To the end, Shirley Williams always described herself as a democratic socialist. In her 2009 autobiography, easily one of the best political memoirs of her generation, she describes a lifetime spent “trying to hammer out a compromise between capitalism and social justice, a compromise that might attract enough public support to be viable”. It is a carefully constructed sentence that still defines the key task facing progressive politics in modern democracies.
Yet Williams, who died on 12 April aged 90, has now gone without achieving her goal. The compromise that might have attracted enough public support to be viable eluded her to the end. In the same way, it has also eluded many other progressives, not just of her generation, not just of her party, and not just in Britain. But it is a dream that refuses to die.
To some in the Labour party, from which she resigned in 1981 to help launch the Social Democratic party, Williams’s failure will be proof of her abandonment of the true Labour faith. Yet for anyone else who defines their politics as in some sense progressive – or even simply as anti-Tory – the divisions that followed 1981 remain a frustrating might-have-been. You don’t have to have supported the SDP or the Liberal Democrats in their heydays to know that Britain would have been a better, less divided and rather different country today if Williams, not Margaret Thatcher, had been our first female prime minister.
Instead, Thatcher remade the country. She never obtained more than 44.9% of Britain’s votes. Indeed, she never got the support of more than 34.2% of those eligible to vote. Yet it was she who dominated and defined the era, while her divided opponents fought as much against each other as against the Conservatives. Today, while the balance of opposition parties is different from the 1980s, the overall picture is strikingly similar. By virtue of 44% of the votes, it is Boris Johnson who commands the scene, often unchecked.
What can be done about this? As long ago as 1912, the Manchester Guardian’s Liberal editor and owner CP Scott complained that “while Liberalism and Labour are snapping and snarling at each other the Conservative dog may run away with the bone”. In Scott’s view, the problem “would disappear at once and for ever with any tolerable system of proportional representation”. Failing this, argued Scott, “there is nothing for it but mutual consideration … in a word, compromise”. Compromise – the very word Williams used a century later.
Variants of these ideas have never entirely gone away. They are attracting fresh attention today in parts of the Labour party. But it is important to be realistic about which of them are likely to be achieved. Labour remains a very conservative culture, committed to achieving single-party majorities. Britain’s progressive parties may look similar in some ways. But they are a bit like different sized boats travelling down a wide river, facing similar conditions but sailing separately, not as one, and always in danger of being detached from each other.
Labour interest in proportional representation is currently expanding, for very obvious reasons of electoral weakness. Talk of a progressive alliance has inevitably begun to flower alongside it. A weakened Labour is naturally more responsive to the idea of working with others. The shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, is among those who have advocated a more cooperative strategy. Just this month, Momentum voted to support proportional representation too.
Labour support for PR is naturally attractive to the smaller parties that might benefit from it. It would help Labour in Scotland too. The corollary of that is it would harm the Tories and the SNP. But the political problem with a Labour commitment to PR is one the party has never managed to resolve. There will never be electoral reform until there is a majority with a mandate. But if that majority is overwhelmingly composed of one party, Labour, why should it then empower its rivals at its own expense?
This was what happened in 1997. The former SDP leader, Roy Jenkins, had persuaded Tony Blair that the labourist and liberal traditions that had gone their separate ways in the Edwardian period could reform to create a new majority. But in 1997, Labour swept into power with a landslide. It had no need of allies. Electoral reform was abandoned.
If a progressive alliance is focused solely on proportional representation and electoral pacts, it will be inward-looking. Why would most people vote for it, even if – improbably – the parties were able to sort all the details? Proportional representation may help, but it is not the key that unlocks the door.
Shirley Williams was certainly a supporter of electoral reform. But she was also instinctively creative in thinking about shared moral and political values across parties and broadly shared political objectives. It was one of the things that made her different and remarkable. She was not always right. There were things to criticise. But she was open to others in ways most politicians are not.
“I have never understood or accepted that some people, through the accident of birth, should be so much richer, have so much greater opportunities and better access to education, healthcare and good housing than others,” she wrote. But Williams was also willing to compromise. Without that willingness, it is unlikely that any future progressive alliance will prove any more successful than hers did, no matter how much sense it appears to make.
Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist