In the early Seventies I began work on an analysis of the British Parliamentary Úlite which made very evident both the decline of direct working-class representation among Labour MPs and the rise of an upwardly mobile middle class. As I ploughed through one biography after another, however, I became painfully aware of the generational limits to mobility. The perfect stereotype of meritocratic success was the working-class dad whose son became a teacher, whose son in turn became a doctor or barrister. But there wasn't a single case of this being completed in two generations. Only slowly did it dawn on me - for this was a time of Labour electoral triumphs - what bad news these data held for Labour. Take, for example, Bill Rodgers and Roy Jenkins (both grammar school and Oxford, Jenkins the son of a miner MP) not to mention Shirley Williams (professional parents, St Paul's and Oxford): social mobility had already carried them to Labour's outer limits. At the least, it had to be expected that they and others like them would put their own children in private schools and that the next generation would move away from Labour altogether. What the data suggested was a terrible haemorrhage of talent away from Labour, listless working-class recruitment, indeed a general disassembling of Labour's old class coalition, and the possibility of a major schism as the successful meritocrats inevitably broke away. Even allowing for the fact that they represented a more substantial group of meritocrats in the electorate at large, could Labour's meritocrats possibly provide the basis for a new party? One couldn't be sure; but the basic sociology of the SDP, I later realised, lay before me a decade before the event.
LRB 30 November 1995 | PDF Download