Was the SDP a success?

In the completely different political era of seven months ago, I wrote a piece about the SDP and what their experience could teach us about politics now. At a time when there was lots of talk but still little action on creating new centrist parties, I took an attitude of “here’s where the SDP went wrong, what are you going to do to avoid that fate?”

Since I wrote that, the political landscape has somewhat changed. While one of the proposed new centrist parties that prompted that post has yet to bring itself to launch we have had the interesting spectacle of The Independent Group/Change UK and its attempts to change British politics from within.

Awaiting the verdict of history

A few months after it launched, the SDP was surging in the polls, was benefiting from a stream of defections at MP and councillor levels, and was almost winning the safe Labour seat of Warrington in a by-election. At a similar point in its existence, Change UK is flatlining in the polls, has had no further defections after its initial week, isn’t standing in the Peterborough by-election, looks likely to win no MEPs and its own leader is floating the possibility that it may not exist by the time the next general election comes about.

The key question here though isn’t what Change UK and others have got wrong. Rather, it’s to ask whether we’ve been looking at the SDP through the wrong prism and instead of presenting them as an example of political failure, we should instead be examining the reasons for their success. Why, when so many other attempts to break the mould of British politics collapsed to nothing so quickly, did the SDP do so well? And how did they rise so quickly when other parties that have eventually broken through have taken a long time to do it?

Of course, if we look at it in its own terms, the SDP was a failure. It didn’t break the old party system, it didn’t drive Roy Jenkins or David Owen to Downing Street and it never won more than a handful of MPs at a general election. Taking a wider view, though, we can see that it achieved things other new parties and breakaways have seldom managed. Even with the political fragmentation we’ve experienced over the past few years, there are only a small number of parties who’ve succeeded in electing MPs to Westminster. There’s an even smaller number who’ve consistently received over 10% in opinion polls over a number of years, or who’ve been treated as a main party by the media. All this from a party that had been building up to it for decades would have been impressive, but the complete life of the SDP from Limehouse Declaration to merging with the Liberals was just seven years.

So, if we are to look at the SDP through the frame of being a success, what did they get right? I think there are three main areas that gave them their relative success.

Being a new kind of political party

One issue I think a lot of people miss — even seasoned political commentators and analysts — is how much the nature of our political parties has changed over the last few decades. When we talk about British political parties in the 20th century we’re talking about organisations that mainly didn’t have a formal organisation in themselves but were more umbrella terms for a group of organisations that meshed together in support of a Parliamentary grouping. For instance, when we talk about how millions of people were Conservative members in the 50s, what we actually mean is that millions of people were members of their local Conservative Club and/or Association and a lot of them were members purely for social reasons, not political ones.

The SDP was different. From its very beginning it was a formal, national organisation that you joined centrally by sending in a form or calling and joining by credit card. It was able to recruit and mobilise a membership on predominantly national issues and perspectives, not on local activism and social connections. The scale and pace at which the party organised would be remarkable now, but doing that in the early 80s a greater achievement than they were given credit for.

Working with the Liberals

Accounts of the SDP and the SDP-Liberal Alliance often focus on the level of discord between the two parties, particularly the fractious relationships between the leaders of the two parties. It’s entirely natural to do so, but accounts that focus on the division miss one obvious point: we have no idea if that level of discord between British political leaders in an alliance is normal or not, because we have no other alliance to compare it to. We spend too much time looking at the details and flaw of the Alliance and not enough noticing how remarkable it was to put together.

Look at the problems Greens and Liberal Democrats have had in brokering co-operation in just a few seats over the last few years, or the mutual recriminations over the lack of a joint Remain party list for the European elections. Now compare that to two parties, neither of which were short on egos in their ranks, being able to agree joint candidacies in not only two general elections but also across council elections including several joint administrations.

Being ambitious

There’s an oldjoke about the SDP having been formed in order to further Roy Jenkins’ “great crusade to change everything...just a little bit.” The SDP is often presented as being a party with no policies or ambitions but that can often miss the ambition the party had when it started. Parties, especially in Britain, usually start small and grow over time, expanding their ambitions as they grow. The SDP, especially in its early days, was not a party planning to develop through a steady incremental growth. Either through forging a new space in the centre or replacing Labour as the main party of the centre-left, both Jenkins and Owen thought the party would be a major player in government sooner rather than later and presented themselves accordingly. “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for Government” may have been spoken by a Liberal, but it was a common sentiment across the Alliance.

We see the SDP as a failure because we’re judging it in terms of its own ambitions and those were much loftier than its achievements, but those ambitions were a key component in the SDP getting as far as it did. Their message wasn’t one of nudging the larger parties to a different position, being a home for protest votes, or getting a pet issue of theirs to higher public prominence, it was that they were a serious party of government and needed to be treated as such. Indeed, a lot of their problems post-1983 stem from them not fully understanding the gulf between their ambitions and their abilities.

So, when we talk about the SDP we shouldn’t be so quick to brand them as failures or even that they show every new centrist party is doomed to failure. Compared to the handful of established parties they may have failed, but compared to the hundreds of attempts to set up new parties before or after them, their level of success is a sight to behold.