John McDonnell


John McDonnell

AS MARX ONCE SAID, history repeats itself “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” He clearly must have been prophesying the launch of the SDP (Social Democratic Party) in the 1980s and the much-rumoured launch of what are best described as the Neo-Liberal Democrats, planned in the coming months.

The SDP of the 1980s, formed by a small element of the bourgeois right of the Labour Party splitting off from the party, ensured the re-election of the Thatcher government throughout the 1980s. This spelled tragedy for working class communities across Britain as traditional industries were destroyed, unemployment soared, families were thrown into poverty and a generation of young people were scarred for life by worklessness and despair. The deregulation “Big Bang” of the City also sowed the seeds of the financial crash nearly three decades later.

There was a special feature of the rise of the SDP as an electoral force that took sufficient votes off Labour to keep Thatcher in office. It was the massive support the new party was given by the media and especially the so-called liberal press in the form of the Guardian and Observer. The SDP and its media promoters were also more interested in attacking the Labour Party than they were attacking the Tories. The other notable thing about the SDP was that it was launched by significant politicians like Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and David Owen, who incontestably had been major players in their parties and in government over a period of time and had some ideological heft.

Contrast the SDP of the 1980s with what we know so far about the rumoured launch of the new Neo-Liberal Democrats today. Truly the 1980s SDP was a tragedy for all involved and more importantly for the people who had to endure the Thatcher governments it enabled. From the intelligence we have about the new party, it appears its setting up will confirm Marx’s saying that after tragedy comes the farce.

Let’s see what we know about this farcical project.

  • First, it has been dreamed up by a group of rich friends associated with Tony Blair, who are reported to have put up an initial £50 million to fund the new party. Various names have been associated with the funding of this project including, prominently, Simon Franks who made his money from Love Films.
  • Second, disgruntled at their loss of power and influence these old Blairites were given heart by the rise of Macron in France, based upon essentially a neo-liberal policy platform attuned to their own thinking of what they would wish to inflict on Britain.
  • Third, their search for a British Macron has proved fruitless. Franks himself had illusions that he could play this role but others have joined the contest to become the leading demagogue, including, it is rumoured, ex and current career minded Labour MPs.
  • Fourth, the new project needed a core issue to divide and take support from the existing political parties but especially the Labour Party. Brexit has been seized upon as a convenient issue to use for this purpose. Spin doctors for the new party have suddenly become vociferous evangelists for the Remain cause.
  • Fifth, pretty blatantly the strategy is to position the new party as a centrist party, located in the middle between what they seek to portray as the extremes of the Conservatives and Labour. There is a sizeable problem with this in that the politicians so far identified with the project all have a fierce record of supporting and voting for right wing neo-liberal policy programmes of austerity, welfare cuts, wage restraint, privatisation, deregulation and even overseas wars.
  • Sixth, there are even concerns that the advocates of the new party will cynically exploit the issue of antisemitism to seek to attract defectors from Labour.
  • Seventh, elements within the media are already mooting the need for a new party, with yet again the Observer and some in the Guardian taking the lead. The name it has decided to use, “United for Change”, betrays all the traits of the title of a tired Observer editorial.

So we await the grand launch of the Neo-Liberal Democrats. It is predictably likely that the whole escapade will degenerate into high farce.

However there is also the potential that although these present day Neo-Liberal Democrats would pick up limited support, except in the media, nevertheless this could prevent the election of a Labour government, replicating the tragedy of the 1980s and the continuation of all a Tory government’s policies mean for our people.

That’s why our task is to expose this venture for what it is. It is the establishment desperately seeking to prevent the election of a socialist government and to return to the system whereby politics is simply the rotation in government of the rich elites. I am confident that our movement has the strength and scale now to overwhelm this tedious, retrograde threat.


Shadow Chancellor, MP for Hayes and Harlington, Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and Chair of the Labour Representation Committee. John has been involved in Labour Briefing since the early years.