Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Caught beneath the landslide: Lessons from the 1983 general election

May 8, 2013: It was 30 years ago today that the British general election campaign got under way, the one that produced a landslide for the governing Conservatives, a rout for the Labour Party, and a serious reduction in the ranks of the party that I supported back then: the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Although Britain's political terrain has changed dramatically since 1983, that year's election has a few valuable lessons, some of which apply to the United States. 
Card-carrying member

Lesson 1: Leveraging Small Numbers
At the start of the 1983 campaign the parliamentary SDP consisted of 27 members. When the House of Commons reassembled after the election, the number had fallen to just six. Losing three-quarters of our MPs did not diminish the enthusiasm of ordinary SDP members in the country. Even with a parliamentary presence so small it could caucus in the back of a black cab, the Social Democrats in the House of Commons managed to project an image of the SDP as an effective political force with more competence and box-office appeal -- though fewer MPs -- than their Liberal allies.

David Owen, who became leader after the general election, used Parliament as a device for amplifying the party's voice. Although the Conservative landslide meant the SDP and Liberals had negligible influence inside the Commons, Owen's parliamentary performances and TV interviews made the SDP seem not only relevant but also sometimes more effective at opposing the government than the Labour Party, which enjoyed the title of Her Majesty's Official Opposition. Without a foothold in Parliament -- and with only six MPs it really was no more than a foothold -- this  would have been impossible. 

Owen also exploited the SDP's minuscule number of seats by relentlessly presenting it as Exhibit 1 in the case for a referendum on proportional representation. After all, a proportional system would have awarded seats to the Liberals and Social Democrats roughly corresponding to their share of the national vote, i.e. about 23%, instead of the 4% they ended up with. Perversely, therefore, the 1983 election instilled even greater enthusiasm among some members in that it generated a sense of outrage (or its SDP equivalent) about the first-past-the-post electoral system. 

Lesson 2: Room for one more
That grievance, that feeling of having been cheated, smoldered. Two years after the election SDP members gathered in Torquay for the party's annual conference, where a group of loyal young Social Democrats, myself included, posed for a photo-op with party leader David Owen to launch the SDP's youth campaign (below). Have You Got the Guts, asked the campaign's rhetorical question. My question was "Can I keep the sweatshirt?" to which the answer was an awkward and apologetic "No."
We had the guts. But not enough sweatshirts.

Another valid question would have been why the organizers chose to call the campaign, of all things, the Youth Blitz. Distributing fliers next to a large sign announcing the Youth Blitz in my native Swansea, whose downtown the Luftwaffe had so comprehensively and unforgivingly redesigned, I met with some frosty stares, particularly from older passers-by.

Clunky slogans aside, what mattered was that the party had at least survived. In hindsight, more surprising than the party's failure to win a larger number of seats was its ability to retain any at all. What the SDP's experience in the 1983 election proved was that British politics could comfortably accommodate four national parties: Conservatives, Labour, Liberals, and Social Democrats. Of course, after the 1987 election when the SDP managed to hold on to five seats despite Labour's long march back toward the center ground, several leading Social Democrats claimed the exact opposite and successfully worked for a merger with the Liberals.

3. Minor Party Magnetism
The SDP's performance in the 1983 general election helped pull the Labour Party away from left-wing extremism back toward the center. When the SDP formed in 1981 it was as a response to Labour's sudden lurch to the left: its commitment to nationalize the major industries and banks, to unilaterally surrender Britain's nuclear deterrent, and to withdraw from the European Community (as the EU was then known). By the time Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1995, the party had already thrown those policies overboard. The party Blair inherited had transformed itself, in large part because of the SDP, which exerted a kind of magnetic force that drew Labour toward it.  

In alliance with the Liberals, the SDP gave alienated Labour voters a powerful way to express their rejection of Labour's dogmatic socialism. In 1983, Labour polled only two percentage points more than the SDP/Liberal Alliance. Following the election, Labour's new leader, Neil Kinnock, realized that his party's only hope of regaining power was to win back those voters who had fled to the SDP, and that the only way to win them back was to re-morph into a genuinely social democratic party. This effort, which Kinnock's adherents called modernization, continued under John Smith, albeit at a slower pace, and sped up again under Blair, whose coterie dubbed the project New Labour.

Without the willingness of social democrats to defect from Labour to form the SDP and then fight against Labour in the 1983 general election, it seems unlikely that Labour would have detoxified itself so thoroughly and (by the standards of British electoral politics) so quickly. By breaking away and continuing the fight outside the Labour Party, the Social Democrats strengthened the hand of those inside Labour who wanted to return the party to its more traditional, centrist, catch-all position.

From alliance to merger
The SDP's policies (e.g. incomes policies and industrial partnership) are now out of date, reminders of the Cold War and the ideological argument over free markets versus the planned economy. But the party's enduring lesson is that fourth parties can have an influence out of proportion to their size. So sometimes, even within the constraints of the plurality voting system, it is worthwhile breaking away if your goal is to force one of the two large parties to change. Progressive Democrats and libertarian Republicans should take note.

Those who pressed for the SDP to merge with the Liberals argued that British politics had room for no more than three national parties. Ironically, they included some who had helped found the SDP in the first place when they could, instead, have simply joined the existing third party, the Liberals. Even more ironically, almost as soon as their argument prevailed and the SDP vanished into a merger, another force emerged as a strong fourth party: the Greens. 

In the 1989 European Parliament elections, with the Liberal-SDP merger feud still going strong, the Greens won 15% of the votes. At that stage, a rump party of anti-merger Social Democrats under Owen's leadership was still clinging to life. But when their party came last in a by-election (special election) behind a joke candidate, Owen and his allies opted for swift dissolution rather than protracted humiliation. They thought that with fewer than 20,000 dues-paying members the SDP could no longer hold itself out as a viable national party. If the Internet age had already dawned in 1990, their decision might well have been different.

Perhaps, then, the final lesson from the 1983 election and, more generally, from the short life of the SDP, is this: even in the hostile conditions that plurality voting systems create, small parties can survive, sometimes even long enough to effect lasting change.