Speech by Party Leader William Clouston
SDP Spring Conference, Crewe 16th June 2018
If we’re to re-build the Social Democratic Party we need strong foundations. Really strong foundations. We need organizational, legal and financial foundations - but the most important foundations of all are philosophical. Why? Because politics is a battle of ideas. We need to know and be clear about what we stand for and what we aim to achieve. And we’re not going to persuade voters and the public at large to support us if we’re not absolutely clear about this ourselves.
We need to develop a modern SDP vision and in doing so it’s useful to ask some basic questions. What are the enduring SDP values, attitudes, beliefs? What values and philosophical ideas did the SDP start out with which are still relevant and useful today? This is important because if these can be identified we can weave them into a modern programme. It’s also vital, I believe, that our current message is genuinely related to - and flows from - our original political heritage.
Now, I think there are three what I’d call ‘enduring SDP values’. Three distinct themes from the old days which are worth looking at now. They are: democracy, independence and policy pluralism.
First, democracy. At first this might sound trite but it’s not as trite as you may think. This is because many people call themselves democrats without actually being democrats. And the best exponents of this species of political trickery are the Liberal Democrats - a party that preaches democracy but fails dismally when actually tested. So, after the largest democratic mandate in British history, the mask slips and Nick Clegg writes a book called ‘How to Stop Brexit’. This is disgraceful and, incidentally, our rejection of the merger all those years ago has never looked so wise. The damage done to democracy of dishonouring a major referendum doesn’t seem to occur to them. And in the end it’s not just a point of principle which is at stake. As the late great Peter Shore once wisely commented - ‘You can’t expect people to be bound by laws they can’t change. If you attempt this you invite open defiance or even worse’.
So what are the implications of a commitment to democracy for the SDP? What are the implications in policy terms? Well, I think it has two important ones. First, a commitment to democracy precludes membership of the European Union. This is because we believe that the nation state represents the upper limit of democracy and that attempts to operate ‘democracy’ beyond this frontier are essentially a sham. Democracy rests on a number of important foundations such as a coherent demos, a common political culture, common political parties, a common media and preferably, a common language. None of these conditions are - or can be - present at EU level. Key matters such as fiscal policy, monetary policy, trade and immigration policy have all been deliberately put beyond the reach of ordinary European voters. You can’t out-source these matters and claim to be a democracy. As presently structured, the EU makes social democracy an impossibility and, therefore, we reject it in principle.
Secondly, a commitment to democracy implies support for fair voting and constitutional reform. No one can argue that our voting system is fair since it doesn’t convert votes into seats. The General elections of 1983, 1987 and 2015 demonstrate its unfairness. Defenders of the current system have to say that it’s efficient and produces good government. Well, that’s certainly questionable. The House of Lords is an unjustifiable mess, the West Lothian question hasn’t been properly resolved and regional government needs to be considered. So, is there a need for constitutional and voting reform? Surely. Will we take the enduring SDP value of democracy along with us? Certainly.
Another legacy SDP value is independence. What I mean by independence is the sense in which we are free from particular vested interests. We represent neither capital nor labour, not private industry or the public sector, not bosses or the unions. And, of course, the SDP’s independence is a distinct advantage when it comes to policy making because it means we’re unfettered. Free of constraints, policy can be made in the national interest rather than for sectional interests.
And, conversely, the consequence of being in the pocket of vested interests is that when elected you have to pay them off. So, our criticism of Labour and the Conservatives is really quite simple. If you represent sectional vested interests you can’t govern in the national interest. You can govern for half the country but not the whole country. Labour, when elected, tends to build a public sector client state, pushing state spending up to unsustainable levels. Labour runs out of money. It simply can’t resist the urge - given the public sector unions which help sustain it. The Conservatives represent their friends in the City above manufacturing and the regions. They’re only too happy to sell off the nation’s essential public utilities to foreign buyers.
Political independence - and therefore governance for all - is a pure SDP value. Will we take this value along with us? I think so.
The final enduring SDP value is, I think, policy pluralism.
Have you ever noticed that people’s political views often cluster? You’ll meet individuals who have only right wing views or those who only hold leftist ideas. In other words, their views cluster neatly. Too neatly. And, comically, once you’ve heard one viewpoint from such a person you’re able to predict all their other viewpoints. This is, very often, quite arbitrary and non-sensical. You’ll meet someone on the right who opposes high taxation but wants a strong military. Many on the right claim to support family life - and yet they don’t seem to realise that a key part of family life is finding a home at an affordable price in which to raise a family. But perhaps the best example of illogical ideological clustering is the bien pensant liberal left view of wanting open borders and a vibrant welfare state. Well, you can have a welfare state or open borders but you can’t have both.
A thoughtful person usually has views across the political spectrum - and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a distinct advantage.
If political clustering is true of people then it is also true of political parties. The reason why Labour and the Conservative can’t put together a policy blend of left and right is that their ideology prevents them. They are fettered. So when the ‘Policy Buffet Trolley’ comes along they’re restricted to picking things only from the left side or only from the right side. But what if the country actually needs a policy combination? What then?
Our current problems are, arguably, caused by too much economic liberalism which has hollowed out jobs through globalization and too much social liberalism manifesting itself in selfish individualism, social atomisation, family breakdown and a rapidly diminishing sense of the common good. Thinking solely from the left or solely from the right is not going to provide the answers to these problems.
So, if ideological clustering is a problem what’s the answer? Well, the answer is pure SDP - a Balanced Programme. A Policy Mix which is a combination of left and right. The clue is in our colours. SDP’s approach is red and blue.
A key to understanding our viewpoint is that we offer a combination of left and right political thinking. We’re not here to split the difference. We don’t offer some flabby, weak-willed variety of centrism. It’s not, in that sense, a synthesis. Our offer is based on the co-existence of different strands of policy within a balanced programme. I see no reason at all why, say, strong policy on public housing should not happily coexist with a vibrant private house building sector. They’re not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they should be complimentary.
Perhaps the best example of policy pluralism is the SDP’s flagship Social Market policy - the idea that the public and private sectors are not - and should never be - opponents. They are complimentary parts of the same society. Unlike our political opponents we believe in the state and the nation.
If I had to boil the whole SDP concept into a single proposition it would be this: That left and right policy positions can successfully co-exist within a balanced programme of government - provided that each policy is in its correct domain and the frontiers of these domains are respected. That was the message in the Limehouse Declaration. That is the SDP’s unique position today. That’s pure SDP. It’s quite subversive. It may even appear paradoxical. And it will be resisted by both the left and right. But, if adopted, it has the power to both transform and to heal our country.
It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.