We must reclaim our Social Democrat heritage

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party brings back memories. Of when a Labour activist grabbed me by the throat, and a Trotskyist threatened to break my arm.

Few Labour members in the 1980s were violent, and nor are the vast majority of Corbyn supporters. But I have no doubt that the same intolerance and intimidation that I experienced at university is being felt by moderate Labour members today.

There will be many lifelong supporters of the Labour party, who believe as we do, that to fight poverty you need a vibrant economy. People who are now being told that they are not welcome in the Labour party.

As Liberal Democrats, we would love them to join us, but it won’t be easy. Liberalism has a long heritage, but so too does social democracy.

If they leave the Labour party, they may be turning their backs on decades of their life, be cutting ties with many friends.

They will hate the idea of abandoning the rich tradition of social democracy, to join a party about which they have many misconceptions. This is why I believe we need to explicitly reclaim our social democrat heritage.

The Liberal Democrats were formed as a merger of the Liberal party and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Former members of the SDP have been among our most prominent figures: Vince Cable, Charles Kennedy, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, Bill Rogers, Bob Maclennan, to name just a few.

However, too often, the SDP is airbrushed out of history, and we are simply described as a continuation of the Liberal party.

Social democracy lives on in the preamble to our constitution. We are not a party that is only interested in liberty, but seek “to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity“.

The words of the founding declaration of the SDP still resonate with many Liberal Democrats today: “We want to eliminate poverty and promote greater equality without stifling enterprise or imposing bureaucracy from the centre. We need the innovating strength of a competitive economy with a fair distribution of rewards.

Like most members of the SDP, I was enthusiastic about the merging of our two parties into the Social and Liberal Democrats.

From the start, there was controversy about the name of the party. We needed to move on from those arguments, so I was one of those who voted for the new name, Liberal Democrats.

In practice, that name change meant little. When I meet new members of the party today, they are inspired by much the same values that brought me into the SDP in 1981.

Since then, I might not have thought of myself as a Liberal, but I was happy to simply call myself a Liberal Democrat.

When Jeremy Corbyn was elected this autumn, that changed.

What really matters is what we believe in. But labels are also important, because they shape perceptions. If Labour are foolish enough to discard their social democrat heritage, we should reclaim ours, and, by doing so, show that social democrats have a home with us.

To help reclaim that heritage, I would like to suggest a new fringe group within the party.

It would have two aims: to celebrate and develop our social democrat heritage, and to reach out to social democrats beyond the party.

In the private members forum, we have discussed what to call this group, and we settled on Social Democrat Group.

If there’s anyone reading this article who would like to see such a group created, please email us, fill in the form here, or visit our facebook page.

Our party faces very serious challenges, but the need for the Liberal Democrats is as great as ever. This is also a time of opportunity, when we may be able to draw in many who share our values, but who don’t think of themselves as Liberals.

Let us take that opportunity.

* George Kendall is the acting chair of the Social Democrat Group. He writes in a personal capacity.

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  • I hesitantly agree George, I never liked it when the “Social” was dropped from the party name and since then I think its been a matter of confusion for the electorate. I suspect it’s hard for younger voters to understand why we’re not just the Liberals or the Democrats.

    On the flip of that, I can’t see any justification for any more fringe groups within the party right now, so whilst I generally endorse the thrust of your article, I don’t agree with its conclusions.

    >In the private members forum, we have discussed what to call this group, and we settled on Social Democrat Group.

    Top marks for irony! 😉

  • Doesn’t the Social Liberal Forum provide this? And in any case, should we risk reopening 30-year-old sores at this stage?

    The ideas of Social Democracy and Liberalism aren’t mutually exclusive. Much of social democracy works best when it is decentralised, and Liberalism tempers that centralising instinct of Social Democrats. Equally, the idea that there is no longer a social democratic party within the UK would no doubt be argued by the SNP, Plaid, SDLP and probably the Greens too.

  • Neil Sandison 24th Nov '15 - 1:52pm

    Tim Farron at the annual conference said that the Liberal Democrats should be a home for both Liberals and Social Democrats and I believe it is.There is cross over in terms of policy and the social liberal forum has assisted in that but some social democratic concepts of reforming trade unions into industrial unions and partnership working have fallen to the wayside certainly in the coalition years .making co operatives and social enterprises effective economic tools fits into Tims recent comments on small enterprises .again low on the political agenda .a strong internationalist streak is common in both strands of the party and George Kendall is right to emphasis a fair redistribution of rewards
    in a competitive economy .

  • George Kendall 24th Nov '15 - 1:58pm

    @Keith Legg @ChrisB
    Hi Keith and Chris,

    Thanks for your question and reply.

    The Social Liberal Forum does an important job, but I don’t think it helps correct a misconception – that if ever we had a social democratic strand, it died out twenty years ago.

    In practice, you and I know that those who were in the SDP, and those who were in the Liberals, have pretty interchangable values, and that therefore anyone who thinks of themselves as a social democrat will fit in perfectly fine.

    But that’s not what a lot of people out there believe.

    Some people will worry that this group is about factionalism. Personally, I think we’ve enough factions. I’d prefer the group to be about broad churchism.

    Under the first-part the post system, to survive, you have to be a broad church. Over the next couple of years there may be tens of thousands of social democrats looking for a new home. I’d like them to join us.

  • David Evans 24th Nov '15 - 2:20pm

    I agree with George on this. My view is that the vast majority of those good Lib Dems who left the party over the five years of coalition were, sadly, much more likely to be those with a strong social democratic influence on their politics. Those who knew the instinctive authoritarianism of Labour made that party a suitable home only for those social democrats who were prepared to sacrifice almost anything in the short term, in the hope Labour could be turned around in the long term. They were often Lib Dems who were fighting Labour in its urban heartlands, gaining first a toe hold and then a real presence on the local council, shining a light on Labour’s dark deeds and providing the first real opposition Labour had faced on those councils ever. In some cases they took control of those councils often for the first time in living memory. The people of Newcastle, Liverpool, Bristol, Hull, St Helens and many others all benefitted from this.

    However, they were the ones who suffered the most in the coalition years. Undermined by the effect of us being in coalition with the Conservatives and with little but grief to show their communities for those five years in government, many lost their seats, and left the party often with a very heavy heart.

    We need them back.

  • PHIL THOMAS 24th Nov '15 - 2:46pm

    Still waiting to see the dozens of Labour MP’s that Tim Farron promised would defect ?

  • Its seems odd to reclaim a heritage of a party that lasted a month less than seven years (compared to the Liberal Party’s 130 years plus) The SDP split in various directions. ….. occasionally re-emerging as Blairite New Labour or in some cases as Tories. Would the logo be Rosie Barnes’ rabbit ?

    @ David Evans. My view is that the vast majority of those good Lib Dems who left the party over the five years of coalition were, sadly, much more likely to be those with a strong social democratic influence on their politics”.

    Sorry David, not in my experience. The Liberal Party was always more radical than the splinter right of the Labour Party, I remember the SDP as being far to the right of the Liberal Party, and if anything, I would describe the Orange Bookers as natural members of the 1980’s SDP.

    One very great exception was our former leader Charles Kennedy who was more of a Liberal than many Liberals.

  • David Evans 24th Nov '15 - 3:52pm

    David Raw, I understand your post, and it is very true that quite a number of senior SDP members way back in the 1980s were more right of centre than the liberals. However, that does not disprove my contention that the Lib Dems lost massively more people with a stronger social democratic view (N.B. social democratic, not Social Democrat) in urban areas etc. over the period we were in coalition. Between merger in 1988 and coalition in 2010, a lot of things changed, and those social democratic values, and the people who worked like mad for the party who upheld them, strengthened the Lib Dems immensely.

    We still need them back.

  • Matt (Bristol) 24th Nov '15 - 3:58pm

    I don’t think ‘social liberal’ is widely and consistently understood as a term outside this party. ‘Social democrat’ is a label that has relevance in European circles beyond the UK. It is a viable political heritage and tradition and often the policies and approaches of this party have fallen within it.

    FWIW, I think you can be both.

    I don’t se why we should allow Labour of whatever form to pretend to be the sole representative of social democracy in the UK, whatever happened to David Owen, Rosie Barnes, Polly Toynbee, Danny Finkelstein and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all.

    And this isn’t saying I reject liberalism, with or without the capital L. I regard them as compatible traditions.

  • Of those who joined the SDP, 6% were former members of the Liberal Party.

  • What David Raw said.

  • @ David Evans Thank you for your response. The roots of radical Liberalism go back to the late 19th century and I suggest you look at Duncan Brack’s article in the blink below. It’s fair to say that the Liberal Party has always had tensions between the classical Liberals and the ‘New’ Liberals…. in my youth the New Liberals were in the ascendant – but the Orange Bookers are an autumnal flowering of the classical Liberals (who were the moving force in the Coalition).

    I agree we need them back…. but it’s going to be hard particularly in Scotland where many have gone off to the SNP.

    Here’s Duncan’s article :

    The New Liberalism · Liberal History http://www.liberalhistory.org.uk/history/the-new-liberalism/

    @ Jennie : Thank you. Make sure you keep the radical flame burning in Calderdale.

  • George

    You’ve sounded the horn and sent out a rallying cry for new members, I’d love to join but, in all good conscience, I cannot. Why you may ask…

    Do I not consider myself a Social Democrat…? Yes, albeit more of an Antisocial one.
    Do I not agree with the Party’s manifesto…? Yes, absolutely I do.

    So what’s the sticking point…? Farron. As a secular humanist with deep anti-theistic convictions, I cannot in good conscience belong to a political party whose leader has such deeply held fundamental Christian faith. I cannot be certain that he won’t use his faith to influence policy. I know I’ll probably get a lot of flak for saying so, but I do not believe there’s any room for religion in politics, you only have to look to America to see the truth in that.

    I always said I’d wait until after the leadership contest was decided and had Norman won, I’d already be a member; I’ve a great deal of time for Norman, I may not agree with his views on everything (but life would be extremely dull if we all agreed, wouldn’t it…?), but I admire his honesty, integrity and passion. I was genuinely shocked when Tim was elected; he could reassure me until he dropped dead from asphyxiation that he’d never allow his faith to influence his decisions, but I couldn’t believe him. There’s ALWAYS doubt, there can never not be, and I’ve read too much about Tim’s past that makes VERY uncomfortable, and leads me to believe that, almost assuredly, he’d not be able to keep such a promise if he was to make it.

    Like I say, there should be no room for religion in politics and I’ll probably be deafened by cries of “Discrimination!” for saying this, but a religious faith should certainly preclude someone from holding high political office.

    There, I’ve said my piece, I shall simply have to remain floating, I’ve never fitted in anywhere, anyway; you’d not see me at conference, nor rallies or any kind of social event. Perhaps there’d be no point in me joining anyway, but at least I’d have finally nailed my colours to the mast. Besides, I’m skint, DLA doesn’t go very far.

    Though, talking of which, I’m not overly keen on egg-yolk orange, any chance you could rebrand…? Turquoise perhaps, or raspberry. 😉

  • I agree with Neil Sandison that we need to revisit some SDP inspired policies but see no reason why they aren’t acceptable to the Liberal strand of policy making. I joined the SDP but when I became a Councillor I don’t remember any decision in which the Liberals went one way and the SDP another it was always a mixture which is why I was very happy to become a Liberal Democrat.
    I am concerned about creating another pressure group because we can’t afford to split into factions or the time for people to go to meetings etc unless they are actively involved in creating policy or sorting out our cumbersome governing system. We have to be much more streamlined in order to succeed and we need to be working on campaigns not trying to work out the difference between social democratic and Social Democrat which has puzzled me for a while, sorryDavid.

  • Richard Underhill 24th Nov '15 - 5:44pm

    The charming, erudite and always polite David Marquand spoke at a fringe meeting at federal confernce. An organisation was formed which was eventually called The Beveridge Society, the name being acceptable to Liberals and the policy to Social Democrats.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Marquand reports that he is back in the Labour Party and supports Ed Miliband.
    If the Beveridge Society still exists will its active members please blog on Liberal Democrat Voice.

  • Roll on PR and we can then have a Liberal Party & Social Democrat Party.

  • Tony Greaves 24th Nov '15 - 8:08pm

    David Marquand is a lost soul and has been for decades. A true man of he past.


  • Miffed 'Red Tory' 24th Nov '15 - 8:14pm

    I joined Labour in September after Corbyn came to power. I’m a bit unique in that despite being a 17 year ol I probably would have voted Kendall as my first preference if I had gotten my membership sorted out earlier. I am accepting of the idea that Labour is a broad church, but honestly it is saddening that we ‘moderates’ have been diluted from a party. I’m active in a number of online Labour Party communities and I have to deal with constant ‘red tory’ epithets, claims that I’m not ‘proper Labour’, that I’m ‘undermining the party’ etc. It is really quite sickening to be stereotyped as things that are so incompatible with my actual values.

    The reality is that like those who formed the SDP 30 years ago I want to see a socially just society as not being just an empty idea but as something that will be implemented because people will vote for it. I believe that a socially just society can be market based, that Britain should play a major role internationally and in the European Union because promoting positive well being should not end at British borders and finally that we all have the duty to create a sense of solidarity and duty towards each other.

    The reason why I didn’t choose the Liberal Democrats despite probably being ideologically closer to most Lib Dems is that I too would have been diluted in a party of liberals. I’m also not a complete cultural liberal and there are a few social issues I am bit touchy on. Than there is the fact that other than my Dad who will be voting Lib Dem for the foreseeable future my family (including cousins) are all Labour, so it isn’t as simple as ‘just leave’. Especially considering I’ve barely been a member for a few months.

    It is reassuring to see that self-proclaimed social democrats are around in the Liberal Democrats and depending on the next few years maybe I will join the Liberal Democrats if things truly become hopeless. I know I would have been a member of the SDP if it were a different time. All the best man.

  • Dave Orbison 24th Nov '15 - 8:41pm

    @ Miffed ‘red Tory’ I share your despair of stereotypes. The causal linkage of a reference to violent thuggery and the name of a politician who has no connection with those events, directly, indirectly or would do nothing other than to deplore them. So I wonder why there was any need to do it at the beginning of the article. As a stereotyped Corbynista I am fed up of Being labelled a Trot, etc etc etc by Tory, LibDems and others. Too often people hide behind labels or vilification of individuals, Corbyn has had his fair share of that. I agree let’s debate policies in a civil manner. Agree to differ. But I do think linking Corbyn to at the beginning is wrong. George how would you feel if I led off on Tim Farron of course does not condone the criminal activities of LibDem former xyz (take your choice) when, simply by joining them in the one sentence, you do just that?

  • George Kendall 24th Nov '15 - 9:01pm

    @Miffed ‘Red Tory’
    Thank you. And if you mix with other social democrats in the Labour party, and they say similar things to you, do let them know we exist, and we’d love to have you join us.

  • Miffed ‘Red Tory’ 24th Nov ’15 – 8:14pm…

    Oh dear, you, as a moderate, joined just after Corbyn was elected and now post an anti Corbyn , pro LibDem, view on LDV….


  • Miffed Red Tory
    Labour hated the SDP for causing a split . Many in Labour said the SDP was a creation of the media.
    Not everyone in the SDP was sympathetic towards the Liberals, most notable David “Dr. Death” Owen who of course tried to lead a continuing SDP.
    The SDP was the first political partyin the UK that enabled people to join using a credit card and also people living overseas were able to become members.The SDP was a lot more middle class than Labour, however it is time to move beyond this obsession with class that only traps so many below their potential.

  • George Kendall 24th Nov ’15 – 10:04pm…………[email protected]……………..When I was 18, I went to university unsure which political party was the best fit for me. So I decided to go to the meetings of all three main parties, to find out what they were like. I assumed they’d all understand that, and welcome the chance to convert me. (Remember, I was only 18)………..With the Labour people, how wrong I was. A chain of events followed that led to that Labour hand grasping my throat………………..Sounds to me like Miffed ‘Red Tory’ did much the same as I did. He took Corbyn at his word that Labour would be a broad church that welcomed people like him, and he’s finding the reality is a bit different. I’m sure Miffed ‘Red Tory’ is not the only one to make that mistake………………

    Another, Oh dear…I became liberal at around 18….Voted Lib from 21 onwards…I always found far more affinity with Labour colleagues than Tory…I’ve never had anyone, from any party, tell me to my face about “hands on throat, etc”…

    I voted Labour in 1997, regretted it (long before Iraq), voted LibDem again until 2010 regretted it within days….Voted Labour 2015…Now I really don’t know…

    I think my tale must be echoed across the UK ….Sadly, post Clegg, LibDems are no more than a rump party and when I read statements like “We are the Official Opposition” I’m reminded of Aesop’s fable of the ‘Frog and the Ox’….

  • Sad to hear Tony Greaves reverting to tribalism. Perhaps he hasn’t read Marquand’s “Mammon’s Kingdom”

  • Andrew Hickey

    “Party policy is decided by the party, democratically, not by the leader.”

    I’ve heard this repeated so many times and I actually believed it, which is why I voted Lib Dem in the past. But in all fairness, it should come with a huge disclaimer shouldn’t it? “Party policy is decided by the party….” but the Parliamentarians will ignore it when in government and vote for the very opposite. cf Secret Courts, Bedroom, Tax etc etc etc.

    I get very depressed when I read the line quoted because it seems you want to treat us voters like fools.

  • Ronald Murray 25th Nov '15 - 10:30am

    I was very involved up to and including the merger in my local party. Everytime something came up she disagreed with a local SDP Office Bearer quoted their constitution we got on well but it was very annoying. Then after merger it became delegates at conference thanks to the SDP in case a meeting was packed by one faction. I thought the next step would be to have other members to attend conference to make sure the delegates voted the right way as in another well known party. It could be said that the SDP tried to airbrush the Liberals from history. Lets offer the electorate a real choice and airbrush the Tories and SNP from history. The Labour Party seem to be doing the job themselves lol.

  • Phyllis – it certainly seems true that when party leaders get into office they only carry out the bits of party policy they agree with and tend to ignore the rest. My voting record since 1997 has been exactly the same as “expats” and like him if there was an election tomorrow I wouldn’t have a clue who to vote for. I think I’m getting to the stage where I will ignore all the party policy claims and just vote for the man/woman – as long as they aren’t UKIP. I’ve never voted Tory, but my local MP is a good guy – for a Tory – with an independent spirit, so who knows. I certainly couldn’t vote for for Corbyn and I think the LibDems will take many, many years to get back to the level of support they had under Charles Kennedy. I’ll most likely get people having a go at me now saying the Tories are going to hurt thousands of families with cuts to Tax Credits. Well is that really any worse than what happened to students and the disabled under the last coalition government, which the LibDems were happy to support?

  • Dave Page – no tax credit cuts with or without LibDems in coalition. This autumn statement doesn’t seem any worse than last years which was co-written by the LibDems.

  • malc
    Well done the Lib Dems in the Lords.

  • Greenfield
    “As of 2015, Jackie Foster remains an SDP councillor on Bridlington Town Council, having held her seat in the 2015 local elections, although the SDP did not stand a candidate in the election for the ward on East Riding Council.Anthony Taylor is sitting on Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council as an “Independent Democrat”, and not as a member of a political party.
    The SDP fielded two candidates in the 2015 general election: Peter Johnson stood in Birmingham Yardley, finishing in last place with 71 votes and Val Hoodless in Kingston upon Hull East, who was also last with 54 votes.
    Today’s SDP is Eurosceptic as is the Liberal Party.

  • Manfarang – The LibDem and Labour peers certainly did a good job in persuading Osborne to drop tax credit cuts. Like you say well done them.

  • Neil Sandison 25th Nov '15 - 7:51pm

    Miffed red tory . If you are not comfortable where you are don’t stay there .We have good honest open debates around policy. We don’t always agree but in most cases you will get a fair hearing .Having watched the national conferences of the 3 main political parties 2 of which were heavily stage managed I can vouch for the Liberal Democrats allowing more open and transparent debate .My local party put 2 motions forward one was accepted one was not but in both cases our conference reps were given ample opportunity to make their case.

  • SJ:

    If you cannot belong to a party because of the religious beliefs of the leader, you are not a Liberal. You cannot be sure his religious beliefs won’t influence policy? Of course his religious beliefs should influence policy, for example against poverty, just as your anti-religious beliefs influence your policy positions. As we’re a democratic party, the leader won’t necessarily get his way. But a Liberal accepts different religious and anti-religious beliefs and does not try to impose his or her own. As far as I can see Tim Farron is a Liberal on this count.

  • Jonathan Brown 26th Nov '15 - 12:21am

    While I’m not hugely convinced by the need for a new group, I very much agree that we ought to deliberately reach out to social democrats and encourage them to realise that they have a home in the Liberal Democrats.

    I don’t know what I’d do if we had PR and the party split into Liberals and Social Democrats again. I very much value the history and influence of both and would feel torn in two if asked to pick just one element of the party. I like being in a broad church.

  • I hope if David Marquand does join us people will greet that news without rancour 🙂

  • Regarding the Tax Credits U-turn, it wasn’t the Lib Dems’ Lords motion which won, it was the Labour motion and the Independent motion which both won and made the Government pause. And we should not forget that many brave Tory back benchers also spoke against the motion and lobbied in private. Rebelling openly by voting against your own party is very hard, as Lib Dem backbenchers and Lords found out in Government but we should have no doubts that Osborne was under much pressure from his own side once the Lords had passed those motions. Which gives me some hope.

  • Malcolm Lewis 27th Nov '15 - 11:47am

    George has asked us newbies of the Social Democratic Group to add a comment why we’re supporting it, so here goes…
    I’ve joined the group because it is a better fit with my core political views than simply describing myself as a Liberal Democrat. I suspect that there are hundreds of thousands like me who are broadly left of centre and wish the LD’s could speak out more on equitable economic policies.
    I was a very young supporter of the SDP, but I still remember to this day the excitement of believing there was a third force in politics that would take a pragmatic, and therefore ultimately electable, centre-left path. It didn’t come to anything unfortunately, though I believe Blair was its legacy, and like him or loathe him, how many elections did he win?
    I believe it’s time to put the brakes on, and turn away from the car crash political strategies of old. The battle to create a liberal democracy in Britain was won many years ago, it’s time to move on. How many times have we heard on the doorstep, “oh, you’re just one of those wishy-washy Liberals Democrats, I don’t know what you stand for”?
    Now is the time to replace the Labour Party as the main party of opposition. But it can be done only by focussing on centre-left issues, ultimately becoming in the electorate’s mind THE party for working people, as well as for issues of fairness. Don’t be subtle and nuanced, be effective, be easily understood, those are the watchwords, I believe.
    So I hope the more that join this group the more we can influence party policy and direction, and the Liberal Democrats can quickly become a real force for change in Britain.

  • Stephen Howse 30th Nov '15 - 4:19pm

    “Miffed red tory . If you are not comfortable where you are don’t stay there .We have good honest open debates around policy. We don’t always agree but in most cases you will get a fair hearing .”

    Absolutely this. I am not a self-described social democrat, indeed I identify more with the other ‘wing’ of the Lib Dems – but I count a number of people who do call themselves social democrats as Lib Dems I admire and have learned a lot from, including the author of this piece. We are a broad church, and we generally accept each other’s differences while celebrating the things that bring us together – the exact opposite of what seems to be going on in the Labour Party at the moment.

    There is absolutely space within the Lib Dems for social democrats like you, Mr ‘Red Tory’ – you will be guaranteed a warm welcome and a fair opportunity to say what you believe, and campaign on the things you believe in, with us.

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