THE best political biographies do more than record their subjects’ lives.
They are lenses through which we can understand current politics. John Campbell’s biography of Roy Jenkin’s is a rich and well-crafted account of Jenkin’s life and career. It also reveals much about the problems of contemporary British party politics.
Jenkins was a leading Labour party MP through their long period of opposition in the 1950s and 1960s. He was a senior minister under Harold Wilson in the late 1960s. As secretary of state at the home office he oversaw the liberalisation of laws on homosexuality and abortion. As chancellor of the treasury he did a reasonable job in ameliorating the UK’s economic decline after the devaluation of Sterling in 1967.
Out of government after the 1970 election, Jenkins became deputy leader of the Labour Party and was a leading campaigner for the yes side in the referendum campaign that led to British entry into the then European Economic Community, the EEC. His part in the Europe referendum of 1975 was unpopular with many in the Labour Party and helped cost him the Labour leadership when Wilson resigned in 1976.
Disappointed at his marginalisation in the party and government Jenkins, accepted the presidency of the European Commission in 1977. In Brussels, he oversaw the creation of the European Monetary System, a precursor to the euro and was an effective commission head.
The pull of British politics was strong, however. In 1981 he returned to the UK and with David Owen, Shirley Williams, and Bill Rodgers — the so-called ‘Gang of Four’— he quit Labour to found the Social Democratic Party, the SDP. Jenkins motive for leaving Labour was what he and other members of Labour’s right wing perceived as its fatal and unstoppable drift to the left under Michael Foot.
Jenkins had always been on the right of Labour and was closer to many Liberals and left-wing Tories than he was to many of his fellow Labour Party colleagues.
The SDP’s declared aim was to ‘break the mould’ of two-party politics by bringing together moderate politicians and voters alienated by the Labour left and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party.
The new party quickly forged an alliance with the Liberals with Jenkins as head. The Alliance scored well in opinion polls initially and the SDP enjoyed some success at by-elections. Jenkins was re-elected to Westminster in the Glasgow Hillhead by-election in 1982.
The mould of British politics, however, remained unbroken.
Thatcher achieved a resounding victory in the 1983 general election on the back of the Falklands War and as the British economy seemed to be coming out of the doldrums. The Alliance took more votes from Labour than it did from the Conservatives and so split the anti-Tory vote. Although the Alliance got a quarter of the vote, only 3% behind Labour, this only translated into 23 seats under the UK’s first-past–the-post system.
Labour’s poor performance in 1983 started to reverse its leftwards drift, the very thing that had led to the SDP’s creation. Its 1983 manifesto — ‘the longest suicide note in history’ as one Labour MP labelled it — and Foot’s lacklustre leadership discredited the left. Labour began its slow, often tentative, move to the centre of British politics.
The SDP polled well in the 1987 election but it was clear that it was never going to break through the electoral barriers put in its place by the UK electoral system and replace Labour as the opposition to Thatcher. After 1987 it merged with the Liberals to become the Liberal Democrats. Jenkins, who lost his seat in 1987, moved to the House of Lords.
Jenkins’ career after the creation of the Liberal Democrats and his gradual withdrawal from frontline politics was a full one. He became chancellor of Oxford University, drafted a report on electoral reform for Tony Blair, wrote several very successful history books, and enjoyed a rich and full life of socialising and travel. Jenkins always had a taste for the high life and for society. Writing, which often earned him more money than politics, subsidised a lot of good lunches and a well- stocked wine cellar.
It is easy to warm to Jenkins as a human being under Campbell’s sympathetic, but not uncritical, direction. It’s hard not to like a man whose idea of dieting is to briefly swap white for red wine at lunch. At the same time, it is impossible not to see some of the roots of contemporary British political problems in Jenkins’ life and politics.
The slightly-left of centre politics that Jenkins stood for has largely failed British democracy as it has struggled to connect with people and positions the left too close to the British establishment.
The old Labour left was often in the wrong, but it had social roots in unions and working communities, and a mission in economic redistribution. The Labour right, and later the SDP, worked from within an establishment bubble in which Oxford graduates had pleasant lunches and convinced themselves that if only ‘right’ thinking people could pull together everything would be fine.
When Labour’s right and left were bound together they complemented each other and made Labour a mass political party capable of taking votes from across the social spectrum.
The SDP split this vote and the political coalition that it represented. New Labour recreated it and won some of the vote back, but at a cost of leaving the left behind. New Labour was in many ways the kind of Labour Party Jenkins had wanted when he left the party in 1981. He was close to many of its leading figures, in particular Peter Mandelson.
But over time New Labour had the same problems the SDP had.
The decline of the left and the rise of the Blairites made New Labour too establishment and robbed it of a radical vision for the economy. Like Jenkins before them New Labour thought economic inequality could be dealt with by economic growth alone. But this is a Conservative claim too. Consequently, the two parties have become indistinguishable for many voters. Both are bland economic managers without a larger vision.
This blurring of political lines is bad enough. Unfortunately, the parties’ shared idea that growth alone is enough for social justice is wrong and makes the lack of distinctiveness between parties more damaging to democracy.
Economic growth without redistribution just leads to greater inequality. Voters left behind economically lose faith in established party politics. The result is low electoral turnout, falling party membership, and voter defection to more radical parties like the Greens, or to parties that claim to speak for the common man like UKIP.
Jenkins had no solution to these problems that began during his career and which he encouraged inadvertently as an architect of the SDP and (indirectly) New Labour. Labour is as far from solving them now as it was in Jenkins’ time. Like Jenkins before them, many Labour politicians are still seeking the political equivalent of Goldilocks’ porridge. They want something that’s ‘not too hot, not too cold, but just right’ with the electorate. The ‘not too hot, not too cold’ principle makes sense when you’re trying porridge but political parties should probably avoid it. What might seem ‘just right’ to a party’s leaders can look like neither one thing nor another to voters.
Labour’s leadership contenders should take some time to read Campbell’s fine biography as they ponder their vision for the future. After all, as Jenkins the historian could tell them, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
Neil Robinson is professor of politics at the University of Limerick
* Roy Jenkins: A well-rounded life, John Campbell, Vintage Books, £14.99
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