Lessons from the SDP for the potential of a Labour split

SDP_LogoWith all the talk at the moment of a potential Labour split, I thought it might be useful to take a look back at the history of the last major split in the party by reading Crewe and King’s history of the SDP, specifically the early sections on the formation of the party. I#m not going to recount the full history, but I think there were two interesting points in the SDP’s formation that tend to get overlooked in discussion of any potential current split.

First of all, the crisis that led to the foundation of the SDP had been brewing for a long time. Labour’s divisions over Europe had been around for a long time, and the rebellion by Jenkins and others over British membership of the EEC had taken place almost a decade before. On the left of the party, Tony Benn and others had been busy organising and developing the ‘Bennite’ movement for over a decade. There’d been a gradual process of alienation that had made the right-wingers who’d eventually form the SDP consider their position in the Labour Party over a long period of time. The conclusions people came to were after years of tough struggles against the left in local parties, trade unions and the NEC. People had a much longer time to feel they were no longer welcome in the Labour Party and might do better elsewhere.

As an example, Roy Jenkins’ Dimbleby Lecture that was later seen as paving the way for the SDP was delivered in November 1979, while the Limehouse Declaration that established the party wasn’t until fourteen months later in January 1981. There was a long process both of preparing the ground for a new party and people deciding they needed to leave Labour. Then as now, the act of getting someone to defect from a party was a major task, as it’s a major shift in their life and relationships that requires time to achieve the psychological change needed to do it.

The second key point is that this long period building up to a split had led to the creation of various formal and informal groups that would provide the foundations of the SDP. These groups – the Manifesto Group, the Campaign for Labour Victory etc – weren’t founded with the intention of creating a new party but helped provide networks for those dissatisfied with the direction of the Labour Party. Again, this was a process that took place over time and in a number of different groupings – it’s worth noting that the original ‘Gang Of Three’ (Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers) were meeting and planning quite separately from Roy Jenkins and his supporters. Different groups coalesced over time, and the idea of a split emerged over time, it wasn’t a simple process of everyone deciding one day to do it.

The important lessons to learn for today are that any party split is going to be the end of a long process, not something that happens smoothly and quickly. (And as I’ve discussed before, there have been many many more times when people have said a party will definitely split than actual splits) The changes in the Labour Party have happened at an incredibly fast pace – the SDP came after a decade or more of Benn attempting to achieve what Corbyn’s done in less than a year. The gap between Jenkins’ Dimbleby Lecture and the foundation of the SDP is about the same as the gap between the last general election and today.

We’re still at a stage where most of the people who might split see their future as trying to win back the Labour Party, and aren’t close to breaking off all the ties they have with it. Maybe there will be a split in the future, but the lesson from the founding of the SDP is that it will take time to get them to that position, it’s not something that’s going to happen quickly.