American readers beware: This blog is about forming a new political grouping in the United (for now) Kingdom for the many voters who feel disappointed and frustrated by what is currently on offer. Many would like to see an organised and effective movement capable of meeting the opportunities and threats of a fast changing world. Opportunities are not being pursued nor problems solved by neither the Conservatives, now in power, nor Labour, which failed in the electoral campaign to offer a clear or convincing vision for a better future.
Unfortunately for them, the presently navel-gazing, leaderless Labour Party no longer represents a viable opposition. Its financial dependence on the unions is not a healthy one. The outlook of Unite and other trade union groups in the public sector is defensive and backward looking. It is hard to see how even a reformed Labour Party could return to power over the coming decade without the Scottish Labour MPs. Meanwhile the Tories under David Cameron are benefiting from Labour’s electoral crash by stealing some of Labour’s clothes. They now purport to represent the nation’s blue-collar workers in an effort to cast-off their unfavourable image as the party of privilege.
At the same time, the decimated Liberal Democrats are on the floor, and are unlikely to return to the popular level they achieved in 2010, whilst the Greens really do not have a broad political programme beyond focusing on the all-important environmental survival of our species. However, it does not seem that the ideological differences between the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and Labour are such that they could not unite under a democratic banner. All three stand for a better deal for the labour force, for a far stronger environmental programme, and for the all-around fairness and moderation demanded by the Liberal Democrats. Together they back “Human Rights,” fairer taxation (e.g. an end to lower rates for capital gains), a carbon tax, improved public services and a renewal of the public interest. They are in agreement on prison reform, broad arrangements with the European Union and in favor of a stronger legal aid service. Together the three parties stand against economic austerity, “the Bedroom Tax,” increased outsourcing of governmental functions, and a reduction in the size of government.
“There is plenty of space for a social democratic party in Britain capable of speaking for two-thirds of the country or more, and able to appeal to both aspirational and left-behind voters,” writes David Goodhart, director of Demos Integration Hub.1 “It is just very hard to see how Labour… could ever be that party. For it is the party’s inability to connect culturally with most British voters that lost it the election.”
A new grouping must be formed to deal with the forthcoming challenges of “rising social mobility,” the digital and scientific revolutions as well as those of globalisation. This group would move forward under the banner of a progressive democracy as opposed to the Conservatives who are striving for stability. This new political grouping should be organised into an effective force capable of meeting the threatened break-up of the UK, the dangers of a calamitous economic breakdown in Europe, the revolutionary advances in robotics and the universal growth of oligarchies.
This group would push for a fairer society and would have to present an aspirational economic narrative which would protect jobs and wages. It would have to curb the uncontrolled growth of corporations while also recalibrating the economy away from both “The City” and the banks. The social policy of such a grouping would advocate a genuine movement for change unaffiliated to Marxism, nationalism, fascism and other “-isms!” It would have to provide a compelling vision of our human future based on cooperation, replacing the current emphasis on greed and competition. In sum, this grouping would advance our thinking, engage our optimism and embrace progress.
Such a grouping should be inclusive, broad-minded and truly representative, including members from all parties. It must avoid the extremes while aiming to catalyse the people into revitalizing communities under a more collective banner. To do this it must have an organised and effective leadership. I am thinking of the generation of Danny Alexander, Douglas Alexander, Caroline Lucas, David Milliband and Chuka Umunna to take advantage of those outstanding MPs and the large number of staff who lost their jobs in the May elections.
The formation in the UK of the SDP (Social Democratic Party) in January 1981 was a most instructive effort to launch a political group balanced between right-wing Conservatives and left-wing, trade-union Labourites. The driving force behind the new party were four outstanding leaders: Roy Jenkins, David Owen, William Rogers and Shirley Williams who hoped to occupy the centre of British politics. These SDP leaders worked on a statement of intent called the Limehouse Declaration which was particularly focused on electoral reform, decentralisation of the UK, and European integration.
I think the original statement, made some 34 years ago, is most relevant today. I am therefore taking the liberty to attach some sections of it as a model from which we now can advance.
To paraphrase the opening line of the declaration — The calamitous outcome of the Labour Party defeat demands a new start in British politics:
- “We propose to set up a Council for Social Democracy. Our intention is to rally all those who are committed to the values, principles and policies of social democracy. We seek to reverse Britain’s economic decline. We want to create an open, classless and more equal society, one which rejects ugly prejudices based upon sex, race or religion…
- We do not believe the fight for the ideals we share and for the recovery of our country should be limited only to politicians. It will need the support of men and women in all parts of our society…
- We do not believe in the politics of an inert centre merely representing the lowest common denominator between two extremes.
- We want more, not less, radical change in our society, but with a greater stability of direction.
- Our economy needs a healthy public sector and a healthy private sector without frequent frontier changes.
- We want to eliminate poverty and promote greater equality without stifling enterprise or imposing bureaucracy from the centre. We need the innovating strength of a competitive economy with a fair distribution of rewards.
- We favor competitive public enterprise, co-operative ventures and profit sharing. There must be more decentralisation of decision making in industry and government, together with an effective and practical system of democracy at work.
- The quality of our public and community services must be improved and they must be made more responsive to people’s needs….”
- And it then concluded that: “We recognise that for those people who have given much of their lives to the Labour Party, the choice that lies ahead will be deeply painful. But we believe that the need for a realignment of British politics must now be faced.”
I believe that this historic statement offers a splendid take-off point today for a wider union of disaffected political party members. Such a group of critical activists will need the support of some multi-millionaire to bankroll its launch. Start ups in politics are not only costly but also can prove to be initially contentious. A close friend, Sarah Horack, who worked with the SDP, suggested that each of the participating parties in such a new grouping might agree to make a manifesto commitment to an explicit arrangement supporting the objectives they shared. Ultimately this would allow the parties to hold different positions on other non-specified social, political and economic issues. It would also allow their grouping to make Proportional Representation one of its basic manifesto commitments.
There is broad recognition that the social structure of the UK is changing rapidly. Class is no longer a dividing political factor, economic inequality is. An ageing population is also facing an army of unemployed youths. The electorate must be represented by a new outlook which will tackle the daunting challenges of robotics and surveillance. Groups should form across the UK to seriously discuss the prospects of guiding its component nations, as well as the member states of Europe, through an increasingly uncertain 21st century.
1David Goodhart, “Labour has lost its cultural connection with the people it claims to represent, “ The Guardian, May 29, 2015, p.35