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19 January 2011

David Owen: Lib Dems must “call a halt” to Conservative health reforms

The former leader of the SDP attacks current Lib Dem policy in an essay in this week’s New State

By Duncan Robinson

In this week’s New Statesman, the former leader of the Social Democratic Party, David Owen, writes a special essay commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Limehouse Declaration, explaining how the Social Democratic Party came into being – and attacking current Liberal Democrat policy.

The former member of the “Gang of Four” criticises the Lib Dems’ support for the radical Conservative health-care reforms, arguing that “[if] the Liberal Democrats cannot call a halt to or, at the very least, slow down, these ill-conceived health reforms they will no longer be able to claim to be the heirs of Beveridge”.

“I write as the person who advocated . . . for an internal market in the health service. [But] the internal market is not the same as an external market. It was never envisaged that decisions should be taken solely on competitive and financial grounds, without regard for the obligation to provide the best possible medical care,” argues Owen.

Elsewhere in the essay, the crossbench peer defends his decision to leave the Labour Party and help create the SDP. The SDP “unleashed forces far more powerful and potentially important than anything I had ever seen stemming directly from the Labour Party,” he says. Anyone who thinks the SDP did not have a “profound effect” on British politics is “living on a different planet”. Both Labour and the Conservatives were “at some stage influenced [by the SDP], and for the better”, he argues.

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The New Statesman also publishes for the first time Owen’s original version of the Limehouse Declaration (below) – which laid out the reasons why the Gang of Four were to leave the Labour Party – complete with handwritten annotations.

“No fair-minded person reading the Limehouse Declaration today can doubt that the SDP’s message still has resonance, even after 13 years of Labour government and eight months of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition,” argues the former Bosnian peace envoy.

Owen blames his decision partly on Tony Benn, who had “succeeded in committing the Labour Party to fighting the next general election on four ruinous policies”.

Also in this week’s issue, Roy Hattersley explains why he decided to stay with Labour. “I had already decided that, if Labour sank, I would go down with the ship,” he writes. He also criticises those who “had no stomach for the battle to move the party back into the mainstream”. Hattersely writes: “It still seemed right to ‘fight, and fight, and fight again, to save the party’ from extremism”.