by William Clouston
Monday, 25
January 2021

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. 

Join the discussion

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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