In November 1979, Roy Jenkins, then still a Labour grandee, was scheduled to give the Dimbleby Lecture. He called it "Home Thoughts from Abroad", since he was still serving as the President of the European Commission at the time. Yet his message had an immediate impact at home. Thirty years later his words are still relevant:
"...You also make sure that the state knows its place, not only in relation to the economy, but in relation to the citizen. You are in favour of the right of dissent and the liberty of private conduct. You are against unnecessary centralisation and bureaucracy. You want to devolve decision-making wherever you sensibly can. You want parents in the school system, patients in the health service, residents in the neighbourhood, customers in both nationalised and private industry, to have as much say as possible. You want the nation to be self-confident and outward-looking, rather than insular, xenophobic and suspicious. You want the class system to fade without being replaced either by an aggressive and intolerant proletarianism or by the dominance of the brash and selfish values of a "get rich quick" society. You want the nation, without eschewing necessary controversy, to achieve a renewed sense of cohesion and common purpose..."
Jenkins argued that the rigidity of British politics had become a major brake on British success, and his solution was to attempt to "break the mould" of British Politics. By the time he returned to Britain a year later, the call for change had become a chorus. In the wake of the electoral defeat of Labour in 1979, the party split and the new Social Democrats, the SDP, were born.
Yet in the end the promise of the SDP and the Alliance they formed with my own Liberal Party was not fulfilled. Partly it was the result of the Falklands War. Before the invasion of the Islands, the Alliance was leading in the opinion polls and winning by-election after by-election. After the conflict, the Conservatives recovered their popularity. Although the 1983 election saw the Alliance come very close to overtaking Labour, the combination of the electoral system and the shock of the result injected new life into Labour who recovered and it was the Alliance that eventually imploded.
Yet time after time, the message that Jenkins was giving has proved attractive. In 1997, it seemed that Tony Blair was preparing to create a coalition with the reviving Liberal Democrats, yet in the end his nerve failed him and the promises given to Paddy Ashdown were left unmet. The UK was side tracked into the partial reforms of New Labour, and the promise of a realignment did not emerge. Instead of breaking the mould, Labour broke their promises and retreated into an ever more narrow, sectional politics, culminating in the disgraceful budget that has just been presented to the House of Commons. Instead of fundamental reform, Labour has simply enjoyed the power that their turn on the see-saw gave them for party political advantage.
Now it appears that a new split is emerging in the Labour Party. The recovery of the Socialist Left has undermined those political pragmatists most closely associated with the New Labour "project". There are ever louder murmurs from within the fragmenting Labour Movement. This morning Paddy Ashdown himself has confirmed that a substantial number of Labour MPs are discussing crossing the floor to the Liberal Democrats.
I have somewhat mixed feelings about this.
I see an opportunity to take Liberalism way beyond the role of minor opposition party and into government. However I am sceptical of how much those MPS who have been amongst the most loyal to the increasing authoritarianism of New Labour can be integrated into the Liberal Democrats who are Liberal, and therefore by definition opposed to the centralising, authoritarian measures that Blair and especially Brown have imposed .
On the other hand, if there is an opportunity to remove Labour and their outdated Socialist nostrums from power for ever, then the temptation to seize the day is very strong. Yet it is not enough to replace the party of government, we must, as Jenkins pointed out, change the system of government.
The goal of the Liberal Democrats is not to be the Capitalist antidote to Socialism in the endless see-saw of two party politics, but rather to create a more flexible and diverse political system where the narrow careerists in the current closed shop are replaced by a wider circle of political involvement. The whole point of the Liberal agenda is to give people the power to control their own lives in their own way and reject the one-size-fits all, producer dominated, and state sponsored solutions. Diversity of approach can create a far healthier economic, social and political ecology in our society.
That Labour might undergo some cataclysm is to be welcomed, and if some refugees chose to swim to the Liberal Democrats- as doubtless others will go to the Conservatives- then that is to be welcomed too. However the Liberal Democrats should use the moment to restate the values that we stand for and to underline that we still subscribe to the values of openness, diversity, and personal responsibility that Roy Jenkins articulated so powerfully nearly thirty years ago.