1980s >> 1987 >> no-996-august-1987

Problems of partnership

Almost all successful politicians are, to some extent, opportunists. Some may seek to maintain a core of non-negotiable principles — a bottom line which they will not compromise in the interests of short term political gain — but that still leaves considerable room for opportunism. Many more change their “principles” in accordance with their assessment of which way the political wind is blowing.

The current breaking of the Alliance mould illustrates precisely this. It was opportunism that persuaded the SDP and Liberals of the necessity for, first, local electoral agreements so that their respective candidates did not compete against each other, and later for joint policy statements and parliamentary spokespersons. Clearly, until the general election, both parties saw partnership as their best chance for making an impact and achieving electoral success.

Now, in the wake of the failure of this strategy to bring the desired result — a share in political power — new tactical calculations have had to be made. The split between those who favour merger of the two parties and those who oppose it is not, in the main, about disagreements over principle but about differing assessments of what will be in the best interests of the respective parties and of certain individuals within them. Not surprisingly it is those who have most to lose or gain by the adoption of the “wrong” strategy — the leadership — who have been the most impassioned contributors to the debate. Few of the Alliance leaders have emerged from the current row with much credit although it is perhaps David Owen who, more than anyone else, has been exposed as the arch political opportunist.

In the past Owen has cultivated an image as a man of principle standing aloof from the sordid business of political skulduggery. In reality any “principles” he may adhere to have consistently taken second place to consideration of his own political standing. Since leaving the Labour Party he has travelled at a considerable speed through the political “centre” so that he currently sounds as if he could quite easily be eligible for a place in Thatcher s cabinet (which illustrates also that the difference between the main political parties is not so great as political rhetoric would have us believe). It is little wonder then that Douglas Hurd felt moved to appeal to “constructive and forward-looking” SDP members to join the Conservatives.

Owen’s opposition to a merger with the Liberals is, he claims, because the SDP stands for something different from the Liberals. (We weren’t told that during the election campaign!) Instead of a merger he advocates a federal structure in which both parties would retain their own distinctive identities. But no doubt he also recognises that the SDP. which polled one million fewer votes than the Liberals and has fewer than a third as many MPs. would be overwhelmed in a new merged party and Owen himself would have a considerably weaker claim to be its leader.

However, Owen has this time clearly not seen which way the wind is blowing: it seems that a majority of SDP and Liberal members do want a merged party and Owen’s intransigent opposition to it will leave him out in the political wilderness, unless of course he decides to make a new bid for power from inside the Tory camp.

By contrast David Steel appears to be the less egocentric and power-hungry of the two Alliance leaders. But this image may also conceal a shrewd calculation of where his best interests lie. Steel has certainly read the mood of the grassroots of the two parties better than Owen — in many areas SDP and Liberal activists are already working to all intents and purposes as a single party; and the issue of the dual leadership does provide a plausible excuse for the poor showing of the Alliance at the.polls. But it may also be true that Steel, aware of the way in which the leadership role during the election campaign was hijacked by Owen, has decided to take a calculated risk to improve his own political standing by putting forward the merger option. After all it is highly likely that he knew that Owen would not agree to it and so by proposing a merger he would effectively be ousting Owen and leaving the way clear for himself to become the leader of the new party. If this was his thinking — and such cynical political manoeuvring is not without precedent — then he has demonstrated himself to be at least Owen’s equal in the opportunism stakes.

What are the implications of the Alliance’s angst for ordinary workers? Firstly it gives their campaigning rhetoric a hollow tone. After all this is the political outfit which, throughout the election campaign, extolled the virtues of “partnership”, “cooperation” and “consensus” as the universal panacea and held up their own organisation as a shining example of how society as a whole could be organised. And just as they denied the existence of conflict or division within their own ranks, so too they denied the existence of conflict or division — notably that of class — within society at large. Recent events have shown that their description of the relationship between their two parties was incomplete if not false. (Their description of social relationships has been equally misleading.) Now we are told that Owen doesn’t think much of the Liberals at all and never did; that they have been wrong on numerous policy issues including the Falklands war, the sale of council houses, social security changes and defence. In other words he has used the Liberals as a convenient partner in his attempt to achieve his own political ambitions.

Secondly, Owen, who put himself and his party forward as the defenders of democracy, the advocates of a fairer electoral system and who left the Labour Party in part because of what he regarded as a the anti-democratic tendencies of the extra-parliamentary left, is now revealed as a man who tried to rig the ballot on merger by posing what the Electoral Reform Society deemed was an unfairly loaded question, and who has stated that he will not accept the democratic decision of SDP members — unless the vote goes the way he wants it to.

Now that the election glitter has been stripped away the Alliance leadership has been left looking rather tawdry. It wasn’t after all a partnership of equals, rather a marriage of convenience between two leaders with conflicting egos and political ambitions. The lesson is clear: don’t trust leaders — they’re usually in it for their own selfish ends — and trust their rhetoric even less — it’s likely to conceal an extremely seedy reality.

Janie Percy-Smith