David Marquand, cerebral and moderate Labour MP influential in the rise of the SDP and Blairism – obituary

David Marquand: he believed that the democratic Left should not try to abolish market forces, but rather make them 'the servants instead of the masters of democratic politics'
David Marquand: he believed that the democratic Left should not try to abolish market forces, but rather make them 'the servants instead of the masters of democratic politics' - Malcolm Gilson/Shutterstock

David Marquand, who has died aged 89, was a Europhile social democrat who resigned as a Labour MP to follow Roy Jenkins to Brussels and was a prime mover in founding the SDP before returning to his roots in academia, and eventually to the Labour Party.

As professor of politics at Salford and Sheffield Universities, joint editor for a decade of the Political Quarterly and ultimately principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, he made an important contribution to debate on the late-20th-century British political system and its ability to cope.

Marquand’s political life, and his outlook, was summed up in the title of his book The Progressive Dilemma (1991). He believed the democratic Left should aim to make market forces “the servants instead of the masters of democratic politics”, rather than attempting to abolish them. In The Unprincipled Society (1988) he argued that Thatcherism had eroded a sense of community that had to be rebuilt.

Not all his pronouncements went unchallenged; when in 1992 he wrote in The Guardian that the Tories had been re-elected through fear rather than hope, his sister Diana, a social worker in Sussex, retorted in print that the voters had gone for John Major as a “model of decency coupled with determination”.

An early advocate, with Jenkins, of a new centrist party, Marquand moved on from the eclipse of the SDP to influence the think-tanks that gave rise to Blairism: the Institute for Public Policy Research, Demos and the Social Justice Commission set up by John Smith. He rejoined Labour in 1995, supporting the Blair-Ashdown discussions over Liberal Democrat involvement in the 1997 Labour government and encouraging Labour to deregulate and privatise further.

The cerebral Marquand was probably the ablest of Labour’s gifted 1966 parliamentary intake never to become a minister – due to his uncompromising moderation and his readiness to say the (in Labour circles) unsayable. His insistence that surplus industrial capacity concealed the true level of unemployment, culminating in his refusal to support the 1975 government bail-out for Chrysler, did not play well.

He caused further upset by arguing in his 1977 biography of Ramsay Macdonald that, rather than engineering a “Great Betrayal” in 1931, Macdonald had done everything possible to keep the Labour government together.

Some Westminster colleagues believed Marquand would be better suited to an Oxford common room. Others felt that, in denying him a job, Harold Wilson was settling an old score because he had not got on with Marquand’s father Hilary, his junior minister at the Board of Trade.

Marquand did serve briefly on the opposition front bench before being sacked for supporting Edward Heath’s application to join the Common Market; others dismissed were later “forgiven”. Marquand himself said: “I was arrogant enough to believe that I could have been promoted quite easily if I had set my mind to it.”

Whatever the reason, his contribution over 11 years in the Commons was not fully appreciated. Jenkins, bidding farewell to the parliamentary party, declared with his inimitable pronunciation that he was leaving “without bitterness and without wancour”. A voice from the back exclaimed: “We thought you were taking Marquand with you”.

David Marquand: some felt that, in denying him a job, Harold Wilson was settling an old score because he had not got on with Marquand's father Hilary, his junior minister at the Board of Trade
David Marquand: some felt that, in denying him a job, Harold Wilson was settling an old score because he had not got on with Marquand's father Hilary, his junior minister at the Board of Trade - Shutterstock

David Ian Marquand was born at Cardiff on September 20 1934 to Hilary Marquand and his wife, the former Rachel Rees, a schoolteacher. As well as a sister, David had a younger brother, Richard, who would become a director of Hollywood films, notably Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.

David was educated at Emanuel School, Battersea, and Magdalen and St Antony’s colleges, Oxford, taking a First in modern history and chairing the University Labour Club.

He taught at the University of California before joining the Guardian in 1959 as a leader writer on the recommendation of AJP Taylor, steering the paper toward support for Labour after its anti-Bevan, Conservative-leaning period in the 1950s. Three years later he returned to St Antony’s as a research fellow, and in 1964 became lecturer in politics at Sussex University.

A committed Gaitskellite and Fabian, Marquand was active in the doctrinal battles which came to a head over nuclear disarmament at Labour’s 1960 conference, his first. At the 1964 election he more than halved the Conservative majority at Barry, and 18 months later he won the Nottinghamshire mining seat of Ashfield on the retirement of William Warbey, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War about which Marquand also had reservations.

In the Commons he championed procedural reform, serving on a committee whose revolutionary recommendation that Prayers should start 10 minutes early to allow more time for questions was not adopted. In 1967 he became PPS to Reg Prentice, Minister for Public Building and Works and subsequently for Overseas Development. But the Labour benches were awash with young talent, and it was early 1971 before Wilson gave him a job, as junior spokesman on the economy.

Marquand had been closer to Anthony Crosland than to Jenkins, but Crosland’s temporising on Europe drove him into Jenkins’ camp as he became a delegate to the Council of Europe and rapporteur for its economic affairs committee. When Wilson completed his U-turn on Europe in 1972 and Labour MPs were instructed to oppose Heath’s application, he rebelled.

With Labour back in power and lurching Leftward, Marquand in December 1974 co-founded the Manifesto Group, the rallying-point of party moderates which was a force until the breakaway to form the SDP.

Marquand’s move to Brussels as chief advisor to the European Commission’s Secretariat-General did not go smoothly. Jenkins wanted him, but the Commission queried his job description and Marquand worked part-time for three months before his appointment was cleared.

As the Callaghan government’s majority had evaporated, he was encouraged to remain an MP as long as possible. This aroused controversy, as did his appointment being announced before he could tell his constituency party. Marquand also upset local miners by skipping their conference because he was on an intensive French course.

With the government highly unpopular, a by-election in a constituency that had never warmed to its MP, caused by his departure for a not over-popular Europe, was a debacle waiting to happen. On April 28 1977, Marquand’s majority of 22,915 was overturned by the Conservative Tim Smith, the worst of a rash of results (Jenkins’s seat was also lost) that tilted the parliamentary arithmetic toward Margaret Thatcher.

Marquand went to Brussels as Jenkins’s “principal liaison man with the European Parliament and political parties in the member countries”. But the job proved unsatisfying; rumours of his departure were circulating within weeks and in April 1978 he was appointed professor of contemporary history and politics at Salford University, at half his Brussels salary.

His relationship with Jenkins survived his departure, and he raised the banner of a new centrist party on Jenkins’s behalf on the fringe of the 1980 Liberal Assembly. His analysis of Labour’s 1979 election defeat in Encounter, arguing that Labour was incapable of reforming the Welfare State, won him the 1980 George Orwell Memorial Prize.

When the SDP launched in March 1981, Marquand was on its steering committee. He represented the party, along with the “Gang of Four”, in difficult negotiations over an electoral pact with the Liberals, and was the first SDP candidate selected for the 1983 election, at High Peak; he pushed Labour into third place.

Marquand shared David Owen’s belief in the need for the SDP to emulate Mrs Thatcher’s boldness, but when David Steel split the alliance after its 1987 election defeat by advocating a Liberal/SDP merger, Marquand sided with him. He went on to serve on the merged party’s initial policy committee and advise Paddy Ashdown, sharing his view that Labour was again becoming electable and the Lib Dems’ best hope was some form of working arrangement.

In 1991 he moved to Sheffield University as professor of politics (and from 1993 director of its Political Economy Research Centre); on his appointment as principal of Mansfield in 1996, Sheffield awarded him an honorary professorship. He retired from Mansfield in 2002, remaining an honorary fellow.

David Marquand married Judith Reed in 1959; they had a son and a daughter.

David Marquand, born September 20 1934, died April 23 2024