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.

It was against such inflated expectations that the result of the 1983 General Election was judged. With 25.4 per cent of the vote in the United Kingdom compared to Labour’s 27.6 per cent, the Alliance came very close to supplanting the Labour Party in popular support. Twenty-three Alliance MPs was more than the Liberals had won on their own for 50 years, and the comparison with Labour’s 209 seats dramatically made the point about the huge unfairness of the electoral system. Despite this, Roy Jenkins’s experimental aircraft (his own metaphor) was deemed to have crashed and, as a result, the chief pilot was ditched. The Alliance had become the victim of the SDP’s initial soaring success and of Mrs Thatcher’s expedition to the South Atlantic.

The second phase of the SDP began with David Owen as its new leader. This was marked by a barely suppressed tension between himself and many Social Democrats as he took the Party towards the right. But the authority of his leadership and a sustained performance of great skill in Parliament and on television kept the SDP in the public eye. Of the 16 by-elections held between 1983 and 1987, the Alliance won five and was second in ten. In the 1987 General Election, however, a refurbished Labour Party mounted a brilliant campaign, recapturing from the Alliance its own former voters and sending Tories fearful of a Labour victory scuttling back to their old loyalties. The outcome for the Alliance was creditable – 22.6 per cent of the vote and 22 MPs – but the lessons to be learnt were plain. It was no longer sufficient for the SDP and the Liberals to be two separate parties, each with its own leader.

Despite superficial good will between David Owen and David Steel, each had run his own show. In particular, David Owen had preferred the company and advice of a small group of friends to working through the Alliance. As the Alliance candidate in Milton Keynes, I had been fighting the best organised and most intensive (and enjoyable) of my ten Parliamentary contests. But long before Polling Day I realised that the national campaign had not acquired the momentum essential to a breakthrough. Only a single party with a single leadership could compete successfully and win public confidence.

At the time of the Limehouse Declaration, there were no substantial discussions amongst the Gang of Four about future relations between Social Democrats and Liberals. An alliance of some kind was assumed, but not made explicit. In earlier talks between Roy Jenkins and David Steel, Steel had proposed what he called ‘a non-aggression pact’, perhaps leading to merger at some later date. This was my own assumption – a partnership of equals who would grow closer through the exchange of ideas and the experience of working together. At the launch of the SDP, I said that it would fight half the Parliamentary seats at the General Election – over three hundred – and the Liberals the other half. And when Shirley Williams and I met David Steel at the Anglo-German Königswinter Conference a few days later, we agreed that negotiations should take place over the division of seats on that basis.

But there was some difference within the SDP about how close the two parties should be and whether common interests or separateness should mainly characterise the relationship. Of the Gang of Four, Roy Jenkins was most inclined to favour closeness, although he did not envisage merger short of a general election; and David Owen was the most cautious about any coming-together. He did not favour the ‘Königswinter compact’, believing that the SDP was the senior partner who gave the Alliance its electoral credibility. In private he seemed to wrestle with the idea of merger, accepting its inevitability. But after 1983 and during the period of his leadership there was a public hardening of his attitude. It was clear that he found the idea of managing a merged party, with the concessions and compromises it would involve, profoundly distasteful. He saw himself as the leader of a disciplined fighting force, not the prisoner (as he believed he would become) of a sprawling, disrespectful and heterogeneous guerrilla army. Overall he remained committed to a half-coherent idea that the two parties should remain loosely together within the Alliance until Proportional Representation had been achieved. After that they would be free to fight each other and to choose other coalition partners. In this and in other ways David Owen became increasingly estranged front Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and me – and, as it turned out, the majority of SDP members. After 1983, no impediment should have been put in the way of the evolutionary convergence of the two parties, at local as well as national level. This was the inescapable political logic both of the strength of the Alliance and of its shortcomings.

An amicable, orderly merger did not take place, and the SDP was torn apart. Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and I took the core of the SDP’s leadership and of its activists into the liberal Democrats. David Owen struggled on for three damaging years with his own, personal rump of supporters until retiring into exile. Many of those who joined the SDP with a song in their hearts withdrew from politics altogether, saddened and disillusioned.

So what did the SDP achieve, and what has it left behind? First, the political map of Britain has changed significantly. The Liberal Democrats have 20 MPs and, as heir to the Alliance, remain in second place in 227 Conservative seats and a serious threat to the sitting Member in perhaps fifty. Ten years ago there were fewer than a thousand Liberal Councillors. Today there are over three thousand Liberal Democrat Councillors, and Liberal Democrats are in outright control of a dozen Councils. Even those who claim that Britain has reverted to two-party politics concede newspaper space and broadcasting time to Liberal Democrat views and activities. Where the Liberal Party in the Sixties and Seventies was generally treated with tolerant ridicule, the party led by Paddy Ashdown is taken seriously. It is possible that the next general election will produce a result for the Liberal Democrats much like that for the Alliance in 1987. They may do rather better in the seats where they were second last time and rather worse where Labour is clearly the challenger to the sitting Tory Member. Who knows, twenty or more Liberal Democrat MPs might yet hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament.

The success of the SDP was underpinned, from the beginning, by economic changes that were eroding the Labour Party’s traditional blue-collar base and creating a socially-mobile meritocracy. A growing salaried class of managers and administrators, professionals and semi-professionals, was politically footloose and it was attracted by the non-ideological mixture of economic and social policies offered by the Alliance. Such voters may continue to choose the Liberal Democrats, especially when there is some prospect of electing a Liberal Democrat MP.

They will be attracted by a number of policy issues upon which the Liberal Democrats are unequivocal and distinctive. The Liberal Democrats are more committed than either of the other main parties to Britain’s constructive membership of the European Community and the development of its economic, financial and, above all, its political institutions. They alone believe in Proportional Representation, in a Bill of Rights and in the other radical, constitutional changes promoted by Charter 88 and recently rejected once again by the Labour party at Roy Hattersley’s bidding. These issues evoke a strong, positive response from a growing number of voters. In particular, PR is now firmly on the political agenda. If the electorate remains sceptical of Labour’s capacity to manage a market economy and to be reliable on defence, and of Tory claims to care about health, housing and education, then the Liberal Democrats in 1991-92 may yet have a pulling power similar to that of the Alliance in its best years. But what if they end up with a smaller share of the vote than the 19.3 per cent won by Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberal party in 1974 and fewer than his 14 MPs? What if Limehouse finally proves to have been a bridge too far?

In that case, the achievement of the SDP and the Alliance it formed with the Liberals will be judged mainly by its impact on the Labour and Conservative Parties. Labour leaders will continue to protest, as Denis Healey has done, that the SDP’s ‘most important effect was to delay the Labour Party’s recovery by nearly ten years, and to guarantee Mrs Thatcher two more terms in office’. This is nonsense. It is inconceivable that an unreformed Labour Party could have won in 1983 under Michael Foot. The depth of its defeat in 1979, the extent of its internal disorder and the strength of Mrs Thatcher’s post-Falklands appeal would have overwhelmed it. As for 1987, its return to sanity was still too recent, precarious and incomplete to erase memories of its recent failures and reverse the tide of Thatcherism then running.

Far from delaying Labour’s recovery, the launch of the SDP and the narrow margin of votes between Labour and the Alliance in 1983 forced the soft left led by Neil Kinnock to make common cause with the centre and right of the Labour Party in order to save it from annihilation. The threat from the Alliance was the main reason for the modernisation of the Labour Party. Peter Mandelson was given a tree hand to follow where the SDP had already led. Labour remains cautious on Europe, uneasy on defence and conservative on constitutional reform. The institutional authority of the Trade Unions, enhanced in 1980-81, is unimpaired; and through the electoral college, it is they who will effectively choose the next Labour leader. But over a wide spectrum the Labour Party has been remade in the image of the SDP. If Her Majesty’s Opposition is now in serious business again as a potential government of Britain, it is because the SDP showed the way.

As for the Conservative Party, John Major will certainly move it back onto the middle ground. In the Limehouse Declaration we said that we wanted ‘to create an open, classless and more equal society, one which rejects ugly prejudices based on sex, race or religion’. This required, we added, ‘the innovating strength of a competitive economy’, which would enable the quality of public and community services to be improved and made more responsive to people’s needs. John Major could be the first Tory prime minister to endorse such sentiments – a social democrat in all but name. The initial success of the SDP showed beyond all doubt the appeal of a party which preferred a market economy to collectivism, but was strongly committed to the Welfare State and the liberty of the individual. The Liberal Democrats may yet be able to turn this appeal into potential strength. But in any case the Gang of Four has left a permanent legacy for which the two old parties will compete. Whatever may happen, the founding of the SDP at Limehouse ten years ago means that nothing in British politics will be quite the same again. I, for one, have no regrets.