December 8, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Labour MPs leaving in 2019 – and 1981

4 min read
The departure of the Gang of Four from the Labour Party to form the SDP in 1981 was a big event unlike the exodus of MPs in 2019 such as Chuka Umunna
Labour SDP

History repeating…as Shirley Bassey might have sung. In 2019, Labour MPs stormed off to form a new party. It was initially called The Independent Group then Change UK then complete oblivion. A similar exodus happened in 1981 when Labour MPs left to form the Social Democratic Party or SDP for short.

Here was Chuka Umunna announcing his departure from the Labour Party in 2019.

SDP defects from Labour in 1981

His new party was destroyed in the 2019 general election and Chuka is now in the Liberal Democrats. Back in 1981, the SDP had a longer lifespan but then they were led by top ex-Labour politicians and the Labour Party was going through a period of massive upheaval after being in power for five years (1974 to 1979) and then losing a general election.

The SDP was formed by the so-called Gang of Four – a reference to a faction within the Chinese Communist Party, which also became the name of a post-punk band of the time.

These ex-Labour minister who now formed the SDP were Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers. Jenkins had been Home Secretary in the 1960s and presided over the end of the death penalty as well as the abolition of theatre censorship and the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality. Although he didn’t personally push those policies but they happened on his watch.

He was the epitome of a political grandee and disliked in many quarters for being such. That said, he looks like a giant compared to many of our current political intake. A lover of the high life who was the son of a coal miner. A well-regarded historian who was the only Briton to ever become President of the European Commission.

After the Labour Party was defeated by Margaret Thatcher and the Tories in 1979, the party went into some agonised soul searching. And there was a move leftwards with the perception that the party leadership had betrayed the rank-and-file and ‘sold out’ to the International Monetary Fund.

For those on the right of the Labour Party, the choice became quite binary: stick around and tough it out or form a new party. With support from the media and some wealthy backers, the Gang of Four left Labour and set up the SDP. Needless to say it was viewed as the ultimate act of betrayal by many in the party.

What were the policy issues that led the SDP to leave? Essentially, they supported the Common Market (forerunner to the European Union) whereas the Left wanted to leave this ‘capitalist club’. They were against unilateral nuclear disarmament whereas the Left wanted the nukes gone. And they were broadly in favour of restraints on public spending and fuzzy on the issue of privatisation and public spending – whereas the Left wanted further public ownership and no spending cuts.

The final breaking point was the Deputy Leadership bid by left-winger Tony Benn and his proposed reforms of the party constitution. This would have introduced a wider franchise for electing the party leader and the right to deselect sitting MPs. Viewing this as an attack on the right-wing of the party (which it was), the formerly Labour Gang of Four jumped to their new ship, the SDP.

From Gang of Four to The Independent Group

The Gang of Four formed the nucleus of a new political party, the Social Democrat Party (SDP). Twenty-eight Labour MPs and one Tory eventually defected and ran for re-election in 1983 under the SDP banner. Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams were no longer MPs in 1981 (Jenkins had gone off to become President of the European Commission) but won seats in 1983. The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberals and their vote came alarmingly close to Labour, who scored an all time low. Thatcher won a second term.

Today’s Independent Group veered away from forming a new party – probably with the SDP in mind, which went from hubris and electoral surge to eventual collapse into the Liberal Democrat party. But the Independent Group didn’t exist long enough to even experience that cycle of events.

Differences between today and the SDP/Labour split of 1981

Chuka Umunna and Co. left a Labour Party very much in the thrall of the Left under Jeremy Corbyn. But….if they’d waited around…or if they could have waited around long enough…then they might have been rehabilitated under Keir Starmer.

Back in 1981, Labour was still finely balanced between the Left and Right. In fact, Tony Benn’s Deputy Leadership bid failed and Dennis Healey – a right winger who chose to remain in the party – won.

The Left in 1981 was a much more ideological and driven beast than the more nebulous forces of Momentum and others today. They had a stronger determination to unseat MPs and were much more organised, almost in a Leninist manner.

There was also more media and financial backer support for the SDP in 1981 whereas the exodus in 2019 seems to have been regarded as almost a bit embarrassing. Anyway, come 2020 and the Labour leavers had been wiped out whereas back in 1981, the SDP retained a clutch of MPs for several years.

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