British Politics has become increasingly tribal. Both of the main parties now have been dragged by their extreme wings away from the centre-ground and towards increasingly exaggerated positions. Both seem to have drifted away from their core purpose and now appear to pander to powerful sects as their leaders try and remain in control. The Conservative leader, Theresa May, is constantly harried by the European Reform Group whilst the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is kept in position by the Momentum group. Neither leader commands the respect of the majority of their party and only survive by compromising vision and honesty for pragmatic coalitions which allow them to remain in power.
We were in a similar position in the 1980’s when Labour had its troubles with the hard left Militant Tendency and the Conservatives were being dragged further rightwards by the strength of the Monday Club. There was considerable unhappiness and it looked as if the large parties might split asunder into different parties. In 1981, four senior labour MP’s (David Owen, Bill Rogers, Shirley Winters, and Roy Jenkins ; the Gang of Four) did break away and set up the Council for Social Democracy by issuing the Limehouse Declaration. This subsequently established the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the UK which had considerable initial success. 28 Labour and 1 Conservative MP joined the party and over the first few years it had growing electoral success. In 1983 it took 25% of the national vote. However, this was not sustained and by 1987 the party merged with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats in 1987.
I have some personal experience of these events as I was one of the Labour Party election organisers who helped in the 1987 general election. I worked with the team to make sure that Roy Jenkins lost his Glasgow, Hillhead seat to the Labour Candidate George Galloway. In those days I saw the SDP as turncoats and traitors who were splitting the left vote and was quite convinced that my mission was to get a true socialist goverment into power. How life has changed ! But why am I thinking about the SDP in 2019 ?
It seems the SDP never went away. I was listening to a podcast, by the Anglican priest Giles Fraser, and learnt that the SDP continued and recently issued a renewed declaration. In his podcast he wondered if the SDP would provide a home for many people who, like him, find themselves politically homeless. I read the declaration and had to agree with him; there was nothing objectionable and much with which to agree.
They recognise the failures of our current two major parties :-
The Conservative party has conserved very little and instead, has put everything up for sale. Labour has abandoned the nation’s working men and women.
and recognise that if we are to preserve democracy it is important to keep it local :-
We consider the nation-state to be the upper limit of democracy. Along with the family, we regard it as indispensable to the solidarity of our society and concern for our fellow citizens. We regard supranationalism as a neoliberal ideology aimed at neutering domestic politics and placing the most important issues beyond the reach of ordinary voters.
Socially and personally they avoid the excesses of libertarianism whilst keeping true to socially liberal beliefs. They are aware that there has been increasing intolerance in our society and a tendency to fragment our communities by the pernicious use of identity politics. They stress the importance of mutuality, rather than law, to bind communities together and this is an important aspect of politics which is rarely discussed by the main parties :-
We believe ‘fraternity vs division’ to be a key watershed question in all Western societies. Fraternity must prevail.
We regard kindness and mutuality as a political rather than a legal achievement which relies on free consent rather than legal obligation. Excessive individualism – of both the social and economic variety – has regrettably led some citizens to believe they don’t share a common fate with their neighbours. They do.
On the economic front they recognise the dangers of rampant neoliberalism, and the adverse effects of globalisation, but appear also to recognise that there needs to be boundaries to the state’s intervention in a social market economy. They see the public and private sectors as complimentary and see a natural boundary between them :-
The correct frontier between the public and private sector is determinable. Natural monopolies – the utilities requiring universal delivery to citizens – should be returned to public ownership and operation or be subjected to significantly more effective regulation.
There are interesting and positive bits on the family, the welfare state, culture and mutuality. On reading it I felt that there was really little to which any reasonable person could take objection. So is this the start of a change ? Or will this be like the 1980’s again ? Can a party which tries to push for a middle-road out of our present chaos ever gain enough traction to get moving ? I would like to think so and will watch their progress closely, although I am aware that in these acrimonious times they are going to have an uphill battle to make any headway. If they do, I will find myself, 30 years later, in the unusual position of being on the exact other side of a political divide. Perhaps my team will win again.