It feels like I have just met a ghost. “This book bears a disconcerting resemblance to a biography of someone who showed early promise but died young”, so begins Ivor Crew and Anthony King’s doorstopper of a book on the SDP (a snip at £76). I too thought the SDP were dead. Dead, buried and ancient history. Monty Python parrot dead. But here’s the thing. A tall man in a neat dark blue suit has just walked into a trendy Soho brassiere and handed me his card. It bears the familiar (now retro looking) SDP logo on it. William Clouston, it reads. Party Leader. And he looks like flesh and blood to me.
Remember the heady days of 1981? You may not, of course. Formed as a break-away from the Labour party at a time when Labour was being infiltrated by the hard left of Militant, and when the party itself was led by an allegedly incompetent, scruffy and equally hard-left leader, Michael Foot, (the comparison with today’s situation is easily made) the SDP burst onto the political scene with unprecedented enthusiasm and success.
Liberalism has broken us – we need a new party to call Home
Eighty thousand people joined up that year. 28 Labour MP’s defected. By the end of the year a Gallup poll had an alliance of the SDP and the Liberal Party running at over 50% support among voters. “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government” the Liberal leader, David Steel, told his party conference.
But it was not to be. Two years after the SDP was founded, in 1983, the SDP/Liberal alliance contested its first general election. It won 25% of the vote and gained just 23 seats, only 6 of which were SDP. Something similar happened in the 1987 election, and a year later most of the SDP decided to merge with the Liberals creating the Liberal Democrats. A few under David Owen resisted the merger, but less than a decade after the SDP was formed, its leadership threw in the towel.
William Clouston sips his tea and explains to me how, then, the SDP is still alive. There were those who kept the faith at local level, he explains, small groups and a handful of local councillors in places like Glasgow, Port Talbot and East Yorkshire. But most people forgot about them.
Then last November, something curious happened. Signs of life began to re-appear. The UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn quit his party because of its links with Tommy Robinson and joined the SDP. In the same month, the SDP published a New Declaration, written mostly by Cloulston. It is a communitarian, pro-Brexit, social democratic manifesto very much in the style of Maurice Glassman’s Blue Labour – a political manifesto aimed at David Goodhart’s ‘Somewheres’. And about as far away from the liberal ‘Anywheres’ as it is possible to imagine.
How British politics is failing
Back in the 80’s, I remember thinking that the debates between the Owenite faction of the SDP and the Liberals was all a bit People’s Front of Judea vs the Judean People’s Front – that is, a narcissism of small differences. But it wasn’t.
David Owen has long been a passionate pro-European. Indeed, he was one of the Labour rebels who voted with Heath to take Britain into the EU. But Owen was always more nuanced in his appreciation of the European Union, resisting its continual expansion. In 1989, the Owenite branch of the party, at their party conference, ruled out a united states of Europe. And the SDP has been tacking in a Eurosceptic direction the more the EU has sought to aggregate new powers to itself. In February 2016, Owen himself came out as a Brexiteer.
And now, for the first time in years, people are joining up again. There are green shoots of Twitter activity and a few more local meetings. But it still has the feeling of something worthy about it.
For those who have been a part of keeping the faith alive, meeting in chilly church halls, it feels a little like some survivalist protestant sect. And Clouston – softly spoken, kindly face – has just a touch of the local vicar about him. He would be the sort of vicar who has made a few quid in a previous career, and now wants to settle down to do good works. His father was an original SDP convert from Labour in 1981, and the SDP was passed down, father to son.
Liberal smugness will destroy the Left
It is the New Declaration that has awoken this renewed interest. Clouston explains that it is a “love letter to people who think like us who don’t have a political home.” Culturally, they will appeal to natural Conservatives – pro-family, pro-community, and patriotic. And yet they resist the neo-liberal model of economics that has devastated traditional working-class communities, especially in the North and the Midlands.
“Free from vested interests” the New Declaration begins “the SDP seeks the common good in Britain’s national interest. We represent neither capital nor labour, not private interest nor the public sector, but only the welfare of the British people and residents of these islands.” Later it states: “the power of the market has over-reached, fraying the social bonds that bind us together.”
On Brexit, the Declaration is equally trenchant. “First and foremost we are democrats. The scale and vehemence of the reaction against the result of the 2016 referendum by Britain’s cultural and political elites was striking. The evident distain of the Westminster class for, among others, many elderly and low income voters revealed that the powerful only tolerate democracy when their view prevails”.
Why won't our spineless politicians stand up for the family?
So the SDP are not just a little bit different from liberals, ideologically, they are the liberals’ sworn enemies. “Liberalism is all about the individual and we have had enough of that,” explains Clouston. “The antagonism is very deep.”
But it’s not just the association with the Liberal Democrats that confuses potential supporters. The new look SDP now faces another potential point of confusion: their association with former UKIPers.
This week Patrick O’Flynn was selected as the SDP candidate for Peterborough, in the expectation of a by-election. Clouston supports this selection, explaining that O’Flynn had his MEP constituency office in Peterborough and retains a lot of support there.
Keen to push me off the UKIP line of questioning, Clouston explains that the majority of those now joining the SDP are either from the Labour party or those who have politically been of no fixed abode. I explain to him that I think UKIP is electoral kryptonite to middle ground voters. Clearly not a natural poker player, Clouston’s face shows signs of discomfort. The SDP are in a bind – O’Flynn brings them some much needed name recognition. But they really don’t want to be seen as the party for UKIP dropouts.
What the populists get right
Will the SDP do well? Probably not. History is against them – even though the Labour parties’ current leadership means that the stars look similarly aligned to what they were in 1981. First part the post will always block the emergence of new parties. Theirs would be the finest comeback since Lazarus (to borrow that great phrase from darts commentator Sid Waddell).
But, in terms of political philosophy, they are still the most interesting thing to emerge in British politics for a long while. And, so unlike the professional political class that dominate the Westminster bubble, there will be many who will warm to Clouston’s open manner. Living in Corbridge, Northumberland, hundreds of miles away from the political bubble, the dog-walking chap-next-door hasn’t been bashed into shape by spin doctors.
Personally, I wish him well. The New Declaration – getting their basic position right – was a terrific start. But that was the easy bit. Now they have to grow the party. And not ruin what they have already achieved as they once again emerge into the light.