The future of Social Democracy – a book to mark 40 years since the Limehouse Declaration

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January 25th marks the 40th Anniversary of the Limehouse Declaration, when four former Labour Cabinet Ministers Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams met to issue a statement that would shortly afterwards lead to the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

The SDP in alliance with the Liberal Party took 26% of the vote in the 1983 election and 23% of the vote in the 1987 election, two of our highest general election vote shares since the 1920s. The bulk of the SDP then merged with the Liberal Party in 1988 to go on to form the Liberal Democrat party we know today.

To mark this occasion the Social Democrat Group have arranged for the publication of a book of essays called The Future of Social Democracy.

As a group, the publication of the book marks a major step up in our activity and credit for organising it must go to the group Chair George Kendall and Secretary Colin McDougall – for all their hard work in getting the book to the point where it can be published in January. We are also delighted that our excellent MP for North-East Fife Wendy Chamberlain has agreed to co-edit the book as well as contributing a chapter on electoral reform. The publishers are Policy Press, an imprint of Bristol University Press.

A wide range of authors have been recruited to contribute to the book. These include former Lib Dem party leader and SDP parliamentary candidate Vince Cable, current Lib Dem MP Sarah Olney, Baroness Julie Smith, the leader of the Lib Dems in the House of Lords Dick Newby, Chair of the Social Liberal Forum Ian Kearns and former Local government Minister Stephen Williams. A variety of topics are discussed in the book including: How to deliver social justice through education? A social democratic foreign policy. How to make global free trade work for everyone. How do we grow the economy without damaging the environment? – and many more.

As we go through the economic as well as health storms unleashed by the Covid-19 pandemic, a look at how we secure the core traditional aims of social democrats, ensuring everyone has a reasonable income to live on and that we eliminate poverty are more important than ever. Millions of people in the UK sadly face unemployment, many who never expected to be out of work, and face it through no fault of their own, because of the economic chaos caused by the pandemic. Meanwhile the threat of climate change to the environment hangs over us and tragic overseas conflicts and tensions between and within numerous countries remain. Social Democratic and liberal solutions will be needed to meet these challenges and this book will hopefully play a significant part in that debate.

Please look out for the launch of the book in January as we mark the 40th anniversary of the launch of the party that helped bring the modern Liberal Democrat Party into being.

* Michael Mullaney is Vice-Chair of the Social Democrat Group, an Executive Member on Lib Dem run Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council and the Lib Dem Finance spokesperson on Leicestershire County Council.

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20 Comments

  • John Marriott 17th Nov '20 - 12:34pm

    The SDP – a noble effort to inject a bit of common sense into the centre left, a ship wrecked on the rocks of David Owenism and the bravery, yes, the bravery, of Neil Kinnock!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Nov '20 - 1:10pm

    Very good, Michael. Your piece on the centenarian, Roy Jenkins, and here, both acknowledgement of much valued contributions to our political ideas.

    I look at this, and think, what can this party achieve on such little backing, and yet, the SDP inspires to try…

  • Michael Mullaney 17th Nov '20 - 1:18pm

    Lorenzo Cherin, thanks glad you enjoyed the articles. John Marriott David Owen has a lot to answer for bizzare that he ended up backing Jeremy Corbyn who was far to the left of Michael Foot!

  • Undoubtedly in a minority of one David Owen was until Brexit a politician I liked. Leading only 6-7 MPs he was a commanding figure who kept Social Democracy on the road. He got regular media attention[ unlike our current leadership].

  • John Marriott 17th Nov '20 - 5:33pm

    @Tim Rogers
    Yes, but was he social and for that matter was he a Democrat? Agreed, as Labour Foreign Secretary, his sending a destroyer to the South Atlantic possibly delayed a war over the Falklands by a few years; but, as someone asked at the time, “Was he any good as a doctor?”

  • neil sandison 18th Nov '20 - 4:10pm

    Are our current political leaders reflecting the Limehouse Legacy . We still haven’t cracked the established two party system and fully broken the mold of British politics .

  • Paul Barker 18th Nov '20 - 5:42pm

    We got 26% in 1983 & threw that legacy away in a crazy Merger.
    We got 24% in 2010 & threw that legacy away in a crazy Coalition.

    Lets hope we can learn & not throw the next peak away.

    Nb, I voted for both decisions.

  • @John Marriott

    A very good summary of what happened in one sentence. But… (!) you didn’t expect there not to be a “but” with me! I am not sure that Neil Kinnock was brave – I think he was realistic about how the Labour party had to change to be electable again. I also think that David Owen is a bit underrated in Lib Dem circles. He was an impressive figure in 1980s politics. His biggest mistake was that he thought there was room for 4 political parties in British politics where there was barely room for 3.

    It is ironic that a big mistake by Thatcher – removing protection from the Falkland Islands turned out to her biggest success. As I have argued here before and as Professor Vernon Bogdanor argues to some degree the “Falklands Factor” is probably overstated. But my mother said that it was clear from a Pebble Mill At One programme some years early that the Argentinians were likely to invade the Falklands.

    I think @Neil Sandison the mold of British politics may well be seen to have been more seen to be broken than we think now. We got to over 50 MPs and the SNP are now on about 50. We will be back on 50 or more within 10-20 years. It And below Westminster level a large number of bodes are elected by some form of PR and have quite a puralistic make-up and there is more devolution – notably to Scotland and Wales but very gradually to England as well.

    It took the Labour party for example about 50 years to form its first majority Government – a feat that you would have thought unlikely in the late 1930s.

  • @ Michael 1 “We will be back on 50 or more within 10-20 years”.

    I’m sure John M. and I are pleased to hear that. Is there a postal vote from the Elysian Fields (final resting place of the souls of the heroic and the virtuous in Greek mythology and religion) assuming we get there ? John will, not so sure about me.

    Here’s a bit of Virgil to comfort you, Michael, dredged up from a very dim memory of what passed for a classical education in West Yorkshire many moons ago :

    “Night speeds by, And we, Aeneas, lose it in lamenting. Here comes the place where cleaves our way in twain. Thy road, the right, toward Pluto’s dwelling goes, And leads us to Elysium. But the left Speeds sinful souls to doom, and is their path To Tartarus th’ accurst”…….. Virgil, Aeneid

  • John Marriott 18th Nov '20 - 8:19pm

    @Miacael 1
    Yes, Michael, put Kinnock’s speech at the 1985 Labour Party Conference, when he called out Derek Hatton and the Militant led Liverpool City Council, as a sign of bravery. Had Michael Foot still been the Party Leader after 1983 there was a fair chance, in my opinion, that Labour would have imploded. Kinnock and his deputy, Roy Hattersley managed to turn things round by injecting a bit of common sense into the party, rather like Starmer appears to be trying to do today and, had the former not snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at that infamous Sheffield Rally just before Election Day, the remodelled party could have gone all the way in 1992. And all this within a couple of years of the Owen SDP’s candidate getting less votes than the Monster Raving Loony Party’s candidate in the May 1990 Bootle By election.

    If you want a quick and, in my opinion, fair appraisal of Lord Owen, I suggest you read Dr David Dutton’s reference to him in his ‘History of the Liberal Party since 1900’.

  • Michael Mullaney 18th Nov '20 - 9:28pm

    William Wallace good to hear the history of the Leicester CC group. We currently have 13 county councillors and are the main opposition to the Tories (and a chance we could deprive them of overall control next year)

  • @John Marriott

    I thought it was a rather good summing up of the events of 80s in a sentence. But I am not sure that “Brave” is the right adjective. There was no downside to his speech. Virtually no-one in the Labour party supported the Militant Tendency. And it is standard technique for an opposition party leader to take on the more extreme elements in their own party. It is about the only thing that an opposition leader can do – they can’t enact policy – only Governments can do that. But Kinnock took on Militant, Blair Clause 4, Cameron proposed same sex marriage and “hug a hoodie”, Starmer not restoring the whip to Corbyn and so on.

    That is not to say that Kinnock didn’t do some excellent work making Labour electable – aided of course by a young Peter Mandelson.

    My understanding is that recent commentators think that the Sheffield Rally had less impact than was thought immediately after the 92 election. It actually didn’t get that much coverage at the time although Kinnocks shouting “alright” several times might have played into his “welsh boyo” image rather than the sombre statesman he was trying to portray (dark suits etc.) And there were other factors – the Tory “double whammy” campaign was effective, the change from Maggie to Major, and the poor strategic last week campaign by Labour – trying to appeal to Lib Dems on PR but with Kinnock I believe unable to say whether or not he favoured PR. And there was some poor execution during the campaign. I believe that was the campaign of “Jennifer’s Ear” Party Political Broadcast by Labour which I thought was brilliant when I watched it but unravelled in the following days.

    On “Dr Death” please enlighten to me as what Dr Dutton says. However my view as a youngster at the time was that during the 80s he was impressive politician. More impressive than Steel and indeed Jenkins who was somewhat loquacious. He clearly had a greater attachment to the SDP than the other members of the Gang of Four and was somewhat hubristic. But the “continuing SDP” post-merger should be distinguished from the SDP of the Alliance Days.

  • @David Raw

    I don’t know your age but I believe @John Marriott has said he is in his mid-70s before. Given this is the age of the President Elect of America that is one’s political prime! I am tempted to quote Martin Luther King Junior “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”

    It might be overdoing it somewhat to compare the struggle for civil rights to British Liberalism but the point is that things can be closer than they seem. The Soviet Union seemed unassailable in 1989. A landslide victory for Labour unthinkable in 1937. In 1992 the possibility that Labour would ever win again seemed remote. And so on.

    I think with the SNP, Northern Irish parties, a couple may be of Greens along with an increased number of Lib Dems it is likely that the next non-Tory Parliament will be hung/balanced and you can easily predict that we could have over 25 and may be go on to consolidate that to 50 plus at a following election. We do stand on the shoulders of giants. And the work of our Liberal predecessor and the work of people like you and John M. Those in the 50s, 60s, 70s may be became the first liberal councillor on their council or got a second or even third place in an election or became the first liberal to stand. Sadly many of those did not see the relative success of 1997 and the 2000s. And indeed nor did the socialists of the 30s who perished in the Second World War.

    But I am confident that you and @John M have a good 30 years each in you and will see the Great Liberal Revival. But if you are sending in your vote from the Elysian Fields do remember to “vote early and vote often” 🙂 !

  • John Marriott 19th Nov '20 - 8:58am

    @Michael 1
    Sorry about the iPad c****p with your name last time I wrote. Call me Moses if you like, however I really don’t think I will reach the Promised Land. As MLK junior once said; “Longevity has its place”. It unfortunately didn’t for him. I have come to the conclusion that we have entered an age where politics is on a par with show biz and where ideas have very much taken second place to personality. Unless the Lib Dem’s can come up with another Lloyd George, Paddy Ashdown or even the tragic Charles Kennedy, in the words of Private Wilson, they are “dooooomed”.

  • John Marriott 19th Nov '20 - 10:06am

    CORRECTION: For ‘Private Wilson’ read ‘Private Frazer’. While on the subject of ‘personality’ I have omitted both Messrs Thorpe and Steel for reasons that have emerged in the past few years. Grimond was probably the most saintly of the lot; but we don’t seem to warm to Saints at Westminster, do we?

  • John Marriott 19th Nov '20 - 6:23pm

    @Michael 1
    How to describe Dutton’s view of David Owen in a few sentences?
    In the tale of the ‘Two David’s’ it is clear that Steel always felt, like Roy Jenkins, that eventually a merger would be on the cards. Owen disliked what Dutton described as ‘Liberal fudge’ and was definitely a supporter of a minimum British nuclear deterrent. In many ways, Kinnock’s bringing Labour back to the mainstream could have been argued to have been the Doctor’s ‘get out of jail’ card. When Owen took over as SDP Leader, he was clearly no longer prepared to play ball for the sake of unity.

    For me, the tone of the 1987 General Election was set on the first day of campaigning when the two Davids emerged from Crowley Street, shook hands, climbed into matching yellow/gold coaches and departed in opposite directions!

  • @John Marriott

    Thanks for your comments in this thread – I have enjoyed them! And to be honest it was a bit nit-picking of me to take issue with your description of Kinnock as “Brave” – so sorry for that! He certainly – may be to the Alliance’s detriment – did good work turning around Labour and making it more electable and is somewhat unsung for that work now.

    Of course sadly MLK did not see the “promised land” of substantially improved civil rights in America. And of course there is a question of whether they have got there yet but I would submit that compared to the sixties it is a vast changed situation.

    We may be a “Dad’s Army” marching towards the sound of gunfire! But I would point out who won the war! And here’s a hint – it wasn’t the Germans!

    On leaders, I think it was Napoleon who said give me lucky generals rather than good generals. And arguably our leaders – including Owen up to Tim Farron were both good and lucky. And I think that Tim, Vince and Jo would have proved good leaders if they had had more time. The first two years of a leadership are very difficult as they establish themselves – Paddy was slated as having no public profile etc.

  • continued..

    There are two reasons why we are not “doomed”. The first is that we have a substantial “ground army”. And Change UK etc. proves that you need that – and some other political parties – the SNP and the Greens – show that you can go far with a committed group on the ground even if you don’t have a very prominent leadership.

    The second reason is that Liberalism is one of the great political movements of modern times as is Environmentalism. And sometimes Liberalism has been incorporated into a lot of Labour or Conservative policy and thinking. But it is not Socialism or Toryism.

    Remember that at the beginning of Paddy’s leadership we were an asterisk in the opinion polls according to him. (Not actually true but it was low and it makes a better story!)

    We have but a very very short time on this earth. But if we can emulate MLK but in a more modest way and put in place building blocks for our liberal successors and do some good – even if it is only a street light mended – then we will have lived a good life. We, today, build on our Liberal predecessors work. And we should enjoy the process – I always enjoy beating and outfoxing the Tories and Labour parties and have had some great times with some great people in doing so. But actually it is about as the saying goes “working hard all year round and getting things done” rather than necessarily winning elections (although that is both useful and nice as well).

    For the avoidance of doubt “Dads Army” includes Mums and non-binary parents and non-parents as well!

  • neil sandison 22nd Nov '20 - 11:20pm

    So how are the social democratic wing of the party going to move forward and not just look back .Will we support a new Beverage 2 settlement for our citizens , Will we support the build back better agenda to encourage the delivery of climate positive circular economy . Will we support PR initially in local and devolved government as a step towards full PR . Will we challenge the might of multi national companies bringing unfair work practices into the labour market and greater employee representation in the work place
    This would be part of the Limehouse Legacy the Social Democrats could bring to the party.

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