Although he ended up as a Liberal Democrat Lord, Roy Jenkins was for a time
at the heart of the leadership of the Labour Party during the Sixties and
Seventies alongside Wilson and co., serving as Aviation minister, Home Secretary
and then Chancellor of the Exchequer during the 1964-70 Labour government and
again as Home Secretary from 1974 -6. He was also deputy leader of the party
during the Heath government.
Elected as a Labour MP in 1948 – but already known to the political
establishment from his Oxford days – he quickly worked himself in with the
rightwing clique which dominated the then leadership of the party. These people
saw it as their sworn duty to keep the Labour Party safe as a sort of
Second-Eleven for capitalism. But to achieve this they had to fight and
manoeuvre against the movement from below, the party rank and file and the
affiliated unions especially, who in turn reflected the pressure from the
working class itself. Even during the boom years of the1950s the ruling class
understood that these two sides reflected mutually opposed and irreconcilable
interests who would clash in the future and according financed the right wing to
a considerable degree.
A regular contributor to the Labour right-wing mouthpiece Encounter he was,
according to his autobiography ‘… not particularly shocked when it… emerged
that the magazine was partly CIA-financed.’ In fact CIA involvement went far
beyond this with various right wing setups in the movement being covertly funded
Increasingly isolated in the party during the Seventies, especially over
Europe but also in hostility to the unions, he quit as an MP in 1976 to become
president of the European Commission. After this (well paid) period in Europe he
grandly decided that the time had come to re-enter the fray of British politics.
With the defeat of the Labour government in 1979 and a growth in militancy both
on the industrial front and inside the party, he felt that the time was ripe to
launch a new party aimed at replacing a Labour Party he now deemed unsuitable
for service to capital. Like many before and after, he would be proved very
‘I had long been well disposed towards most Liberals.’ he later wrote,
however he saw a direct move into the Liberal party as not ‘a satisfactory
strategy for changing the pattern of British politics… a substantial social
democratic breakaway from the Labour Party, on the other hand, might be a much
more repercussive matter.’ In other words split the party from within.
The new party was first ‘floated’ on the occasion of a BBC lecture in
November 1979. The original draft of his speech was deemed "too right
wing" by the Tory Ian Gilmour but remained largely unchanged even in its
final televised version. Not unsurprisingly much of it sounds like an
anticipation of the sort of stuff which would later be spewed out by
theoreticians of Blairism and the so-called ‘third way’.
Initially, Jenkins and his co-conspirators continued openly as if nothing was
afoot whilst plotting to form a new party from behind the scenes, but they could
not hold back forever.
With much publicity the new party – called the SDP – was launched in January
1981 (following a special Labour Party conference which had voted in new
democratic reforms much to the distaste of the right wing) at David Owen’s posh
Limehouse residence by Jenkins, Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers.
The SDP were initially touted by the media as being dead certs to replace
Labour in the polls and bi-election successes such as Crosby and Hillhead (where
Jenkins was returned to parliament) seemed to support that theory, so they
thought. But the general election of 1983 was not to provide that breakthrough –
in league with the Liberals they got just 25.5% of the vote, two points behind
Labour. Their vote was not enough to pick up large numbers of seats but was
enough to cost Labour seats through vote splitting. Although Thatcher would
probably have still won the election without the aid of the SDP traitors, many
would come to blame the Gang of Four for giving the Tories such a strong hand
with their massive parliamentary majority.
From then on it was clear that the ruling class no longer had any faith in
the SDP/Liberal Alliance ever crossing the proverbial Rubicon and that their
sole remaining purpose would be a temporary one of holding back Labour’s vote.
In the1987 election, the SDP decline was more pronounced: half a million votes
and 5 seats lost including that of Hillhead. There only remained the task of
administering the last rights to the SDP through a formal merger with the
Liberals to form the Lib-Dems. Unfortunately for Jenkins, fate was to play a
cruel joke. David Owen who replaced Jenkins as leader after 1983 had not only
moved much to the right but had also developed even more allusions of grandeur
than was normally the case for these people. He launched a campaign against
merger which resulted in a long and bitter conflict involving the sort of
splits, plots and defeats which they had so despised in the Labour Party.
With the SDP now a distance memory all that remained was for Jenkins to
depart from politics, taking up a nice retirement ‘job’ as Chancellor of Oxford
and writing books. In his final years he became an icon to the Blairite clique
(who include many former SDPers), giving out advice to them from behind the
scenes in the hope that they might succeed where he failed. Jenkins’ treacherous
role in the Labour movement serves as a warning to the whole movement of the
double agenda being carried out by the right wing, effectively seeking to serve
two masters but in the final analysis serving only one, that of capital. The
struggle for a working class leadership, armed with a socialist programme,
remains an ongoing one even though Jenkins has finally departed the fray.