Stodge looks back to the 80s to reflect on today’s developments
I joined the Liberal Party in 1980 and by January 1982 was an activist in south-east London and I remember going out knocking on doors in the bleak midwinter and coming back astonished at the collapse of the Conservative vote in an area which had routinely voted 65-70% Conservative at local elections.
Perhaps the house owners were taking pity on me – the passage of time may make it seem more than it was – but the number of times I was told it was time to get rid of “that bloody woman” and they would vote against the Conservatives to make it happen was too many to be mere coincidence.
The only person who was getting a more positive response was my canvassing colleague, a middle aged former bank worker who had never been in a political party but had joined the SDP in March 1981. Had he known what he was letting himself in for, I wondered if he would have changed his mind but he was keen and enthusiastic and could communicate with the disillusioned Conservatives in a way I never could.
It’s often forgotten the SDP attracted Conservatives as well as Labour support but two thirds of those who joined had never belonged to a political party.
Then came the Falklands War and it’s not often appreciated that not only did it save Margaret Thatcher and ensure her 1983 landslide but it also saved Labour by removing the very real threat of the Alliance parties challenging them for second place in seats and votes. With that threat removed, the road to the Blair landslide of 1997 was open.
History rarely repeats itself but those who advocate a new or third party are constantly reminded of the failure of the SDP as a salutary lesson, an inevitability that any new force will be broken on the rocks of the duopoly and FPTP and with more than 80% voting either Conservative or Labour in June that seems a real and valid point but nearly 80% voted for the two main parties in 1979 and that didn’t stop the SDP’s creation.
What then does the new party need to survive and succeed?
All politicians need it and some have it in large quantities but no one has it for ever. The new party needs a high-profile defection, an unexpected endorsement and a by-election in the right place to establish its credentials.
The new party needs high-profile supporters such as a George Osborne or a David Miliband. The last attempt at a breakaway party, UKIP, owed its success to the media presence of Nigel Farage and the good fortune of David Cameron who in winning his own majority in 2015 gave UKIP the referendum it always wanted and the chance to achieve its dream.
UKIP worked because everyone knew what it stood for – a referendum on UK membership of the European Union in which UKIP would campaign for a vote to Leave.
There were UKIP policies on a range of other issues but no one was interested.
A new party needs to have a unique selling point (USP) – something which differentiates it from other parties. UKIP had theirs – the Liberal Democrats did well when being opposed to intervention in Iraq. For parties aspiring to Government, it’s more complex and complicated.
The SDP had policies on everything and behaved as though they were going to be a governing party. Realistically, the Alliance’s best hope was to gain enough seats to create a Hung Parliament and negotiate with either the Conservative or Labour parties (essentially what happened in 2010).
The new party will face a similar dilemma and unless it can provoke a large scale schism in either the Conservative or Labour parties (50 MPs from each side would do it) it’s going to face an uphill battle to get organised and even if it has funding, to get its message heard once the initial euphoria has died away.
Rather like a female Doctor Who, there will be some novelty value to a new political force and especially if it gets a few defections to establish itself as a presence at Westminster and in some local Councils.
Will it be a place where Blairites, Orange Book Liberals and Liberal Conservatives can coalesce and agree a common platform? It’s often called the “soggy centre” or the “marshy middle ground” but there’s plenty of potential for agreement on Brexit and perhaps other areas.
How will a new party interact with the others in the political arena? So much depends on where its “origins” are. The SDP was predominantly an ex-Labour party at Westminster and it was always my experience that Labour activists were incredibly hostile toward the SDP while they treated Liberals like me with civility and respect while Conservatives tended to be fairly indifferent.
The schism within Labour (of which current Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable was a part) caused bad blood for decades.
In the end, ironically, the SDP post-merger diaspora found its way into and took over both the Labour and Conservative parties and both Blair and Cameron can be recognisably seen as less the scions of Thatcher but more the children of Doctor Death.
Any new party will rapidly need to establish a modus vivendi with the Liberal Democrats either through an electoral pact or common platform.
The Party I joined in 1980 was broken by the Coalition – nearly three quarters of the current Liberal Democrat membership joined AFTER 2015 so you could argue there’s already a new party out there (as there is a new Labour Party as well).
Kylie Minogue once opined “I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky” and a new party is going to need all the luck going to get off the ground and be successful.
As a minimum, it needs money, high profile figures and a USP to set it apart from the others. It can’t simply be a collection of political failures but has to be seen to be a party for younger people and for those not previously interested in politics.
It will enjoy an initial honeymoon but that will fade and the serious graft of establishing local identity and presence will begin. I would advocate concentrating on areas of membership strength and get local council candidates (or defectors) to set up organisations and start thinking about prospective candidates.
Kylie also said “It’s Never Too Late, We’ve Still Got Time” but the truth is any new party will need every second between now and a 2022 election to get itself moving. Britain isn’t France and the example of Macron won’t work over here.