I was 17 when the Labour party last split, in January 1981, and for a variety of reasons got quite caught up in the moment. It was partly because my father, the author of the 1945 Labour manifesto, was close to the Gang of Four — the original band of defectors — and was one of a hundred people named as supporters of the breakaway group in a full-page ad in the Guardian. But really I was just swept up by the general enthusiasm for the new party that seemed to affect vast swaths of the middle classes. If you recoiled from the economic policies of the Conservative government, which prioritised reducing inflation over full employment, but were equally querulous about the leftward shift of the Labour party, the SDP was an appealing alternative.
I never went as far as becoming a member — I wasn’t a joiner in those days — but was enough of a supporter to join my father on a trip to Warrington in Lancashire to campaign for Roy Jenkins in a by–election about six months later. Jenkins had resigned as a Labour MP in 1977 to become president of the European Commission and, along with Shirley Williams, was one of two members of the Gang of Four without a seat. On the way up in my father’s Vauxhall, he explained that Jenkins didn’t have much hope of winning — Labour had held the seat with a majority of more than 10,000 in 1979 — but the SDP’s leaders felt it was important to field a candidate if the party was going to be taken seriously as a political force.
I was nervous about knocking on strangers’ doors, particularly with my eccentric father beside me. He looked like a left-wing intellectual straight out of a J.B. Priestley play: corduroy jacket, knitted tie, horn-rimmed spectacles. He was naturally rather shy — he had a stiff, awkward way of standing, with his hands clasped too tightly behind his back — and this impression was accentuated by a slight stutter. I, by contrast, was a fully fledged New Romantic, with floppy hair, harlequin trousers and a puffy shirt. What would the good burghers of Warrington make of this odd couple? The fact that our candidate was a lisping, worldly bon vivant — Jenkins was famously fond of clawet and enthused about the gweat vawiety of westaurants in Bwussels — probably wouldn’t help. (To read more, click here.)