"The truth is that Britain is already a generally moderate country. It just doesn’t realise it. Conservative and Labour members may act like chalk and cheese, but it is crucial to remember that both parties, both socially and economically, sit not too far from the centre." Christian Wilkinson discusses the Social Democratic Party, a party which blends left-leaning economics and traditionalist social practices, and argues that the labour party may gain from adopting this more centrist approach.
A couple of Sunday Times’ ago, Rod Liddle wrote an article entitled “My party had definitely caught the public mood. Now all we need is some votes”. The party he is talking about is the Social Democratic Party (SDP). They are an economically left-leaning party like Labour, but with a patriotic and traditionalist social outlook, often associated with the Conservatives. Despite a thoroughly controversial leader at the helm (Google him, if you don’t believe me), the discerning St Andrean may wish to know a little more about this lesser-known party.
The SDP was founded in 1981 when four renegade moderates split from Michael Foot’s labour party, which they saw as too militant and too left-wing. The “Gang of Four” quite rightly recognised the need for a more centrist opposition in the face of a Tory party which would govern for an 18 year spell, mostly under Margret Thatcher. Foot’s successor, Neil Kinnock, tried to adopt a more social democratic stance after Foot lost the 1983 election, although it was too little too late, and Kinnock was continuously hampered by internal party squabbling and eventually suffered a landslide defeat to Thatcher in 1987.
The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberal Party (the SDP Liberal Alliance) which proved successful in the 1983 election, where they split the opposition vote almost in half – and in doing so delivering a crushing blow to Labour. However, their large share of the votes only manifested into 23 seats, as opposed to Labour’s 209. In 1987, the Alliance proved slightly less successful but still managed to snare 22.6% of the vote.
In 1988, the SDP and the Liberals threw in their lots and formally united to become the Liberal Democrats – a party with which readers will be more familiar. That was, seemingly, the end of the SDP. However, a new SDP survives today, albeit without any MPs or any meaningful influence over politics.
The blend of liberal and social democratic ideologies within the Alliance did not sit as well as one might think. Liddle is right to point out “the liberals are the last party with which a true social democrat would align themself”. The modern Liberal Democratic Party advocates socially progressive causes, and liberal economic policies, such as privatisation and an unhampered free market. Recently, they fashioned themselves as the true Remainer’s party (with decisiveness Corbyn’s Labour sorely lacked) with the colourful slogan: “B*llocks to Brexit”. On top of that, the current leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Ed Davey, is a staunch liberal who has openly expressed scepticism of socialism and social democracy alike. “Democrat”, as Liddle remarks, “is the vestigial tail” of the SDP within a party quite remote from its original, successful, approach. Thus, the modern SDP struggles on, in spite of the unification.
Liddle claims the party has only 2,000 members and a growth of roughly 100 per month. And whilst these are not numbers to inspire much confidence, there is perhaps reason to be optimistic for the centrist ideas of the SDP, if not the party itself. Despite increasingly shared ground between British parties (Brexit aside), a feeling of greater political division has been widely reported. It is only a matter of time before a party takes a more vocally centrist stance, in the vein of New Labour. It is true that the Liberal Democrats, as the biggest centrist party, have suffered dramatic losses in popularity over recent years, however, this is generally thought to be a result of their collation with David Cameron’s Conservative Party. Economically left-leaning centrism might be better received by the public.
The truth is that Britain is already a generally moderate country. It just doesn’t realise it. Conservative and Labour members may act like chalk and cheese, but it is crucial to remember that both parties, both socially and economically, sit not too far from the centre. I would like to believe that Britain will come to recognise itself as a more centrist country in the coming years. It quite clearly won’t mould into the shape of the SDP – not in the foreseeable future, anyway. But maybe social democracy still has a fighting chance.
If any party were to swing towards social democracy, it would most likely be Labour. It is much easier to shift the social focus of a party than the backbone of economic principles, meaning both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats probably won’t adopt social democracy any time soon. More importantly, Labour already has a strong social democrat, or “soft labour”, faction (typified by the likes of Lisa Nandy). Keir Starmer is already trying to make a clear distinction between himself and Jeremy Corbyn with the slogan “New Leadership” and, according to a recently leaked document, by encouraging the party to make use of the “flag, veterans and dressing smartly”. If even superficially, Starmer recognises the need to shed the image of Corbynism if Labour are to reclaim any of the many seats they lost in the last election. But perhaps labour will need more than a new lick of red paint. Maybe something a little more purple, or blue and red stripes. A more genuine approach towards the combination of tradition and leftist economics might work. This doesn’t mean they must regress to the alleged bigotry of Liddle, it just means they need to stop being thought of as a party of crusty Marxists and self-righteous student activists.
After all, there is no reason why patriotic Britons should feel obliged to vote Conservative. Boris Johnson wasn’t elected for his economic strategies; he was elected because he seemed to genuinely like our country and believe it could succeed despite Brexit. Also, he wasn’t Corbyn. The one-nation Conservatism pioneered by Disraeli seems to still work for Johnson today, and it shouldn’t be difficult for Labour to tackle.
Naturally, an openly socially democratic Labour would lose some of the student vote they cherished in the last election. It is evident that students are primarily concerned with social justice issues, and not so much with economics. But as has been proven, the student vote is regrettably not enough for a party to succeed. Students might instead vote for the Liberal Democrats or, as Owen Jones argued in the Guardian, the Greens. Not many will vote Conservative though and, at the moment, that’s all that should matter for Labour.
The political landscape here in Scotland shall naturally be determined by the fate of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and a second independence referendum – or lack thereof. If the SNP fail to deliver on their promises to Scotland however, Labour must act decisively to reclaim the throng of seats lost in the 2015 election and make sure the Liberal Democrats don’t swoop in and take them. I don’t know how well a social democratic Labour would be received; they might risk being thought too English, as Johnson is. Then again, if the SNP lose their hold on Scotland, the Union may be in somewhat better shape, and social democracy might once more gain traction across the kingdom.