Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Learn from the mistakes of the SDP

Those that talk of setting up a new pro-European party to combat Brexit should reflect on the fate of the Social Democratic party, writes Andrew Adonis

In spring 1981 the Labour party appeared to be vanishing over the far left horizon. It was committed to leaving Europe and a hundred-and-one other lunacies. A dangerous Tony Benn/Arthur Scargill duo appeared set to take over the party, with the chaotic Michael Foot as midwife.

The highly talented and prominent ‘Gang of Four’ – Shirley Williams, David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers – broke away and set up the Social Democratic party in a surge of media enthusiasm and approbation. More than 50,000 members were recruited within weeks and the new party was soon at 50 per cent in the opinion polls. Some 40 Labour members of parliament defected and Jenkins and Williams re-entered the House of Commons in stunning by election successes.

But the day after the 1983 election, it all lay in ruins, even though the SDP/Liberal alliance gained 26 per cent of the vote and was only two points behind Labour. Why?

The first clue is in that title – SDP/Liberal alliance. There was already a sitting tenant on the centre-left – the Liberal party, then ably led by the charismatic David Steel. Once the media launch was over, the hard graft of negotiating everything – policy, seats, leadership – between two ‘autonomous’ parties, one of whose activists resented the incursion by the other, proved nightmarish. Clashing egos, local and national, more than made up for the apparently few ideological differences.

The electoral system punishes third parties without regional concentrations of support, and the SDP was no exception. For all its votes, it came narrowly third in 1983 and with the Liberals only managed 23 seats against 209 for Labour.

The SDP was unable to overcome the fact that Labour did not split enough. Most moderate Labour MPs and councillors remained in the party. The unions continued to back Labour; and the Labour machine remained essentially intact, albeit weakened. Even in its weakened state, it was superior to anything the SDP and Liberals were able to muster.

Also, hardly any Tories came over – only one Tory MP, who lost his seat in 1983. ‘Wet’ Tories like Ian Gilmour were constantly mentioned as possible defectors – but they remained just that, wet, and they never joined the SDP.

However, the killer problem was that Labour moved to the ‘fairly far’ left, but the hard left never took complete control of the party even in the worst period of 1981-82. Crucially, Benn lost narrowly to Denis Healey in the election for deputy leader of the Labour party after Foot’s election as leader. Benn never again got close to the leadership once Neil Kinnock and the soft-left took charge after 1983.

This time, some things are different. Jeremy Corbyn of course captured the leadership and the mainstream left has been expelled – or expelled itself – from most of the shadow cabinet.

However, the similarities are greater than the differences. Moderate Labour MPs remain overwhelmingly entrenched in the Commons, as do moderate councillors at local level – including the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan (in contrast to Ken Livingstone in County Hall in 1981). It looks unlikely that this position will change much in the coming few years; just as it looks unlikely that another candidate from the uncompromising hard left will repeat Corbyn’s victory when he stands down. A soft left leader is far more likely.

Furthermore, on policy, the party is in a less extreme place than in 1981-83. It is not unilateralist on defence. On Europe it is wishy-washy, not opposed. It is committed to nationalising and spending far less.

It is therefore hard to see that a new SDP could achieve anything more than the last one. It, too, would almost certainly gain few Tory defectors: Tories like Ken Clarke are tribal and will stick with their party almost whatever happens. At best, a third of the parliamentary Labour party might join a new strongly pro-European party, but without most of the party machine. And a reviving Lib Dem party under the soundbite expert Vince Cable would be as hard to navigate with, and around, as David Steel’s Liberals in the early Eighties..

The root of mainstream Left discontent today is Europe. The supreme political battle of this parliament is the battle against Brexit, in which Corbyn appears to have little interest.

But the key point is that Corbyn is uninterested – not actively hostile. There is everything to play for in terms of the party’s policy and campaigning capacity. This should be the object of every mainstream Labour activist’s attention, not fantasies of a new party which would further split the left and the pro-European forces and probably land us with both Brexit and a re-elected Tory government. It is a time for calm nerves.

Oh, and note – the twentieth century ended with the same three national parties as it started with; and they are all still there in 2017. The death of the political party has been predicted for decades. But it never actually dies.


Andrew Adonis was a founder member of the SDP. He joined Labour in 1995 and was successively schools minister and transport secretary between 2005-10. He tweets at @Andrew_Adonis



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Andrew Adonis

is a former secretary of state for transport


  • Would this be involve the same (alleged) 100 MPs, who were apparently planning a split back in May 2017, if the Tories won a landslide? It was widely reported at the time that Tony Blair was involved but that polling had indicated that only 8% of voters would support a party connected to the ex-PM!

    This new Party was to be known as the Progressives so I assume that, given the name and the Blair connection, these would include a number of Progress MPs and other assorted malcontents? The numbers may have been somewhat exaggerated to start with and appear to have dropped since the General Election. It has to be said that there were some overtly disappointed backbench Labour MPs, who while happy to retain their own seat, seemed unhappy that Labour achieved more than their prediction of 140-150 seats.

    Open Britain seems to be the focal point at the present so potential splitters would probably include:

    Chuka Ummuna, Chris Leslie, Alison McGovern, Seema Malhotra, Wes Streeting, Ian Murray, Darren Jones, Mary Creagh, Chris Bryant, Peter Kyle, Phil Wilson, Pat McFadden, Ben Bradshaw, Heidi Alexander, Mike Gapes, Owen Smith, Stephen Doughty.

    Add in a few more of the usual suspects who voted with Chuka Umunna on Single Market (rebel amendment) :

    Neil Coyle, Stella Creasy, Ann Clywd, Ann Coffey, Emma Dent-Coad, Rushanara Ali, Luciana Berger, Adrian Bailey, Karen Buck, Ruth Cadbury, Maria Eagle, Louise Ellman, Paul Farrely, Kate Green, John Grogan, Helen Hayes, Meg Hillier, Margaret Hodge, Rupa Huq, Susan Elan Jones, David Lammy, Kerry McCarthy, Katherine McKinnel, Madeline Moon, Albert Owen, Jess Philips, Virenda Sharma, Barry Sheerman, Gavin Shuker, Tulip Sidiq, Andy Slaughter, Jo Stevens, Stephen Timms, Keith Vaz, Catherine West, John Woodcock, David Zeichner.

    That’s 54 potential recruits, beating the Gang of Four by a considerable margin! How many would actually be foolish enough to go down this route, is another matter.

  • “The electoral system punishes third parties without regional concentrations of support, and the SDP was no exception. For all its votes, it came narrowly third in 1983 and with the Liberals only managed 23 seats against 209 for Labour”

    This is the key paragraph. The SDP 1981-1983 was an amazing success. In Continental Europe the 26% gained would make them kingmakers in the governing coalition- and in some fractured policies the largest party. Had we a proportional system the SDP would have been up and away in 1983; in fact had we had such a system the SDP would already have existed.

    The Labour Party is currently five parties: on the left extreme you have the greying beards of the largely 55-70 year old Trots and Stalinists who’ve come flooding back through the sluice gates opened by the Corbynites; on the right extreme you have the unreconstructed Blairites who still think the marketisation of public services during the noughties and the introduction of University tuition fees were both good and necessary” you have a largely Brownite centre right and a Corbynite centre left with a Milibandite/ Kinnockite centre (nomenclature is intra Labour Party- obviously the Corbynites are on the hard left of the wider political spectrum).

    Under a proportional system at least three of these ‘Labour Parties’ could easily exist as functioning organisations with membership and MPs.

    The key lesson of the SDP is twofold: (1) that there is mass support out there for a semi-statist egalitarian pro West pro Europe pro NATO party broadly on the centre/ centre left (the lib Dems since the ’90s tick only a few of these boxes); (2) that FPTP will kill any new attempt to create an SDP mark 2.

    Until electoral reform both Labour and Conservatives are doomed to phases of internecine warfare between rival strands of- in effect- incompatible political thought.

  • The wider picture is one of a frustrated public confronted with two major parties run by a UKIP Brexit hugger and a hard left inexperienced 1980s state socialist. We have lost count of people saying we need a centre left party proEurope, socially progressive in being pro education and pro health care, pro business , appealing to voters across the country be it the North or the South. How ridiculous you can drive from M25 to M4 to M5 and encounter on that 3 to 4 hour journey one Labour seat Exeter. ( OK give you Slough and Reading).

    Massive stretches of England that need an alternative to Corbyn Labour but will not vote for his Socialist baggage of state socialism. Our party system is outdated, dysfunctional and nothing illustrates that more than Brexit where both parties are willing to crash the economy for the sake of a UKIP inspired ideology which will shortly dislodge Britain from 32 other nations of the SM and leaves the world gasping that a once leading country allowed itself to self destruct. If ever a ‘Macron ‘ moment was needed it’s now. Labour needs a new evolution but is stuck in 1980s dinosaur mode.

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