Why the SDP failed: Lessons for the future

The SDP shone brightly, but briefly. The gang of four left Foot’s Labour in 1981 and seemed to go from strength to strength. As Foot’s Labour disintegrated- it was a disintegration even if nothing on today’s level- under the weight of Militant, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams issued the Limehouse Declaration forming the centrist Council for Social Democracy which later became the SDP. Twenty eight Labour MPs eventually defected, along with a lone Tory, and the new party peaked at over 50% in the polls (in alliance with Steel’s Liberals) in 1981. By the 1983 general election the alliance secured 25% of the vote and 23 MPs, only 6 of whom were from the SDP. By 1987, the SDP was only able to win 5 MPs and was on the verge of a merger with the Liberals.

The SDP may have succeeded in dragging Labour back to reality, but I suspect there were far stronger internal factors. For all the hope the SDP brought of a new politics, and a centrist alternative, the SDP failed. But how, and why?

The first visually striking factor must be the numbers. Turning up for the first time on Election Day with twenty nine MPs is problematic for a new party. Working under First Past the Post, twenty nine is not enough for immediate success but too many in a case like this for an insurgency. MPs face the benefits of incumbency and name recognition within their constituencies during the campaign, but struggle to put forward the image of radical change required to create a populist groundswell. Candidates standing against incumbent Tory or Labour MPs faced the same struggles new parties would face today, without the full perception of representing a radical alternative.

The second major factor, one that perhaps was pivotal in the disintegration of the SDP, is the lack of structures. The SDP was formed by defections, and based on ideologies and broad statements rather than steadfast rules and well defined constitutions. The parliamentary party was constantly bickering, often split on major issues. Famously the parliamentary party split three ways on Tebbit's key 1982 Industrial Relations bill, most voting for, some against, and others abstaining. Important party figures were constantly expressing quite public worry that the others were dragging the party too far to the left or right.

The lack of cohesion made it very difficult to sell the radical alternative as either radical or a realistic alternative to the two major parties. Without structures the SDP were a mess. Without the institutions Labour had taken a century to build, the SDP was always at a huge disadvantage. Without Labour’s union link, or any union link, the SDP was always going to struggle to convince swathes of the soft left. Without groups like the Fabians, the SDP struggled to achieve the ideological or academic lure of the Labour party in the medium term. The SDP may have succeeded in getting MPs to defect, but failed to get unions or other institutions to make the jump. Without them, the SDP was never going to be seen as the long term successor to the Labour party’s legacy.

Fourthly, the SDP failed to build the infrastructure required to win elections. This one is a bit complex; the SDP fought elections in alliance with the Liberals, and in most cases on a council level candidates stood for either the SDP or the Liberals using some alliance branding with the other agreeing not to oppose as part of the alliance. There were more Liberal than SDP councillors, and more generally there was a clear divide between the two parties. With relatively few Labour council defections, this meant that the SDP languished a long way behind the Tories and Labour in terms of councillors- even when you include Liberal alliance councillors.  

That could have been a problem. Your infrastructure, including councillors, is vital in orchestrating a well organised and effective election campaign. The alliance still had a significant number of councillors- roughly 10,000 of them. The fatal flaw came in coordination. The alliance, and the SDP especially, failed to organise coherent cross-party campaigns in their two general elections. Often local SDP and local Liberal parties would have little communication or communication during campaigns. Without a distinct SDP infrastructure, it was difficult to convince people on a local level of the benefits or competence of the party, while crucially without adequate communication and cooperation much of the Liberal infrastructure was rendered useless in many constituencies where the SDP stood.

Should the PLP split today, these lessons must be learnt. It looks as though the numbers will be great enough, which makes success even more important; the sheer number of defections expected could cripple Labour and doom it to electoral irrelevance. Should there be no strategic planning from that point onwards, the endeavour is doomed to failure. In this context failure means failure for the millions who need a progressive voice in parliament or a progressive government.