by William Clouston
Monday, 25
January 2021
Event
07:00

40 years on from its creation, the SDP has another chance

The Limehouse Declaration offered a different blueprint for governance
by William Clouston
The SDP’s ‘gang of four’ from left: Shirley Williams, David Owen, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers

One of my cherished political possessions is a ticket signed by Former Foreign Secretary David Owen to a Social Democratic Party meeting I attended in the Summer of 1981. I was 15. Months earlier, my father had left the Labour Party and like thousands of others had joined a new party aiming for a new type of politics. The event which triggered the biggest challenge to the two-party system in British political history happened on this day 40 years ago with the publication of the Limehouse Declaration.

My memories of the meeting itself are now quite distant but I recall a packed hall and a sense of excitement. The SDP offered a unique blend of politics — social market, state and nation. Long before Blue Labour or Red Tories made reference to the combination, I recall Owen repeating the words, “that’s the blue in our colours… and that’s the red”. 

Policy combinations are the essence of politics and yet it seems not to have occurred to many to question why we assume, for instance, that Left-leaning economic policy shouldn’t blend with conservative social policy. Looking at things the other way, it’s always baffled me why people calling themselves conservatives should imagine that neoliberal economics would do anything but weaken community attachment or harm family life.

The combination of immigration and housing policy offered by the establishment parties — while both claim to be pro-family — provide the perfect example of this paradox. Labour would combine high immigration with a programme of council house building without realising that the former defeats the latter. The Tories seek lower immigration than Labour but, with typical indifference, have next to nothing to offer on public sector housing. 

Neither seem capable of grasping the obvious solution which is to combine a Left-wing idea with one from the Right. Lower immigration combined with a sustained house building programme should, in the long run, promote both family formation and stability. Red and blue. Win win.

Four decades after the SDP’s launch, the political pathologies identified in the Limehouse Declaration remain stubbornly intact. You might ask why we Social Democrats in the Owenite tradition continue the fight? The answer is straightforward. Britain remains as poorly governed by the two-party duopoly as it was 40 years ago. For as long as that pathology remains, so does the need for the cure. And I still have the ticket…

William Clouston is the Leader of the Social Democratic Party. 

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Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
1 year ago

For the politically homeless like me the SDP are a breath. of fresh air. I just wish you were a part of the conversation. The Illiberal Undemocrats are sitting in your spot.

Keith Callaghan
Keith Callaghan
1 year ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Cheryl, I have the same views as you on this. I resigned from the Lib Dems a couple of months ago and have just joined the SDP (Rod Liddle’s party!).
I have read the SDP manifesto and even though I voted Remain can see they have a logical and coherent view on the EU.

Jean Fothers
Jean Fothers
1 year ago

Isn’t Patrick O’Flynn a member of SDP??

stennessdevelopments
stennessdevelopments
1 year ago
Reply to  Jean Fothers

Yes, Patrick joined us in November 2019 while he was still an MEP.

Huw Thomas
Huw Thomas
1 year ago
Reply to  Jean Fothers

Yes. The party of Roy Jenkins became a home for Kippers…ugh….

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago

As a teenager I became a founder member of the SDP for all the seemingly obvious reasons stated above.

Labour open up an opportunity every generation or so for SDP thinking to take hold, and this time it is the absurd “identity politics obsession” that is providing the opportunity.

David J
David J
1 year ago

My question is why does the SDP stoically maintain such a subterranean public presence?

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
1 year ago
Reply to  David J

Agreed. I have just said pretty much the same thing, albeit more wordily.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
1 year ago

I am sympathetic, but you need some presence surely. SDP? Blink and you’ll miss the country’s most invisible party. It consists of William Clouston and Rod Liddle, and that is it. I doubt if 95% of its potential voter base even know that it exists. Meanwhile Farage only has to raise a beer mug.

Ronni Curtis
Ronni Curtis
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

I’m afraid that you and David J below, are absolutely right. I’m a member of the SDP as it happens but aside from the party being almost invisible as you put it, I believe its name is a huge drawback. Just about everyone I’ve spoken to has reacted in the same way: ‘ You’re not Scottish are you, so why on earth would you support Scotland’s independence?’ Massive, professional PR is needed.

stennessdevelopments
stennessdevelopments
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

The SDP is quite small but every quarter and every year it’s growing. Of course, instant high profile and overnight success would be welcome but, frankly, a more realistic growth model for the resurgent SDP is the Green Party – which did the hard work of building local parties and getting councillors elected over many years. There isn’t really a substitute for this.

The SDP is particularly strong in its philosophical and intellectual foundations. We’ve thought about things and we have beliefs. I find the establishment parties quite incoherent – they frequently propose policy which is self-contradictory. It will take time but if you know where you are going… you might just get there…

Daniel Goldstein
Daniel Goldstein
1 year ago

You’re better off campaigning for electoral reform

Mick C
Mick C
1 year ago

I recently joined the SDP after spending several years in the Labour Party and becoming increasingly frustrated by its obsession with woke identity politics and self-destructive in-fighting. Labour now resembles a less united version of the Lib Dems. Its members are more likely to share their gender pronouns than call each other comrade. The SDP has great potential to win the support of voters who are centre-left on the economy and moderately socially conservative on cultural/social issues. Nobody takes for granted that this will be a huge task given that the party currently has no electoral representation and the party does not rely on big donations from vested interests.

Daniel Goldstein
Daniel Goldstein
1 year ago
Reply to  Mick C

It’s impossible without PR.

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
1 year ago

I also went to a foundation meeting of the SDP, this at Stockport, addressed by William Rogers – one of the original ‘Gang of Four’.

He spoke well, in the main; but after other questions by older members had been heard and answered, I, as the youngest person present, rose and put my enquiry: ”You declare an intention to enter an alliance with the Liberal Party. By what method will you prevent that party from doing what it always does – pluck defeat from the jaws of victory?’

There was a stricken silence for three seconds and then the whole large packed room erupted in thunderous applause.

Mr Rogers supplied the only woffling response – weak and implausible – that he was guilty of that day.

The rest is history: the history of the terrible Tony Blair through Boris Johnson years.

Had the SDP plowed its own furrow, had it not been obsessed with EU membership, had it bravely gone it alone – NOT making alliances with the moral corpses of any established or other party, it would probably have long since been the UK government.

Do you, Mr Clouston, possess the spinal column to resist all siren songs for deals, alliances, partnerships with other political entities and go it all-achievingly alone or will you lead your followers down the same rabbit-hole?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Scott

‘Had the SDP plowed its own furrow, had it not been obsessed with EU membership,’

As I read the article I was wondering why the original SDP’s enthusiasm for the EEC/EU was not mentioned. To be fair, I was very pro-EEC/EU myself at the time, but it does seem to be something of an omission.

Mark H
Mark H
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

EEC membership makes a lot of sense when it is a bunch of nations getting together to determine mutually beneficial trade rules. Unelected government not so much, but I don’t that was on the cards in the SDP’s heyday?

Jean Fothers
Jean Fothers
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark H

Yes it was. The EU and more integration with an unelected govt was always the agenda.

stennessdevelopments
stennessdevelopments
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Scott

Owen’s vision – correct in my view – was for the SDP to replace Labour, to knock it out. Jenkins had other ideas but he was, after all, a liberal. Owenite social democracy is a very different political philosophy to liberalism. This was the principal reason the merger was wrong and why it hasn’t worked.

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
1 year ago

Agreed – ardently. But what resolve is there in you never to make any such mistake in your turn?

A party can start to make headway and then jump tracks to some ignis fatuus or marsh-flare which appears to offer much more proximate success than the steady autonomous good growth you rightly believe in.

To date Mr Farage has nuked two parties of his own leading, by just this tendency; thus –

[1] With UKIP – try to lure already elected MPs into its ranks; a bankrupt sterile initiative which did not cut the mustard.

[2] With the Brexit Party, he spent the October through early December of 2019 wittering on about doing a deal with the Tories; and then sank it fathoms deep by standing down half of his candidates in the (wholly needless) cause of sabotaging the LibDems; and so lost the 4-5 seats I think the BP would have won in the House of Commons on Dec. 12th that year.

Boris Johnson and all other MPs would have behaved much better ever since, if there had been that handful of bright citizens talking common sense in the HoC: something that has hardly been heard there for YEARS.

Ian nclfuzzy
Ian nclfuzzy
1 year ago

William, there is a tide in the affairs of men which, when taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

No one will tell you to go back to your constituencies and prepare for government, sadly.

Rather, know that your prospectus, brilliantly laid out in the New Declaration, has been co-opted by Boris and the new “Leveller Uppers” of the post-2019 Conservative Party.

A few heretics from the Left like the estimable Paul Embury, Maurice Glasman, Perry Anderson and Eric Kauffman have read the runes.

But the parliamentary Labour Party under Keir Starmer ?

I wish you and your party well. You have an outstanding prescription for Britain, and I’m delighted that the SDPs tide, 40 years on, seems to be at the flood.

stennessdevelopments
stennessdevelopments
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian nclfuzzy

Very kind Ian. Thank you.

aidanjohn7701
aidanjohn7701
1 year ago

Yes, but the problem is First Past the Post. Unless the electoral system is changed, the SDP will have no chance.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
1 year ago

Just read the SDPs manifesto including their stance on Brexit – the one the LibDems SHOULD have taken and didn’t.

https://sdp.org.uk/policies

stennessdevelopments
stennessdevelopments
1 year ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

The SDP’s ideas on Europe are very mainstream in the British context. We are strongly pro-european but highly sceptical of the EU. The Lib Dem position is quite a fringe viewpoint, although quite common among cultural elites.

Joe Francis
Joe Francis
1 year ago

Labour has always been a schizophrenic party. It developed from a mixture of non-conformist Christianity and patriotic self-help among the poor, but was grafted onto by socialists taking their doctrines, directly or indirectly, from so-called “scientific” Marxism. There was always a tension between the two factions and the SDP split was one of the results of that. Neil Kinnock’s expulsion of Militant was another. Unfortunately, they’ve crept back in as they usually do. They have to, because nobody with more than two brain cells will vote for a Marxist standing under his own banner.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago

If you listen to the extreme Left shouting ‘Fascist pig.’ at anyone who doesn’t happen to agree and then you look at the opponents of the Left (a bit afraid to say Right here because the Left has made ‘Right’ into a dirty word) who use equally nasty words to describe the Left (‘woke’ is the fashion of the moment) then it all gets a bit tiring. Why not cuddle up with a middle-of-the-road party which does not have such extreme views – and expresses its views calmly and quietly?
Mainly because being middle-of-the-road is not exciting or interesting. Nothing to talk about. In fact, I’m going to look at my stamp collection now to get a bit of excitement.

Walter Brigham
Walter Brigham
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Woke is not as nasty as fascist pig. In fact the left regards themselves as woke. If only they were enlightened.