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16 January 2006

The SDP lives on – in Bridlington

By Robert Philpot

It is probably not quite what they meant by “breaking the mould” of British politics. But 25 years after the Gang of Four issued the Limehouse Declaration, the Social Democratic Party lives on – in Bridlington, east Yorkshire.

Having split the Labour Party and then the Alliance, it is somehow fitting that even David Owen’s attempt in 1990 to wind up the rump SDP – the refuseniks who two years previously had followed him in staying out of the newly merged Liberal Democrats – should itself have caused a schism.

Owen’s decision had been sparked by the party’s humiliation in the Bootle by-election, in which its candidate had finished behind Screaming Lord Sutch. “The Monster Raving Ego Party”, commented one journalist sourly, had been destroyed by the Monster Raving Loony Party.

But, mirroring Owen’s refusal in 1988 to let the SDP suffocate in the Liberals’ warm embrace, a group of SDP activists decided to carry on. A year later they fought the Neath by-election, and although their candidate finished fifth with only 5.3 per cent of the vote, the Owen-less SDP managed to poll only 174 votes fewer than the Liberal Democrats. Fifteen years on, the SDP still refuses to lie down and die.

The party may not have fielded any general election candidates since 1997, but it remains listed in the Electoral Commission’s register of political parties for England, Scotland and Wales – and it boasts eight councillors, concentrated in Yorkshire and on Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council in South Wales.

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For those who refused Owen’s edict to commit political harakiri, Bridlington is the new Limehouse. It is here that SDP members from across the country meet periodically – usually around 30 to 40 attend – and the town even has its own Gang of Four: two husband-and-wife teams represent the party on the council.

As mayor of Bridlington this year, Councillor Christine Allerston is, in effect, the SDP’s highest-ranking elected representative. “I was a founder member of the SDP in 1981. I had never been interested in politics before but when the party issued its 12 principles stating why a new party was needed I agreed with all of them, and I still do,” she explains.

Allerston believes that forming an alliance with the Liberals was a mistake – the SDP ended up standing in all the “worst bet” seats – and she opposed the merger in 1988, which involved the Liberals “swallowing up and destroying” the party.

As for Owen’s decision to wind the party up, Allerston is defiant: “He could resign on his own behalf, but he couldn’t tell people they couldn’t exist as their own party. We have continued to exist; we never ceased to exist.” The party’s most recent national meeting took place, she proudly states, at a Bridlington church hall that she herself had opened as mayor.

But how does the one-time Owenite feel about her party’s former leader now? Allerston believes he did “a pretty bad turn” for Rosie Barnes and John Cartwright, the two SDP MPs who, like Owen, refused to join the Liberal Democrats. The decision to wind the SDP up left both of them to contest the 1992 general election as independent social democrats – Owen stood down from his Plymouth seat – and without financial resources. When the former SDP leader went on to endorse John Major, on the eve of that election, he “cut the ground from under their feet. That was unnecessary.”

However, Allerston says, Owen sent her a note when she became mayor last year saying he still has a soft spot for his old party. “It was in the past and you can only move forward,” muses the mayor of Bridlington. For the SDP, for the time being at least, all politics truly does remain local.

Robert Philpot is editor of Progress magazine

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