What does the SDP’s story tell us about now?

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I’ve recently been reading Anthony King and Ivor Crewe’s history of the SDP and it got me thinking about the possible lessons the SDP has for anyone who wanted to try and set up a new party in the centre and/or create a new party as a centrist split group from the Labour party. I don’t think ‘the SDP failed, therefore any split now from Labour would also fail’ is an argument with much strength but I think it’s worth understanding why it happened and why it failed before we go insisting that there are direct parallels between it and what’s happening now.

The Gang Of Three Plus One

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A lot of coverage about the SDP presents the Gang of Four (Rodgers, Owen, Jenkins and Williams) as an initially monolithic group who mutually and spontaneously decided to create the new party and then later split apart. What that misses out is that Jenkins was a very late addition to the ‘Gang’ and his ideas were never quite the same as the other three’s (and they all had differences with each other two).

The essential question that the SDP never really found an answer to was what it was intended to be. For Owen (especially), Rodgers and Williams, it was meant to be a party of the moderate left that would eventually beat and replace Labour as the principal party of the left. Jenkins’ view, however, was much more about ‘breaking the mould’ of British politics by building a new force in the centre that could beat both the Conservatives and Labour. While the two views were broadly compatible within the new party, it faced the problem that it never clearly decided which route it was going to take.

The role of the Alliance

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This confusion also affected the relationship with the Liberals as there were different expectations about what it was for. At one extreme, it was a natural coming together of two parties with a similar outlook and positioning that represented a new way of doing politics based on consensus and co-operation. At the other it was seen as a necessary evil that gave the new party space to breathe, but shouldn’t have been rushed into as quickly as it was but rather negotiated from a position of strength after the SDP had shown its electoral muscle. (A later conspiratorial view from this perspective was that Jenkins and David Steel had a long game plan of merging into a single party from the beginning)

This lack of clarity on purpose meant that the parties would often waste a a lot of time and energy arguing with each other (and within each other) about how they should work together especially where they should co-operate and where they shouldn’t. It also led to problems in negotiations where meetings between people with different expectations and understandings of what the Alliance was about could end up talking past each other.

That said, it’s worth noting here the difference between the ‘elite’ Alliance at Westminster and the on-the-ground reality where local activists from the two parties often worked together very easily and often found themselves being blocked by the national leaderships when they pushed for more joint working and selection of candidates.

Breaking the mould, and reinventing the wheel

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As a new party, the SDP was free to try out new ways of running itself that in some ways foresaw how political parties would run today. This was partly out of necessity, of course, because there were no local groups or clubs members could sign up with, so they had to create a national infrastructure to allow for membership. This meant for the first time you could join a party on the phone and pay with a credit card, or fill in the slip in a newspaper advert and post it in. In 1981, being a member of the actual national party rather than its local branch was still an interesting novelty.

This led to the SDP adopting a lot of new ways of doing things — which was part of its image — and then discovering that the old ways were there for a reason, as they’d been built up over time because they were politically effective. Staff brought in from outside politics didn’t last long because the pressures of having to work in a political environment (especially one with four leaders, like the SDP at the start) were too much to adapt to.

Another question the SDP failed to be clear in its answer was about who owned the party — the leadership or the membership. It had created a very top-down system of running itself, where the leadership had quite strong powers to control the direction of the party, but then needed to recruit members who would do the work to make that into a reality. That balance is a dilemma all parties face, but it’s particularly tricky for a new party, especially one like the SDP, when part of the reason for founding the party was that the many reforms to Labour had taken too much power away from the leadership and forced the party away to the left.

But what are you actually going to do?

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Finally, we come to one of the persistent problems of third parties in the UK. While people can be generally positive about the idea of having a new party or supporting some kind of nebulous ‘change’ and/or ‘reform’, that’s because they’re assuming that the party’s policies, or the nature of the changes they’re going to enact, will be ones they support. The reality of a new party (or a movement) is entirely different as it actually has to either commit to something and risk alienating those who disagree, or staying vague and hoping it can muddle through. The SDP (and the Alliance) managed to suffer from both of these in that it had a long and detailed manifesto in which everyone could find something to disagree with if they wanted (or were pointed to it by other parties) but also didn’t have a distinctive policy stance that people could easily understand and identify with.

The SDP also suffered from a timing issue, launching itself in a very turbulent 1981 when calling for calm, moderation and co-operation did stand out, but then not having to face elections until 1983 when those weren’t the pressing issues, and the Alliance failed to be distinctive on the issues that were.

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again…

Just because the SDP faced all these problems — and didn’t resolve them, sowing the seeds of its eventual end — it doesn’t mean any new party or movement is doomed for the same reasons. (It could be doomed for entirely new and different reasons, of course) However, they are all issues it would need to resolve, even if the details of the questions are different to the ones they SDP faced:

  • What are you setting yourself up to be? A home for dissident MPs from Labour and/or Conservatives? A new movement of people from outside politics? Some combination of both?
  • Where will you sit, or want to sit, in the party system? Do you want to be bang in the middle, or somewhere to the left or right? Are you trying to compete with existing parties, co-operate with them, or replace them?
  • Are you actually innovating, or spending a lot of money to find out what already works? Maybe politics does need some disruption, but have you actually checked that someone hasn’t already tried your big idea? Are the skills you want to transplant from other fields as relevant in politics as you think they are?
  • What do you actually want to do if you win? You can promise lots of change and reform and doing things differently, but what would that mean in reality? Do you understand there’s a difference between campaigning and governing?

And yes, you can put forward an argument that the SDP didn’t fail, even if it wasn’t the final beneficiary of the changes the Gang of Four brought about in British politics. However, in its own terms and based on its own short-term expectations, it didn’t succeed in getting anywhere near national power during its independent existence because it failed to resolve its position on a lot of important points. Its failures don’t have to be replicated in any new party or movement, but anyone wanting to avoid them has to understand them first.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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