The future of Social Democracy: 40 years after the Limehouse Declaration

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On the 25 January 1981, Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams and David Owen issued a joint statement signalling intent to leave the Labour party and form a new Council for Social Democracy that would later become the SDP.

Stemming from disagreements over the recent Wembley conference and an increasing far-left stranglehold from the Militant tendency, the ‘Gang of Four’ made the heart-breaking decision to leave their political home and start anew.

As I was born in 1990 the moments above are of pure historical reference to me, however, I have often felt a kinship to Jenkins, Rodgers and Williams in this regard.

I grew up in the Labour movement, I joined the party aged 15 having been a direct beneficiary of the New Labour Government in 1997 and the Lib-Lab Coalition in Holyrood. I grew up in a single income household, where my Dad worked nightshift on manufacturing lines at IBM to provide for our family. Growing up one word was always echoed by my Dad ‘Opportunity’, the chance to get on and improve your life. That’s why he went to College part-time and earned himself an HNC, moving into the office-based environment at IBM.

In 2011 my Dad was elected as the Labour MP for Inverclyde, still believing in those principles of opportunity and building people up to succeed. I was immensely proud, so proud in fact I served as his election agent in 2015.

Then in 2019 I had a decision to make. I’d been a Labour council candidate in Reading and Chaired/Founded the Fabian Devolution Committee but the party since 2015 had moved so far left, my politics hadn’t changed but the voices around me had: ‘Home ownership is wrong’ and ‘All business is evil’ are actual quotes of things I heard people say.

I moved to the Liberal Democrats, as the only party that can truly stand up for the policies and principles of Social Democracy.

That’s why I’m immensely proud to have contributed to the new book The Future of Social Democracy, published by the Social Democrat Group. With a host of stellar contributors and striking foreword by Sir Vince Cable we lay out a vision of Liberal-Social Democracy that can tackle a growing tide of Nationalism and Populism at home and abroad.

It’s a book steeped in the values that brought two great traditions together Liberalism and Social Democracy in founding the Liberal Democrats. The politics of not only Jenkins, Rodgers and Williams but Ashdown and Kennedy, tackling the bread and butter issues we must focus on to build back a strong progressive movement for change steeped in social justice.

To order a copy of the Future of Social Democracy email Social Democrat Group secretary Colin McDougall.


* I'm a Liberal Democrat member having joined last year from Labour, I was previously Chair and Founder of the YF Devolution and Local Government Committee

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Helen Dudden 25th Jan '21 - 10:20am

    My grandfather, was a miner and so were several of the 14 brothers and sisters. A strong Labour supporter as they went through the General Strike in the 1920’s.
    How things have changed. We had the NHS back in 1948, it meant further improvement for the working class of which I’m a member.
    We have lost ground with Social Housing and medical treatment. Caring for a society and it’s many needs.
    One thing my grandfather taught me was to be caring to others. My grandfather, never ignored anyone who was going through hard times.

  • Little Jackie Paper 25th Jan '21 - 10:34am

    Looking it up I see the SDP is still going. I assumed they folded years ago.

  • The SDP that currently exists have essentially purloined the name and the logos.

    They are no more than a small bunch of folks who share little with the aims of the original party, not least their support for Brexit.

    Not unlike Dr Death. And the Liberal Party.

    Ain’t life strange.

  • John Marriott 25th Jan '21 - 12:34pm

    Yes, Mr Paper, they sure are! In fact Sunday Times columnist, Rod Liddle, reckoned at the weekend that he was a member and claimed that, of the Gang of Four, only ‘Doctor Death’ was a true Social Democrat. The other three were Liberals from the start. Now whether he was pulling our collective leg, you never really know with Mr Liddle. He tends to offer in his pieces a more left wing nuanced stance than Farage of ‘the man in the pub’. Eg “I’m not a racist; but……”.

    Mind you, questions were asked back in the early 1980s about the long term prospects of the SDP even in its heady early days. If you can find a copy, Peter Zentner’s book, published in 1982, entitled “Social Democracy in Britain: Must Labour lose?”, gives an early view of the pitfalls awaiting a ‘new kid on the block’. Peter was the SDP/Liberal Alliance candidate for Lincoln in the 1987 GE. With a background in advertising (he apparently came up with the line “All around the house spring clean with Flash’), his other claim to fame, other than knowing me, of course, was that his wife was a cousin of Lucien Freud! A very sincere man, and, I believe, still with us, he used to tell me how horribly he was treated by Labour members. The last time we exchanged season’s greetings was a couple of years ago.

  • Daniel Duggan 25th Jan '21 - 12:43pm

    My review of ‘The Future of Social Democracy’ can be found at the following link

  • Lorenzo Cherin 25th Jan '21 - 1:45pm


    A fine article, well balanced, and thoughtful.

    Would like more of your recent experience in Labour.

    Is Starmer going to change it so ample room for alliance, or do you worry about the types you refer to.were these frequent comments or rare, by new entryists or old members?

    I was a Labour youth like you twenty years before you in age, those like me, a kid when the alliance began between Liberals and Social Democrats, can relate to your plight!

  • Little Jackie Paper 25th Jan '21 - 2:31pm

    John Marriott – well, I had a look at the current SPD stuff. Some of it is a bit ‘good old days’ for my taste. But overall that doesn’t look like an outlandish set of ideas.

  • James Moore 25th Jan '21 - 3:35pm

    If Daniel’s review is correct, I think it is slightly mean-spirited not to acknowledge the contribution of David Owen. Surely the pain of 1988 should be put behind us now – a whole generation of young people have grown up in that time.

    Owen had many flaws, but also had considerable personal popularity and a sense of vision for social democracy and centre politics. His vision of social democracy (derided as sub-Thatcherite by some) had much in common with the Liberalism of Jo Grimond. Owen was far less ‘statist’ and far more willing to look beyond the Butskellist consensus of the post-war years than any of the other gang of four. Personal rivalries and old animosities should not cloud historical judgements.

  • I agree with James Moore above. I met David Owen many times in the 1980s[ he actually signed me up as a member at college in Carmarthen] and found he had a good overarching philosophy. He certainly made a party with only 7MPs relevant, something we need today. Liberals like David Penhaligon[ then my local MP] and John Pardoe understood his approach more than most.

  • John Marriott 25th Jan '21 - 4:43pm

    @Tim Rogers @James Moore
    OK, Lord Owen was a clever guy; but what was he like as a doctor?

  • Peter Martin 25th Jan '21 - 9:30pm

    I don’t know where these silly ideas about all businesses being evil and home ownership is wrong come from. I would be interested to see any supposedly left based reference to this. No one has ever suggested that I should sell my own house in the interests of ideological purity!

    There’s always a question of who owns businesses, and whose interests they serve, of course, but even when they are fully nationalised they are still commercial operations. The SWP used to have successful printing and publishing businesses at one time.

    Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn, Paul Foot all own or owned their own homes. It’s not an issue on the left. It is an issue if you own someone else’s home and treat your tenants badly but that’s a different matter. As are the taxes that should reasonably be paid on property and wealth.

    But Lib dems have quite a bit to say on that too. Especially taxes on land ownership!

  • John Marriott 26th Jan '21 - 8:10am

    @Peter Martin
    Still playing the devil’s advocate, hey, and stirring up all those poor Lib Dems? Personally speaking, I’ve got no problems with home ownership. In fact, I’ve ‘owned’ one – or at least paid and eventually paid off a mortgage on one – for most of my married life (nearly 52 years and counting). It was I bit of a shock when I bought my first (in Halifax you may recall, and you know the rest). The problem has alway been a case of supply and demand and the view inculcated by many upwardly mobile parents to their upwardly mobile offspring that renting, particularly from ‘the Council’ is now, as it was described to me many years ago by an officer, viewed by many as a ‘stigmatised last resort’.

    Over the past few decades, many people, because of house price inflation running so high, people have been encouraged to use home ownership as a sure fire investment. The late Lord Thompson of Fleet once described his acquisition of Scottish Television as “a licence to print money”. You get the picture? It would appear that my wife and I are quite unusual by today’s standards to have lived in the same property for coming up to 43 years. What really annoys me is when property, which is built for cash strapped first time buyers, is snapped up by more affluent people, who then rent it out.

    As for the Council house, that provided my parents and me with our first and only home of our own after WW2, I’m pleased to see that it’s making a comeback, after its best examples were flogged off cheaply to worthy tenants under ‘Right to Buy’, a bright idea started, but I’m sure you know, by Labour under Wilson and Callaghan and fine tuned under Thatcher, most of which now reside in the private rental sector. Let’s have more of them, because, despite all the blandishments of builders and estate agents, some people still prefer to rent for a variety of reasons.

    As for business, private or public, surely the important thing to insist on is that it is neither exploitative nor monopolistic. If it services a need then it deserves to be successful. I could go on to write about the ‘Sozialmarktwirtschaft’ and ‘Mitbestimmung’ in Germany; but my tea is getting cold and my wife and I have got to get ready for a day’s home schooling with our six year old granddaughter!

  • Nonconformistradical 26th Jan '21 - 8:16am

    @Peter Martin
    “I don’t know where these silly ideas about all businesses being evil”

    If a business exists which exploits its employees (underpaying them, making them work in dangerous or unacceptable conditions etc.), or, if multi-national, arranges its tax affairs so as to maximise costs recorded in higher tax countries and maximise profits in low tax countries or tax havens (all this time influencing via donations those making the tax laws) – that’s OK with you is it?

    “No one has ever suggested that I should sell my own house in the interests of ideological purity!”

    If you have a house to sell and it is in an area of housing shortage but also where the better off seek second homes and can afford to pay a higher price than people who genuinely need that house and so you sell to the would-be second home owner – that’s OK with you is it?

  • Peter Martin 26th Jan '21 - 10:02am

    @ John Marriott,

    “What really annoys me is when property, which is built for cash strapped first time buyers, is snapped up by more affluent people, who then rent it out.”

    Yep. It annoys me too. I wish the Labour Party had more to say on the subject. It’s more of a problem for you Liberals. The economic side of being Liberal would suggest a support for the principle of anyone being able to buy as many as they like.

    @ Noncomformistradical,

    The actual quote in the OP was “‘All business is evil’”. It’s likely SOME of it is. I’ve never heard anyone on the left say ALL of it was. I try to do my shopping as ethically as possible which means I often use my local Co-op. That’s a business too! There was really no need to have left the Labour Party out of any fear that Jeremy Corbyn was going close it down!

    Even if David MacKenzie had held some Tesco shares they would have been safe enough. The “worst” that would have happened under a Labour Govt was that Tesco workers would have benefitted from a rise in the minimum wage. I’ve never known that depress the stock market.

    I haven’t got a spare house to sell! Just the one I live in!

  • Daniel Walker 26th Jan '21 - 10:53am

    @Peter Martin “The economic side of being Liberal would suggest a support for the principle of anyone being able to buy as many as they like.

    “Why should we work hard and let the landlords take the best?” is literally a line in our anthem, Peter 🙂

  • Peter Martin 26th Jan '21 - 12:06pm

    @ Daniel,

    Yes but isn’t that just about land ownership?

    Some Liberals are still keen on the idea of a Land Value tax, which would be fine IMO but only addresses part of the problem of a disparity in total wealth. It’s a hangover from the 19th century conflict between the aristocracy (largely Tory) who owned the land and the emerging capitalist class (largely Liberal) who owned the factories and objected to having to pay ground rent to the aristocracy.

  • Daniel Walker 26th Jan '21 - 12:28pm

    @Peter Martin “Yes but isn’t that just about land ownership?

    What part of landlordism isn’t about land ownership? The maintenance of the property? You have to do that anyway if you own it.

    Some Liberals are still keen on the idea of a Land Value tax, which would be fine IMO but only addresses part of the problem of a disparity in total wealth.

    Last time I recall you and I talked about LVT you didn’t seem keen¹ so I am glad you now think it is “fine”!

    It does address only part of the problem. But addressing some of a problem is better than addressing none of it, surely? It is better (by which I mean less regressive/more progressive) than Council Tax, and better than Business Rates, even if kept at the same overall level of revenue, and discourages unproductive practices like buy-to-let² or land banking.

    1. We did get a bit sidetracked by Estonia.

  • Peter Martin 26th Jan '21 - 1:38pm

    @ Daniel,

    We tend to use the word ‘landlord’ in a broader way than its literal sense.

    What I said in the thread you’re linking back to, and still do, was ” I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a LVT. Many countries, in fact, do. But, it will just be another tax and won’t make that much difference.”

    I don’t want to get into a discussion of LVT again! We had quite enough of that already. I’m more interested in the distinction between social liberalism and economic liberalism. There’s quite a difference between the two. The Labour Party is full of social liberals and there’s quite a number of economic liberals too which is why we don’t have any sensible discussion on how to solve the housing crisis.

    Neither party progresses much beyond the call to build more houses. That’s never really worked before. There’s no discussion of using properties which are deliberately kept empty by absentee owners.

  • Daniel Walker 26th Jan '21 - 4:19pm

    @Peter Martin “Neither party progresses much beyond the call to build more houses. That’s never really worked before. There’s no discussion of using properties which are deliberately kept empty by absentee owners.

    Funnily enough, discouraging empty homes is a notable feature of LVT 🙂

    Increasing Council Tax for empty homes was in the LibDem manifesto, and I think has been policy for ages. (I’ve mentioned this before, but as it was more than a day after your comment I expect you, understandably, missed it).

    As for your lot, Emily Thornberry called for empty houses to be taken away. So there’s discussion there too.

    Councils do have powers to act against empty homes. (“Empty Homes Management Orders”) but they are not used enough.

  • John Marriott 27th Jan '21 - 5:18pm

    @Katerina Porter
    I first got onto our local District Council in 1987 when ‘Right to Buy’ was just taking off. Besides forcing us to sell our more desirable council houses at knockdown prices, the money we obtained from sales then had to be used to pay off debt, not to build more homes. That was really where ‘Right to Buy’ came unstuck. Many former tenants found handling a mortgage difficult and many of their properties eventually made their way into the private rental sector.

    Having spent many years on councils and committees tasked with drawing up local plans to bring a bit of sanity into the provision of housing and strategic planning, I have come to the conclusion that, if outline planning permission is granted on parcels of land, this permission should be time limited with no chance of extension and with the right of councils to purchase this land compulsorily if no building has taken place within the time period. Secondly, if new council financed housing is built again in the kind of numbers achieved after WW2 there should be no right to buy for prospective tenants.

    PS Wasn’t this thread supposed to be about the SDP?

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