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.
by Party Leader, William Clouston
The SDP’s Social Market is a vision of how to run the country. It’s been a cornerstone of our political thinking for over 35 years, but what is the Social Market and why is it important today?
The Social Market is founded on three basic principles:
- First, it proposes that the frontier between the public and private sector realms is rationally determinable. If something is a public good, requires delivery to citizens universally and can't be provided without substantial public subsidy - then it should be publicly owned and operated. Think schools, railways and public utilities.
- Secondly, the Social Market acknowledges that open, competitive, free markets are not only the best but should be the main system for providing general goods and services. Government must, therefore, provide an environment in which the private sector can thrive, employ people, generate profits and invest. This includes sound fiscal policy.
- Thirdly, the Social Market rejects the choice between hard socialism and right wing unfettered capitalism and minimal government. A successful society requires a synthesis of government and free market activity. A dynamic commercial sector requires a capable and active state.
So, what happens when the principles of the Social Market economy are ignored? Failure.
- The Conservatives sold essential public utilities such as water to foreign investors, denying citizens any meaningful social accountability. We find that public housing stock has been sold and that government is rendered feeble - incapable of constructing social housing on any meaningful scale and the private sector has failed to adequately fill this void, thus denying many people the means to live a decent life.
- Ingeniously, New Labour managed to combine errors of both the left and the right simultaneously. It effectively privatised large swathes of the public sector such as schools & hospitals via Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and outsourcing deals that have wasted large sums of public money. New Labour just assumed that privatisation was more efficient than state provision and failed to properly scrutinise the costs. So, it foolishly ran fiscal deficits during an economic boom and failed to adequately regulate the city, leading to the banking crisis.
- Labour’s current Marxist stance - which demonizes enterprise - is even worse. It does not occur to hard-left Corbynistas that in despising the financial profits made by British companies they also disdain the very tax base which supports our public services.
Successive British governments have failed because neither Labour nor the Conservatives understand the spirit of mutual cooperation that must shape any successful programme. Labour retains a recurring child-like attitude to fiscal responsibility and the Conservatives simply do not believe in state provision in many key areas – although rather oddly in the case of rail, they have no problem with awarding UK rail franchises to French, German and Dutch State-owned companies despite their official dogma that state-owned companies are incapable of running the railways efficiently.
Most British people are not ideologues. They want good government free from the hard line dogmas of left and right.The SDP, with its Social Market vision, was created to free the British people from this false two-dimensional choice. The public and private sectors are not - and should never be - opponents. They are complimentary elements of the same society.
by Councillor Kevin Hickson
Even by the standards of Brexit recent days have been strange. First we had Jeremy Corbyn's speech saying he wished to stay in 'a' Customs Union, then two former Prime Ministers - Tony Blair and John Major - waded in to say that we should remain in the European Union and, finally, we had May's speech. Although balanced, detailed and technical it was still condemned by Labour Remainers such as Lord Mandelson. For Labour's EU fanatics nothing short of betraying the wishes of the British people is acceptable.
Labour has a proud history of Euroscepticism, not just the hard left of the early 1980s but moderates including Clement Attlee, Hugh Gaitskell and Peter Shore. Today's representatives of that tradition include Frank Field, Kate Hoey and Graham Stringer. Very much in a minority within the Parliamentary Labour Party they can legitimately claim to be closer to Labour voters. For although Labour MPs and activists were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU in the 2016 referendum, over a third of Labour voters and well over half of Labour seats voted to leave the EU.
Corbyn's dilemma is best understood in this context. He has always opposed the EEC/EU from the time of our accession in the 1970s through every subsequent integrationist measure. Yet he has been forced by the weight of numbers to accept, first, leading the party in favour of remain during the referendum and, since, accepting Brexit in name only, culminating in his decision to stay in 'a' customs union which seems little different to the current arrangement in its fundamentals.
I was still an active member of the Labour Party during the referendum and therefore saw at first hand the attempts within the party to stifle any internal debate. It became clear to me that many within the modern day Labour Party do not like many of their own voters. It was this attitude that led Gordon Brown to remark that Gillian Duffy was a bigot for holding certain views on immigration which were widely shared and reasonably expressed.
It is now commonplace on the liberal left to remark that people should not have been given a say in the first place, that the issues were too complex, that people were lied to and tricked in to voting leave. These apparently simple folk should never have been burdened with such an onerous responsibility of being asked to vote on EU membership. Though having opposed the referendum they now want to have a second one because they disagreed with the result of the first one. Referenda are ok it seems, as long as they give the desired result.
If the first attitude of remainers has been one of contempt then the other has been fear. The predicted severe economic consequences of a leave vote have already been disproved. Now the argument has moved on to the fear mongering over would happen to the economy the day after Brexit. I have had people tell me that our trading system would completely dry up the day we leave the EU, that the entire City of London would close down and that vast impoverishment would ensue. I can almost hear them saying that the sun will not rise in the morning once we leave the EU! Everything in the news that is bad is blamed on Brexit and any good news occurs 'despite Brexit'.
Corbyn's latest policy will ensure that an independent UK will not be able to reach trading agreements with other countries and that tariffs on poorer countries seeking to trade with the UK will be maintained. Neither patriotic, nor progressive. It is in effect a complete sell out on the will to take back control of trade.
The response of the fanatics within the party is to argue that acceptance of the Customs Union (or even 'a' customs union) does not go far enough, that we need to stay in the Single Market also, which means betraying the people in their wish to retake control of borders.
Finally, Corbyn's statement was followed by an interview in which he admitted that he had no Plan B. His Plan B was, he said, to keep negotiating for his Plan A. However, his Plan A has little chance of success and Labour politicians such as Keir Starmer have demonstrated that they are not able to enter into tough negotiations with the EU. The likes of Blair and Mandelson will argue that we should accept almost any price to stay in the EU, including things which we had previously opted out from. Remember that Blair had wanted Britain to sign up to the single currency. No doubt they see no dangers with a more integrated foreign and defence policy if that is the price for remaining a member.
Brexit does mean accepting the result of the referendum, and this means leaving the Customs Union and the Single Market so that we can take back control of money, laws, borders and trade. But it does not mean the economic liberalism of the Conservative Brexiteers. Regaining sovereignty is essential for left and centre left policies of a new industrial strategy, regional policy, more extensive public ownership and immigration control to stop the downward pressure on wages. Policies which are genuinely in the interests of the working class.
After Labour's Brexit Betrayal it is clear that there is only one party which represents the genuine interests of the working class, the SDP.
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