No roots, no principles: the SDP and Change UK

By David Osland

A split was supposed to be the last thing on Shirley Williams’ mind. A new centre party, the Callaghan-era cabinet minister pronounced, would have “no roots, no principles, no philosophy, and no values.”

But not long after penning that unimprovably pungent edict, she joined three former colleagues in launching one anyway.

Now we have reached the 40th anniversary of the Limehouse Declaration of January 1981, the statement that led directly to the foundation of the Social Democratic Party two months later.

With posthumous praise for the brave mould-breakers certain to be boundless, consider, if you will, an alternative retrospective assessment.

Williams and her friends Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers and David Owen came to the fore as a quartet of high profile Labour right wingers, united by the solitary idée fixe that Labour was becoming too radical, and above all, too democratic.

The Gang of Four – as they were instantly dubbed, despite the lack of any crystalline affinity with Mao Zedong Thought – were determined to undertake pre-emptive action against what was soon to unfold.

In May, Ken Livingstone emerged as leader of the Greater London Council; in September, Tony Benn came within a single percentage point of securing Labour’s deputy leadership. Most dangerously of all, mandatory reselection was suddenly as fashionable as lumberjack shirts, Levi 501s and tutu skirts.

It’s not that the SDP evidenced any real cohesion, even at inception. Jenkins somehow saw it as a second Liberal Party, even though one was already in existence, while Owen favoured the reinvention of a hard right Labour Party Mark Two.

But in the absence of roots, principles, philosophy and values, shared opposition to socialism offered the weak intellectual glue that allowed the new outfit temporarily to hang together at least as solidly as a badly-constructed schoolboy model aircraft kit.

The Limehouse Declaration had been years in the making, of course. Former Labour deputy leader Jenkins had been moving closer to leading Liberal David Steel ever since the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the Common Market. He had explicitly been calling for a new centrist vehicle since the Dimbleby Lectures were broadcast in 1979.

Once the break came, the SDP rapidly attracted defections from 28 Labour MPs not to mention a solitary double-barrelled surname Tory, and in June formed an electoral pact with the Liberals. But even then, the ablest social democrats – small s, small d – such as Roy Hattersley and Peter Shore stayed with Labour.

By the end of the year, the two parties were topping 50% in the polls, and Steel, by now Liberal leader, famously advised conference attendees to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government.”

If the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, the Alliance was briefly bigger than the Human League, bigger even than Soft Cell. But this was Tainted Love, and the triumphalism was not sustained.

The Conservatives substantially increased their Westminster majority in 1983, thanks in part to the Falklands, but also due to the division in the non-Tory vote. Thatcher retained power in 1987, and Britain had to endure another Tory decade.

Before long, hard centres came in three flavours. The main contingents merged into the Social and Liberal Democrats, while Owen went his separate way, soldiering on as the ‘continuing’ SDP. There was even an ongoing Liberal Party, known as the ‘Meadowcroft Liberals’ after its leading light.

There were codas; Jenkins became an important influence on New Labour, and only the scale of the Labour landslide in 1997 stymied plans to bring what by then had been rebranded as the Liberal Democrats into Blair’s big tent.

The apogee of Lib Dem influence came instead in the shape of a bit part in a Tory-led austerity coalition.

But they have now been relegated to the status of fourth party, at least until Scotland gets independence, and are currently being ignominiously outpolled by the Greens.

The conclusions should be easy to draw. Major realignments in British politics don’t happen because a handful of disgruntled Labour MPs decree them, and little could scream paucity of ambition as loudly as  actually wanting to be the second coming of the SDP.

Yet such were the horizons of The Independent Group/Change UK, a similar breakaway from Labour less than two years ago.

Granted, nobody nicknamed Chuka Umunna, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie and Luciana Berger after hardline Chinese communists, even in humorous affectation.

But substitute Corbynism for Bennism, and reintroduce the spectre of mandatory reselection haunting pro-Europeans and the instant addition of a clutch of posh Tory ship-jumpers, and the parallels with the Gang of Four were entirely obvious.

TIG, too, had been a long time in the making, and if sympathetic journalists could be believed, the new party enjoyed access to as much as £50m in funding from wealthy centrist donors.

If there were any weight in the contention that the country was screaming out for a barely left-of-centre pro-EU alternative to Jezza’s nasty leftism, its success should have been foreordained.

But the venture was so badly organised that it never transcended bad tribute act status. By the time TIG MP Angela Smith described black and brown Britons as possessors of a “funny tinge” on live television in the very week that the vessel came down the slipway, the haplessness was apparent.

TIG – rapidly reincarnated as Change UK – did not survive its first contact with the electorate in the last euro-elections, and couldn’t even get its act together for the 2019 general election.

Instead, several of its MPs prematurely immolated their careers by standing against Labour as unsuccessful Lib Dem parliamentary candidates.

Britain won’t have seen the last of this brand of political failure. One way or another, these guys, or at least their successors, will be back.

From the Labour right, there have been suggestions that the five-year ban on those running against Labour candidates joining or rejoining should be waived in a gesture of post-Corbyn conciliation, despite the risk of rehabilitation incentivising apostasy.

Even from sections of the Labour left, the demand is for a progressive alliance, conceding the next general election four years before it is due to take place, on the premise that only joint candidacies with the Lib Dems can prevent Tory victory in 2024.

But an adult lifetime away from Limehouse, the lessons need to be reiterated, not least to some who were around at the time.

Because truth be told, Shirley Williams got it pretty much right about new centre parties. And if the SDP underlined that point as tragedy, Change UK certainly proved it as farce.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North and Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time leftwing journalist and author.

Image: Shirley Williams. Source: Baroness Shirley Williams. Author: David Spender,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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