What happened to the SDP, and what could still happen

William Rodgers

To the west of the Isle of Dogs, a mile or so towards the City of London, a Victorian bridge spans the entrance canal to the Limehouse Basin. Ten years ago, London’s docklands were still largely derelict, and few vehicles passed that way on a Sunday. So there was no problem for the reporters and television crews who blocked the bridge in the pale sunshine of a winter’s afternoon. This was 25 January 1981, and the launch of the manifesto that came to be known as the Limehouse Declaration.

When Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and I met together that morning, we were clear in our intention: in breaking the mould of contemporary politics, we would create a new radical centre, push the Labour Party into third place, change the electoral system and usher in an era of multi-party democracy. Mrs Thatcher had been eighteen months in Downing Street, and Michael Foot had become the Labour leader three months before. Britain was being pulled apart by ideology and extremism. We would draw into politics people of talent and good will – the ‘political virgins’ – who were alienated by the dogmatism and sterility of confrontational party conflict. We had all approached the occasion at different speeds and with varying hesitation. I had been a member of the Labour Party for over thirty years. Breaking away was immensely distressing, and for more than a fortnight I was crippled by back pains that made it almost impossible to move.

In Hugh Gaitskell’s time I had fought in his support to save the Labour Party that he and I both loved. In 1971 I had voted for Britain’s entry to the European Community in despair that Harold Wilson had turned a somersault on a great historic issue. Later in the Seventies I had warned that Labour’s legitimate Left had become a Trojan Horse for the hard left wreckers. Then, as a member of Jim Callaghan’s Cabinet. I had become aware of the overbearing influence of the Trade Unions, culminating in the Winter of Discontent.

As a member of the Shadow Cabinet, following Labour’s 1979 defeat, I had consistently opposed, together with David Owen, a further surrender to both the Left and the Unions. There had been precious little support from colleagues. Denis Healey often missed crucial meetings: despite his vast experience and natural belligerence, there was no fight in him. Roy Hattersley was ever seeking compromises that slipped away into nothingness. Others, sound at heart, were wearied by the struggle and simply hoped it would go away. As I rose from my sick bed, I was convinced that the Labour Party was past saving from within.

The response to the Limehouse Declaration was immediate and overwhelming. It was as if a vast crowd of men and women had been assembling in silence to wait for the leadership we now offered. It was a period of exhilaration and hope quite unlike anything I had known before, even the announcement of Labour’s 1945 victory which, as a schoolboy, I had witnessed front the steps of St George’s Hall, Liverpool, or my first entry into government as a minister in 1964.

Throughout 1981 and in the first quarter of 1982, the Alliance was level-pegging with the Conservatives and Labour in the opinion polls, touching an extraordinary 50 per cent in voting intentions in December 1981. At its first Parliamentary contest, at Warrington in July 1981, Roy Jenkins almost unseated Labour in one of its safest seats. By-election victories soon followed at Croydon North-West, Crosby and Glasgow, Hillhead. Overflowing public meetings were worthy of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign. Although the Falklands War brought this period of euphoria to a close, morale in the Alliance remained high.

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