The Social Democratic Party, yes, the one formed in 1981 – sort of – are enjoying something of a renaissance. They have emerged from the political wilderness with a fresh policy platform, its tone neatly surmised by their new slogan: Family, Community, Nation. They intend to speak directly to the long-neglected constituency of voters who lean left on the economy, and right on culture. Boris won his 2019 landslide, because he identified this sweet spot of psephology and reshaped the Conservative party accordingly, and Keir Starmer’s new look Labour party is being remade in the same mould, for the same reasons. And arguably the SDP’s resurgence has played a role in instigating the battle for the blue-collar vote, their influence amplified by high profile supporters such as Rod Liddle. But now that the flag wars are well and truly on, what need for the SDP remains? Well, they have a compelling answer – that Labour are not truly patriotic, and that the Tories don’t really believe in levelling up – the SDP on the other hand, claim to believe in both.
Brexit reactivated the working class. The politics of the Blair-Cameron years were about winning over the Waitrose Shopper, as the Workington man turned off from party politics, alienated by a neoliberal consensus, ‘they’re all the same’ was a common refrain of the 2000’s, a decade marked by historically low general election turnout. But in 2016 the EU referendum mobilised millions of non-voters into action from traditional Labour territories, as life long loyalists lined up outside polling stations in their millions to defy their ancestral parties’ line on the European Union. It’s in this environment that the SDP enjoys a renewed relevance.
But let’s not jump the gun – the SDP could still be accurately described as a minor party. Though their leader, William Clouston, recently reported SDP membership had doubled in recent times, he admitted that this doubling had started from a low baseline. Despite having previously had a handful of councillors, and an MEP thanks to a defection from UKIP in the shape of Patrick O’Flynn, the SDP have no elected representatives as of the time of writing. And the odds that the insurgent party will break through at the ballot box will only shorten, because Brexit has, ironically, hamstrung the Eurosceptic SDP’s capacity to make a splash. The D’Hondt voting system used for European Parliamentary elections was a gift to UKIP, and the Brexit Party thereafter. While in 2015 UKIP received 4 million votes in the general election, and won only 1 seat, the year before UKIP had received 4.3 Million votes in the EU election and won outright, beating the Tories into 3rd place. Strasbourg and Brussels made for an excellent soapbox upon which Nigel Farage would performatively hammer successive European Presidents for the benefit of a British audience. Farage’s cries of ‘Who are you?’ to the former President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, helped to make Nigel (and Rompuy, funnily enough) a household name. Unfortunately for the SDP, they have no such soapbox at their disposal going forward. Though they are increasingly known to politicos and have established a strong online presence, their purchase on the mainstream of public consciousness remains limited. But even given these limitations, its important not to understate the influence they appear to be exerting on the Labour Party.
Starmer’s February the 18th speech, which was an attempt at arresting his polling decline, was spearheaded by a proposal to introduce a ‘British recovery bond’, a policy that the SDP had called for in July of last year. And, the Labour Party’s new look and its supposed damascene conversion to the virtue of family, Christian values, and community bears a striking resemblance to the SDP’s 2018 ‘New Declaration’. Of course, there are other factors at play, not least Labour’s decimation at the last election, the new figures in their top team, and the damning indictments of a thousand focus groups – but this new direction was not inevitable. Labour could have maintained its metropolitan character, and looked to form a so-called progressive alliance with the Greens and the Liberals rather than trying to meet the Conservatives in open battle on the question of culture. And this progressive alliance is a strategy preferred by Labour’s membership, and a great deal if not most of its MP’s – that the leadership have totally discounted it is at least testament to concerns that another general election defeat could open the door to another party to replace them as the main opposition, and perhaps they identify the SDP as a longshot prospect.
That they are a party, rather than a tendency, means that the SDP can punch above their weight. Just as UKIP transformed the Tory party from the outside far more effectively than Conservative Eurosceptics could have ever hoped to do from the inside, the ever-present fear of losing votes ensures that Labour cannot rest on its laurels while the SDP’s tanks are parked on its lawn. While Blue Labourites largely bit the bullet and went out to vote for a second referendum in 2019, there is no expectation that SDP supporters would ever do the same. It’s this philosophy which has ensured that Lawrence Fox’s new Reclaim party, which will almost certainly never put an MP into Parliament, has attracted millions of pounds in donations. The dissatisfaction of Conservatives toward the Prime Minister’s recalcitrance to mount a red-blooded defence of British heritage is remedied with a threat from without, rather than lesser effective lobbying from within, and on the basis of recent Government announcements, it’s already bearing fruit. This is one of the reasons that from now until the next election, Labour will likely sound more and more like the SDP.
But the way the SDP looks, rather than sounds, which is a barrier to entry. They use the same stilted logo that from 80’s, which in the light of modernity is jarringly anachronistic. It’s not the Nike tick or the McDonald’s ‘M’ – the value in keeping the vintage logo for the benefit of a small number of baby boomers would be far outweighed by the benefits of replacing it with something more contemporary. And though the party has friends in Talk Radio, The Spectator and The Express, the SDP’s ability to get in front of a mass terrestrial audience is naturally limited by their lack of elected representation. And this isn’t a criticism – with a pandemic on its hard to make significant inroads – but it is an important observation. But that the SDP are managing to exert as much influence as they are, and growing as rapidly as they have, in spite of the hurdles, the missteps, and the challenging climate will reassure its members that there is indeed life in the old dog yet. They are as unlikely to win an MP as the Reclaim party, but far more likely to win a slate of councillors – particularly because unlike Reclaim or Reform, they have a holistic policy programme that deals with economic as well as cultural security. And I hope they do make inroads, because Labour needs an SDP shaped watchdog, just as the Tories needed UKIP – even the opposition benefits from opposition. So, while we might not see Mr. Clouston in Downing Street anytime soon, his level headed leadership may well do us all a service by keeping Labour in check.