The centre sags

It is nearly two years since the Social Democratic Party was founded amid the glare of media publicity and rhetorical heights about “mould-breaking” and “new departures”. After the heady success of its early by-election victories, the SDP has now come down to earth. Membership is ten thousand down from its peak of seventy-five thousand, and still falling, and its electoral popularity is also in decline.

One thing that has changed little in eighteen months, though, is the difficulty of discovering precisely what the SDP stand for, apart from such helpful slogans as “newness” and “niceness”. Fortunately, some of the SDP’s Gang of Four fancy themselves as theoreticians, and David Owen’s Face the Future and Shirley Williams’ Politics Is For People give us some clues.

Owen’s book (and. to a lesser extent, Williams’) may be taken as having two main themes: the merits of decentralisation and of continuity in government economic policy. Both the Labour and Conservative parties are viewed as deeply centralist. Labour by virtue of their commitment to nationalisation and an active interfering state, and the Tories by dint of their preference for large-scale administrative bodies (such as Area Health Authorities, founded in 1974) and their antagonism towards local-government autonomy. The growth in the powers of government, of bureaucracy, of big business and even of large trade unions illustrates the increased centralisation that has taken place over the last few decades. The result is not just a lack of democracy but also of innovation, as large institutions of any kind are more concerned with maintaining the status quo than with seeking and developing new ideas. Thus centralisation is claimed to be one factor responsible for Britain’s economic decline.

The SDP alternative is to argue for greater decentralisation of both government and economy. The powers of local government will be increased, and those of central government correspondingly reduced. There will be a decentralised incomes policy (though the mechanics of this are not spelt out in detail) and “industrial democracy”, which seems to mean a few workers being placed on the board of directors. Williams advocates an increase in the number of small firms, which she argues will help to create jobs, promote innovation and (mysteriously) mitigate inflation. On the other hand, the SDP are fervent supporters of British membership of NATO and the EEC, so their opposition to large conglomerates is not always applied consistently.

Issues such as the balance of power between national and local government are concerned with the most efficient (from the capitalist point of view) way of administration. Owen may be right to claim that a shift of power to the local level will increase efficiency, but it is quite wrong to imply that this makes a scrap of difference to the essential characteristics of capitalism or to the working class. At whatever level, government exists to defend the interests of the ruling class. Decentralised governmental power can be just as brutal and oppressive as the centralised variety; witness the police force.

Increased centralisation, however, is seen by the SDP as only part of the cause of Britain’s malaise. The other is the fact that the electoral system ensures fairly frequent changes of government and. because of the policies of the two largest parties, correspondingly frequent changes of economic course, with the incoming government undoing the innovations of its predecessor. This continual shifting is viewed as especially pernicious in the area between state and private ownership: the cycle of nationalisation, denationalisation and nationalisation is wasteful and inhibits long-term planning.

The SDP propose that greater continuity and coherence in government economic policy would bring a spurt in economic growth, together with all the benefits of forward planning. But the SDP takes continuity to mean acceptance of a “mixed economy”, with the balance between state and private ownership roughly what it is today. Tampering with the present mix by means of either nationalisation or privatisation would mean rocking the boat which would otherwise be set on course for prosperity. In Owen’s words:

There will be an open acceptance of the need for profits, to allow for wealth creation in a person’s lifetime, to encourage investment and risk-taking and a realisation that our country’s prosperity depends on our ability to sell in the markets of the world at a price, design and delivery time that is competitive. Social Democrats, in genuinely championing the mixed economy, must ensure that the mix will become a partnership between the public and the private sectors, devoid of the obsessive dogma of privatisation or nationalisation and the oscillation of policy that has meant uncertainty and discontinuity for many of our basic industries.

The problem is, given the possibility of democratic electoral change, how to ensure continuity? It is here that proportional representation (PR) enters the picture. The SDP-Liberal hope is that, once elected to government, they will introduce PR — which would mean that they will remain in power for ever. Though this may vary according to the exact method of representation chosen, PR tends to produce coalitions, and a “centrist” grouping, even if not the largest party, stands a good chance of being a member of any coalition. In such circumstances, with no one party ever having an overall majority in Parliament, there would be a good chance of economic policy being essentially continuous rather than continually shifting. Thus PR is an important means of achieving continuity of government policy, as well as a way of keeping the SDP in power

However, changes in government policy are due not so much to the ideas and dogmas of political leaders as to the dictates of the essentially uncontrollable capitalist economy. The wholesale nationalisation carried out by the 1945-51 Labour government, for example, was because the industries concerned were crucial to British capitalism. The Conservatives have taken enterprises into state ownership in their time. From the worker’s point of view, being employed and exploited by private or state capitalists makes no difference whatever.

A recurring theme in SDP literature is the resemblance between themselves and the Social Democratic Party in Germany, the SPD. In 1959, the British Labour Party lost its third general election in succession, and there began an attempt to alter some of its policies; Roy Jenkins attacked the party’s commitment to nationalisation, and Hugh Gaitskell tried to alter Clause Four of the party’s constitution. These attempts were unsuccessful, and Labour remained wedded (on paper, anyway) to a programme of increased state ownership. In the same year, the SPD transformed itself into a “modern” party, claiming to appeal to the whole nation rather than just industrial workers.

But recent events in West Germany make this parallel somewhat embarrassing for the SDP. In spite of years of “centrist” government by the SPD in coalition with the Free Democrats (Liberals), the German economy has not escaped the worldwide crisis; unemployment and inflation are both rising. The Free Democrats have deserted the SPD in favour of coalition with the Christian Democratic Union.

The quotation from Face the Future continues as follows:

It is a sad commentary on post-war Britain that this combination of policies has never been unequivocally on offer to the British electorate.

But whatever the proportions of the mixture, the ingredients themselves are the familiar ones of unemployment, profits and markets, with their equally familiar effects of unemployment, poverty and exploitation. The SDP have precisely nothing new to offer, and nothing at all to offer to the working class.

Paul Bennett