Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Gang of one

Will Nigel Farage meet the fate of the SDP, asks Robert Philpot

On 26 March 1981, four former Labour cabinet ministers – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers, and Shirley Williams – formally announced the launch of the Social Democratic party. The mood on the day, suggest Ivor Crewe and Anthony King in their history of the SDP, was ‘euphoric’. And, while the party would cease to exist within 10 years, the formation of the SDP was historic: for, over the next two years, it undertook the most serious challenge to the Labour-Conservative duopoly which had dominated British politics for 60 years.

As the United Kingdom Independence party prepares to face its biggest electoral test to date, the short life of another party which, in the words of Liberal leader David Steel, set out to ‘break the mould of a failed political system’ is of more than historical interest.

The mini-electoral explosion which Ukip threatens to detonate has been a slow-burning fuse. Founded in 1993, the party won a meagre 0.3 per cent of the vote at the 1997 general election. While it has inched forward at every general election since, and putting aside its stronger performance in European parliamentary elections, in 2010 Ukip still only won 3.1 per cent of the vote.

As Tim Bale argues, the SDP’s challenge, by contrast, ‘went up like the proverbial rocket but came down like the proverbial stick’. For Jenkins, 1981 was the SDP’s ‘annus mirabilis’. Having speedily sealed an electoral deal with the Liberals, four months later it came a mere 1,750 votes from overturning a 10,000 Labour majority in the Warrington byelection. Shortly thereafter a byelection in Croydon North-west saw the election of the first Alliance MP. And then, weeks after Steel urged his party conference delegates to return to their constituencies and ‘prepare for government’, came what Williams termed ‘the high tide of the SDP’ when she snatched Crosby, the eighth-safest Tory seat in the country. In the opinion polls, the Alliance hit 50 per cent.

But, the following spring, the tide turned. One week after Jenkins returned to parliament having won a byelection at Glasgow Hillhead, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The war saved the deeply unpopular Thatcher government and scuppered the SDP: its support dropped from 40 per cent to 25 per cent in the polls. And, as inflation dropped dramatically, the relentless rise in unemployment slowed, and real incomes of those in work increased, economic optimism boosted the Tories’ political fortunes still further. Flush with victory in the Falklands, Margaret Thatcher led the Tories to the first byelection gain by a governing party in two decades when, in June 1982, Bruce Douglas-Mann, the sole defector from Labour to resign and seek his constituents’ approval for his decision to join the SDP, failed to hold Mitcham and Morden.

That byelection proved prophetic. One year later the Conservatives secured a landslide victory. For the Alliance, Williams wrote, the result was ‘both a triumph and a gigantic defeat’. With 25.4 per cent of the vote, it scored the best third-party performance since 1923, and the party came just 2.2 per cent, or 700,000 votes, behind Labour. The Liberals held all but one of the seats they were defending, while gaining another five. By contrast, the SDP’s parliamentary presence was nearly wiped out, with the party losing all but five of its seats – including those of Williams and Rodgers – and gaining only one.

Under David Owen’s dynamic but divisive leadership the SDP soldiered on for another seven years – with the Owenite refuseniks who resisted merger with the Liberals in 1988 finally throwing in the towel in the wake of humiliation in the 1990 Bootle byelection. But, as Williams suggested, 1983 was the ‘closest the SDP came to breaking the mould’.

At its inception, the SDP had a number of advantages over Ukip. The presence of four former cabinet ministers, and the defection of 29 members of parliament, gave it instant credibility and a parliamentary presence. In Williams, moreover, it had one of the country’s most popular politicians. Furthermore, although the party later found itself frequently squeezed out of the headlines – and no newspapers endorsed the Alliance in 1983 – the SDP had a fair media wind. Even the Daily Mail was moved to opine: ‘This must be good for Britain.’

Ukip has, of course, tried to turn its absence from Westminster, lack of media support, and the ‘marmite quality’ of its leader to its advantage: playing up its ‘outsider status’. While no party with Jenkins at the helm could credibly present itself as outside the establishment, the SDP – as Ukip does today – thrived in an atmosphere of deep antipathy to the two main parties. In 1981, the Thatcher government’s unpopularity and Labour’s lurch to the left provided the opening, but longer-term factors were also at play. While 1979 had seen a dip in the third party vote, the two elections of 1974 – the first resulting in a hung parliament, the second in a tiny Labour majority that was soon whittled away – witnessed the Liberal vote, at 19 per cent, at its highest level since 1929.

The backdrop of the 1970s and early 1980s – of economic difficulties and austerity – is, of course, a familiar one. Moreover, Ukip can take comfort in the fact that voters’ loyalty to parties – and the link between class and voting – is significantly weaker than it was in the 1980s. The vacant political space in 2015 is, though, different from the early 1980s. Despite Labour’s shift to the left since 2010, the centre-ground has not been vacated to the degree that occurred as politics polarised between Thatcherism on the one hand and Bennism on the other. Ukip is hardly attempting to woo the modern-day equivalent of the SDP’s middle-class, pro-European, Guardian-reading ‘Volvo voters’.

But, in some ways, the strategic dilemmas facing Ukip are similar to those which the SDP encountered. As Rodgers suggested, most of the SDP’s founders saw it as ‘a party of the left’. But, as the inverse correlation between the fortunes of the SDP and the Conservatives during 1981-82 demonstrated, much of its support came from disgruntled – and fickle – Tory voters.

To a degree, this is mirrored by Ukip: a party of the radical right which is now targeting traditionally Labour ‘left behind’ voters. Despite Ukip’s Eurosceptic Tory base the party was, suggests Matthew Goodwin, ‘never exclusively a second home for disgruntled Tories to begin with’. Most Ukip voters may have supported David Cameron in 2010, but many were once Labour: they were, his research demonstrates, ‘more likely to support Blair than Major’ and, at recent byelections, non-Conservatives who backed Ukip have outnumbered former Conservatives. But might the outcome be different this time? On issues such as immigration and Europe, Ukip may be able to reach out to these voters, but the party’s formerly hard-right stance on public services and public spending has already proved more tricky territory for Nigel Farage as he tries to woo these voters. Nonetheless, as King and Crewe conclude, part of the explanation for the SDP’s electoral failure was ‘its inability to establish a new – or indeed any – ideological constituency in the country’. That is a hurdle which the more clearly defined Ukip may be able to overcome.

But the greatest barrier Ukip faces – the First Past the Post voting system – is also the one which proved fatal to the SDP. With its support evenly spread across the country, each Alliance MP ‘cost’ 339,000 votes to elect in 1983; by contrast, the Tories needed just 33,000 and Labour 41,000. Voters’ fear that supporting it would be a ‘wasted’ vote trapped the SDP in a vicious cycle. Ukip’s support, Goodwin writes, ‘remains very evenly spread’. But, in a curious twist of fate, since 2010 Farage has sought to overcome this problem by building local bastions of support – winning local government representation in order to build electoral machines capable of snatching Westminster seats – in a strategy which, he freely admits, is lifted from Paddy Ashdown’s successful political playbook of the 1990s. Ashdown’s effort was, in turn, shaped by the frustrations experienced by the Alliance in the 1980s.

Ideology and appeal aside, there is another key difference between the SDP and Ukip: expectation and aspiration. The SDP was launched by former members of the cabinet who were impatient to resume their ministerial duties and wanted to displace Labour as the principal governing alternative to the Conservatives. Ukip is more akin to a single-issue pressure group which has evolved into a political party. For now, Farage’s aspirations are more limited and long term: to use the Conservatives division over Europe and the Liberal Democrats’ unpopularity to become Britain’s third party, and thence to turn his appeal to ‘left behind’ voters into a base from which to challenge Labour in its northern citadels.


Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress


Photo: Global Panorama

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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress

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