny Finkelstein, head of the Social Market Foundation (SMF), founded by Owen and Sainsbury as a social democratic think tank, but partly hijacked by Robert Skidelsky, who also joined the Tories. Now Sainsbury is funding the Labour-leaning think tank IPPR, and the SMF is pedalling backwards fast, with fewer seminar invitations to Lilley and rather more to Blair.

But that was opportunistic history, bright young men looking for seats, jobs and power. Many more, and with no particular ambition, are now making the jump to Labour. Ex-MPs, Trustees, National Committee members, ex-members of my own old party in the seat I fought in Lewisham, most of these will be voting Labour if not joining. Various lords - Kennet, Chandos, Taylor among them - have already crossed the floor to the Labour benches. Typical of those I contacted was Edward Lyons QC, Labour then SDP MP for Bradford West, 1966-1983: "I shall not only vote Labour, but I intend to rejoin," he says. However, Rosie Barnes is still too full of venom against her local Greenwich Labour party to vote Labour next time.

One of Owen's economic advisers, Derek Scott, is now economic adviser to Tony Blair. Another is on the committee of his local Islington South Labour party. Remembering the looniness of Islington, much like the Lambeth Labour party I quit, how had he been welcomed back? He says there was a bit of aggro at first and he had to eat a little humble pie, but apart from a few diehard lefties, everything's fine. "I am a social democrat, I have always been a social democrat, and I believe Tony Blair is one, too."

One reason local Labour parties may find old SDPs hard to swallow is our universal conviction that Tony Blair is our creation, there only by grace of our efforts, the sweat of our brow. That sticks in the throat of some old-stagers, who retort that all we did was to split the left and ensure Tory victories in the last four elections - Healey's reason for not joining us. (Ah, if only he and Ian Gilmour had dared, history might have been different!)

The leaders of the merger faction have, of course, stayed with the Lib Dems. However, a group of ex-SDP Lib Dems are considering returning to Labour, held back only by anxiety that undermining the Lib Dems will prevent them winning the seats Labour needs them to win to keep the Tories out. Bill Rodgers, Lib Dem home affairs spokesman in the Lords, is outspoken in his admiration for Tony Blair, who he says has gone even further in the right direction than we did. One senses a number of these ex-SDP Lib Dems feel uncomfortably stranded for historical reasons of their own making in a no-hope third party, when their natural Labour homeland is beckoning them back from exile.

So is Blair's party the SDP arisen from its grave? Yes and no. On the old tough and tender scale, Blair is too tough on law and order and liberal issues, less progressive, his tone on "family" and "community" nudging closer to Christian Democracy. Where is Roy Jenkins's "the permissive society is the civilised society"? On policy, some old social democrats say Blair isn't tough or brave enough, retreating rapidly on constitutional reform, failing to lay out a radical enough portfolio on which he would then have the mandate to act.

On the other hand, unlike us, this child of ours looks as if he is going to win.