7 FEBRUARY 1981, Page 4

Political commentary

Yes, but not in the North

Ferdinand Mount

Is that what they really think? Or are they whistling to keep their courage up? Certainly, the first thing to be borne in mind in assessing the reactions of established politicians to the prospect of a new party is that 'they would have to say that, wouldn't they?'

Mr Enoch Powell, for example, prophesies with his usual confidence: 'the Owenses and the Jenkinses, the Williamses, the Rodgerses and the huge but cloudy ideological, not to say moral and philosophical, conflicts — all will disappear like mists before the rising sun of the next general election. The electors who want to keep the Government in must unite; and the electors who want to get the Government out must unite. "He that is not with me is against me," as Our Lord said, when he warned them not to split the vote.' Is this theologically correct? According to the Religious Affairs correspondent of The Times, the British Council of Churches inclines to the view that Our Lord was a social democrat.

Lord Thorneycroft says more succinctly: 'I rather thought of joining myself. After all, it isn't a party, it hasn't a programme and I'm told the claret is very good.' And now Mr Tony Benn too, we are told, dismisses the possibility because he believes 'there is no constituency for such a party outside Fleet Street, Whitehall and the City.'

The rest of us find it hard to believe that this can represent the sum total of the billions of electrical impulses passing every nano-second through the skulls of these great men. Surely, we reason, with another part of their brains they must be assessing the likely scale of the defections, how best to minimise the loss and how to capitalise on the weaknesses of the new competitor for power. Lower down the skull, in the recesses of the old brain, some vile primaeval process must be secreting primaeval emotions — rage, terror, envy.

Yet one should not exaggerate the extent to which politicians always operate with split minds. Part of the recipe for success in politics — as in other trades — is the ability to believe wholeheartedly what you need to believe. It may well be that a certain inner censorship is preventing politicians from examining the evidence and so contributing to the apparently genuine blitheriess with which the entrance of the social democrats is being greeted.

Let us take in order the arguments of those who choose this moment to say with renewed emphasis that the Labour Party will not only survive but has a good chance of winning the next General Election.

First, it is alleged that Mr Foot is 'fighting back' and 'gaining allies'. On closer inspec tion, this fighting back takes the form of issuing reprimands both to Mr Benn and Mrs Williams for going too far. This technique of 'even-handedness' is painfully familiar; it was a conference speciality of Sir Harold Wilson, who used to admonish simultaneously the Militant Tendency and the Social Democratic Alliance, neither of which paid the slightest attention. It is, of course, entirely different — as you would expect — from the unwavering determination of Attlee and Gaitskell to keep the Reds out.

Then we have the snow-in-spring argument. Under our Parliamentary system — 'the wonder of the world', according to Enoch — third parties invariably fade away when the real choice has to be made at a General Election. Do they? In just under half the General Elections this century — all those up to 1931 — a third party returned at least 40 MPs and often very many more. Labour took half-a-dozen elections to displace the Liberal Party.

Nor is it true that either activists or voters have shown outstandingly stable loyalties to the Labour Party. The number of Labour Party activists rose dramatically after the war and has been falling ever since 1950; the depth of the fall recently has been disguised only by the numbers of incomers' from the far Left who were previously banned by Transport House. The Labour vote has shown signs of long-term erosion even under leaders like Sir Harold and Mr Callaghan, who were generally perceived as middle-of-the-road men. Mr Foot seems unlikely to be the man to halt any such erosion.

Which brings us to the opinion polls— and the most remarkable instance of wishful thinking so far. For on all sides, the spectacular showing of a social-democratic alliance with the Liberals is dismissed as a flash in the pan, a nine days wonder and the kind of thing that always tends to happen when a gnernment is unpopular. The social democrats, we are told, are merely a replay of the Scotnats and the Liberals.

Well, I think they are a little more than that. Only once in 20 years of opinion polling have the Liberals risen out of third place — usually a poor third place — and that once was the weekend after Orpington when NOP actually put the Liberals in the lead (next month they were ten points down and back in third place again.) By contrast, in all the four national polls taken over the past fortnight, the socialdemocratic/Liberal alliance has been given a ten-point lead over Labour, with the Tories a close third. The important comparison here is with the NOP poll which asked people only about the existing three parties; the result was Labour 44, Conservative 37, Liberal 16. This suggested a rather mild mid-term swing against the Government with only a small increase in Liberal support compared with the General Election. Can it be that it is the prospect of a social democratic alliance which is the dynamic factor — and not the usual mid-term fed-upness?

Students will recall Potter's immortal all-purpose riposte on subjects of which one's grasp is a little hazy: 'A yes, but not in the South.' In this case, it is alleged that whatever may happen in the fickle, febrile South, Labour's working-class strongholds in the North will stay stubbornly loyal.

MORI polls taken for Granada TV and the Sunday Times, it is said, have not only 'dampened the euphoria' of the social democrats but have shown that the 11 Labour MPs so far recruited — who are mostly from Northern constituencies — would all lose their seats if they stood as social democrats.

They show no such thing. If you allow for the difference between the average results from those constituencies in May, 1979 and the national results, the poll findings over the 11 seats taken as a whole are almost identical with the national polls. Labour do better there simply because they happen to be Labour seats, mostly with large majorities.

I am only making the modest assumption (which its supporters have always made) that the social democratic alliance would indeed be an alliance of the centre and that its chances are best where the combined votes of the losing candidates outnumber the winner's votes.

On this assumption, far from suggesting that the 11 MPs would all lose if they split, the MORI poll suggests that the social democrats might win five of the 11 Caithness, Devonport, Hayes and Harlington, Leicester East and Wrexham — and would have a sporting chance in Farnworth and Stockton. There are so far no statistical grounds to support Yes-but-not-in-theNorthism.

The only regional difference may be the result of tactical voting. In the North, more social democrat votes — though not manY more — may come from Tory deserters who wish to turf out the Labour incumbent; 111 the South, more from Labour deserters wit.° wish to turf out the Tory incumbent. tactical voting is a typical ingredient 0,1 third-party challenges. It is nature's subste tute for proportional representation. , Before we crawl too far out along th15 particular limb, let it be hastily said that. none of the foregoing means that the socl.a! democrats are sure to prosper. They W11'. need timing, luck, determination and solve money. If Shirley Williams is electrocuted by a faulty hair-dryer or Roy Jenk105‘ succumbs to a rather corked bottle (7' Chateau Joyeuse Entrée (the doctor allo° me one claret joke a week now), then the melting might indeed begin. But none ofth, e reasons so far advanced for the &ley/tab/11,1Y of their failure has much to be said for It'