Tuesday, 25 January 2011

30 years on: Remembering the SDP

You may not have noticed - judging by the lack of interest shown by the press - but today marks an important political anniversary: that of the Limehouse Declaration which established the Council for Social Democracy and allowed for the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

It seems rather hard to believe now, but following 25th January 1981 the formation of the new party dominated the news - and the political agenda - for several months. There was wide popular support for the SDP and through much of 1981 were riding high in the opinion polls. The new party was running before it could walk; having successfully tapped into public dissatisfaction with both the Thatcher government and Labour's determination to move ever leftwards, its founders were stunned by the initial response of the public, eager to embrace the promised "change" and the desire to "break the mould" of British politics. As Crewe and King state in their excellent history of the SDP, "the sense of release was tremendous, the pace of events exhilarating. Indeed the rush of events was such that [the SDP's leaders] felt more like surfboarders borne along by events than sea captains calmly charting a long voyage".

It's difficult to grasp the euphoria which greeted the new arrival. Thirty years on, people struggle to identify with politics and political movements as they did in the early 1980s. Even the short-lived "Cleggmania" (the product of media hype more than anything else) doesn't remotely compare with the unusual position the SDP found itself in. It rode so high in the opinion polls that, at one point, it was speculated that the Tories might be reduced to one MP in the general election. Even more sober opinion polls suggested the SDP would sweep all before it; The Observer found 46% support for the new party in January, compared to 27% for Labour and 25% for the Conservatives. A single advert in The Guardian published in the week following the Limehouse declaration resulted in 25,000 letters of support.

Initially, it seemed that everything touched by the new party turned to gold. Roy Jenkins narrowly missed out on winning the supposedly safe Labour seat of Warrington (a defeat he successfully managed to claim as a moral victory) before winning in another "safe" Labour constituency, Glasgow Hillhead. Shirley Williams won a stunning victory in Crosby. The ranks fo the new party were being swelled by new defectors from Labour (and one from the Conservatives). And in David Owen, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and Roy the party had a frontline which was not only experienced but hugely respected.

Ultimately, events were to play a significant role in denying the SDP the opportunities it perhaps deserved. Thatcher's popularity improved following the Falklands war and the government's announcement of the "right to buy" council houses. Labour's leader Michael Foot continued to wander in the general direction of the political wilderness but his party was saved from more embarrassing defeat by the democratically deficient First Past the Post voting system. FPTP was the cruelest trick the establishment could play on the new party and the popular ambition to "break the mould" in bringing about a new kind of politics.

The history of the Alliance - initially an electoral pact between the Liberal Party and the SDP, which ultimately resulted in merger under the respective leaderships of Steel and Maclennan - was both a difficult and productive one. In 1987 the hoped-for breakthrough again failed to materialise (again, in many respects due to the voting system) and, after a year in which merger was brokered and the SDP split, another new party was created: the Social & Liberal Democrats, later the Liberal Democrats.

The Lib Dems are, of course, just part of the SDP legacy. The SDP provided the new party with a more professional edge than the Liberal Party could have provided alone. It also provided key personnel, such as Charles Kennedy (even now the popular face of the Lib Dems), Shirley Williams and Robert Maclennan (who, as Party President, typified the Lib Dems' ideals). Most significantly, of course, is the fact that the SDP (and Maclennan and Kennedy in particular) helped create the Liberal Democrats and create a stronger and better equipped third force in British politics. Without the popular appetite for change the SDP helped cultivate, I doubt whether the Liberal Party alone could have become the force the Liberal Democrats emerged as. I suspect it wouldn't even have been conceivable to most Liberals.

There are those who claim the SDP's legacy is a negative one, and argue that the SDP/Alliance performances in 1983 and 1987 allowed Margaret Thatcher to continue in office for 11 years. While it is true that the SDP took much - but by no means all - of its support from Labour, it's simply glib to suggest that it was the SDP's popularity that kept the Tories in power. Such observers view political beneficence only through the narrow focus of what negatively affect Tory votes. They overlook the fact that Labour lost in 1983 and 1987 because it deserved to lose. it was only the electoral system that spared Labour the punishment it actually merited. The SDP was a much needed and necessary political movement that inspired a generation of people to believe in politics and to hope for more than what Britain's polarised system was offering.

Another SDP legacy is the rebirth of the Labour Party as a responsible party of the centre-left. That it seems inconceivable now that Labour could be so successfully infiltrated (and represented by) elements of the far-left is a credit to the SDP. It was, after all, the SDP who played a significant part in condemning Labour to defeat in 1983 - a defeat which spelled the end of Foot's tenure as leader and brought in the more reformist Kinnock. The SDP experience and its success in capturing the public imagination convinced Kinnock (and later Smith and Blair) of the need to make Labour a credible choice in the eyes of voters. While clearly not the only key factor in Labour's reinvention, there can be little doubt that SDP principles and its popular appeal precipitated a change of direction in British politics that Labour had to take notice of.

The SDP spoke up where no-one else would for a sensible and considered position on Europe, for combining social justice with economic efficiency and for a more democratic system of government. It brought some overdue honesty into the political arena. Most significantly, perhaps, while not "breaking the mould" it modernised British politics.

Thirty years on from the Limehouse Declaration, I can see the spirit of the SDP alive within the Liberal Democrats (and, to a much lesser extent, the Labour Party). The General Elections of 1983 and 1987 were notably unkind to the SDP, but I hope history will be kinder. It should be. The experiment failed on one level, but the SDP succeeded in taking its arguments to the electorate and popularising them. It ensured that no longer would British politics be dominated by the rhetoric of extremes as it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In tribute to the "Gang of Four" and the MPs with the courage to follow them from the Labour Party (risking their careers in the process), I am taking the liberty of quoting from the Limehouse Declaration, whose principles and vision remain pertinent all these years later:

We do not believe the fight for the ideals we share and for the recovery of our country should be limited only to politicians. It will need the support of men and women in all parts of our society...from those outside politics who believe the country cannot be saved without changing the sterile and rigid framework into which the British political system has increasingly fallen...

...We want more, not less, radical change in our society but with a greater stability of direction. Our economy needs a healthy public sector and a healthy private sector... We want to eliminate poverty and promote greater equality without stifling enterprise or imposing bureaucracy from the centre...

...There must effective and practical system of democracy at work.

In short, the Limehouse Declaration was a bold and revolutionary statement in support of commonsense politics. It deserves to be remembered as more than a mere footnote in political history.

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