In 1981 the Gang of Four founded the SDP and it exploded onto the British Political scene. Following the merger with the Liberal Party in 1988 the SDP still continued. Led by William Clouston it is a pro-Brexit party, with some high profile supporters that include former UKIP MEP and Political Editor of the Daily Express Patrick O’Flynn and former Today Editor Rod Liddle. The Croydon Constitutionalists had Kent SDP candidate Richard Plackett speak at our Debate for Democracy in April 2019.
We speak to one of the SDP’s London team Andrew Bence about the Party, Brexit, and current events.
Andrew thank-you for your time.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you got involved in politics?
That well-worn and variously attributed quote that goes something like “Any man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart; any man who is still a socialist at 40 has no head” applies to me.
In 1976, I joined the Labour Party. I was 16, a reader of the Guardian and the New Statesman, marching to Ban the Bomb, Rock Against Racism and free Nelson Mandela. But the ‘Labour Party Young Socialists’ were fast becoming the foot soldiers of the Militant Tendency – the Momentum of their day. My first doubts surfaced around this time.
I remember suggesting to LPYS comrades that we have a debate, in order to thrash out the arguments for and against the ‘Gang of Four’. Unfortunately, none of my comrades could imagine there being any arguments in support of those traitors Owen, Jenkins, Williams and Rodgers. So I found myself having to make their case. Nobody was convinced.
My membership lapsed and my doubts increased. I remember admiring Kinnock’s ‘I warn you’ conference speech, while finding the trade union leadership of the miners strike and its ‘scab-taunting’ rhetoric much less appealing. Later, after the great promise of the mid 1990s, I was deeply disappointed by the smug and complacent managerialism of Blair and Brown. Theirs, it seems to me, was the greatest political missed opportunity of our times. By 2010, I had stopped voting Labour.
The EU referendum was a catalyst for me, as for so many others. Finding myself in favour of leaving – unlike most of my fellow middle-class, educated, Londoners – I was forced to pay close attention to the reasons for this disjunction. The very shape of politics at national level, usually so slow to change, was by now buckling under the pressure. The re-emergence of the Social Democratic Party was a product of those shifting tectonic plates, prompting me to become politically active for the first time in 30 years.
For our readers who don’t know much about the SDP tell us about the party?
You could be forgiven for thinking the SDP, formed by those four breakaway Labour MPs in 1981, had disappeared long ago, subsumed into what became the Liberal Democrats. In fact, a tiny group kept it going, albeit in near-total obscurity. During this time they developed the party’s communitarian, Eurosceptic philosophy. Brexit shone a light on that USP, and we remain the only pro-Brexit party on the centre-left.
The EU aside, it’s our communitarianism that distinguishes us from Liberal Democrats. For liberals, it’s all about individual rights. They have lost sight of the importance of the group to the individual. So liberals are not really interested in community, not really that interested in family, and there’s a huge hostility to the nation state. We, however, think that the nation is where you convene to do things like the National Health Service, and to look out for one another. The current coronavirus emergency exemplifies this. We’re red-and-blue centrists, if you like. But the blue bits are pretty blue and the red bits are pretty red.
In 2019 you stood for the SDP in Tottenham against among others David Lammy. How did you find the experience, did you get to meet the anti-democracy MP David and any funny stories from the campaign trail?
I’d only joined the party earlier in the year, so it was a quite surreal experience. With only a small London branch, its members scattered far and wide, we had to be realistic. This was always going to be about trying to raise the profile of the party rather than seriously challenging the incumbent in one of Labour’s safest seats. Even that proved difficult. So safe a seat was it, that Lammy spent most of the campaign away up north, in a futile attempt to prop up the Labour vote there. At the one hustings to take place in Tottenham, only the three main party candidates were invited. I spoke briefly from the floor. It proved to be my one and only campaign ‘speech’. The enduring memory of the campaign has to be the drudgery of leafleting, made bearable by the kind support of a few stalwart colleagues.
Were you involved in the 2016 Referendum campaign and do you have any memories from then?
I didn’t campaign, but I was captivated by the debate. As a local authority worker, I had the chance to observe the vote at close quarters as, on the day itself, I was a poll clerk in one of the borough’s mobile polling stations. Ours was probably the quietest station in the borough, a two-both portacabin on a small housing estate. Even so, you sensed something monumental might be happening.
Many of us are still shocked at how many of the political and media class wanted to overturn the 2016 democratic vote of the people. What do you hope will shake out from the Brexit vote and the attempt to betray Democracy?
Previously unrecognised divisions were laid bare by Brexit, highlighting how out of touch the political class and elites generally had become. In the normal aftermath of such turbulence, the dust would by now be settling and a new political landscape emerging. But coronavirus has put paid to that. I don’t think anyone knows where we will be in, say, two years’ time. The one chink of light I can see is that wherever intelligent political conversations take place, communitarian ideas are now featuring front and centre.
Schadenfreude – how much did you enjoy the Illiberal Undemocrats failure at the last election?
Bigly, as the leader of the free world might say. I confess to doing a little jig when Swinson’s result came through. At the Tottenham hustings, I had gone round the room handing out my leaflets. All present accepted the offer graciously, all except the Liberal Democrat candidate’s two student lackeys. Refusing to take a leaflet, all they could muster were graceless sneers.
It’s difficult for smaller parties to make headway under first past the post. How do you see the SDP building support?
It’s going to be very difficult. Let’s assume, for all Starmer’s efforts, that Labour remains hopelessly out of touch, and likewise the Liberal Democrats. And that the Government comes through the coronavirus emergency mostly unscathed. In which case, an opposition-shaped hole remains.
For the SDP to fill it we first need to find several relatively high-profile SDP supporters willing to stand as candidates, in mayoral elections, by-elections and the like, giving us the publicity boost needed to get us off the launchpad. After that, the hard slog of local campaigning needs to be combined with energetic and media-savvy leadership of the highest order. Only then will the relevance of our values and policies begin to strike people.
If these were normal times, I’d be pessimistic about our chances. But these are not normal times. ‘Business as usual’ will no longer do in politics, and the so-called ‘culture war’ has only just begun, as those of us inclined to resist woke orthodoxy begin to get our act together. In short, I am optimistic that the SDP has a part to play in the future of centre-left politics in the UK.
If there were three policies you would like to pass now what would they be?
Creation of a National Care Service to organise social care and fund it once a recipient has reached an agreed ceiling for their own financial contributions.
Scrap HS2 and invest some of the freed-up funds to create a Great Northern Railway Network, better linking up the towns and cities of the North of England to unleash their joint potential.
Constitutional reform encompassing the creation of an English Parliament (outside London), the abolition of the House of Lords, and the introduction of Proportional Representation for all elections.
We are writing at the time of the Covid19 pandemic. Boris has a big majority, and once this is over, what would you like to see the government focus on?
That would depend on what state we’re in, economically and socially, by the time we’re through it. But clearly there will be lessons to learn, and perhaps even a once in a generation opportunity to think afresh about the kind of society we want to live in, and what it takes for that society to be sustainable. Unsurprisingly, I think the SDP can make a valuable contribution to that debate.
Any thoughts you would like to leave us with?
Thanks for this invitation, and congratulations on the Croydon Constitutionalists initiative. Among other things, Brexit taught us the value of essentially non-partisan grassroots activism and engagement such as yours.