It has been a humbling couple of weeks for Change UK. No seats won in the Euro elections after allegedly boasting that they were going to replace the Liberal Democrats. With Westminster polls now showing them at 1%, it may be tempting to write them off. That’s probably premature, but they have a huge mountain to climb to establish relevance.
However, with Conservative and Liberal Democrat leadership elections underway and the Nigel Farage party hogging the headlines, there’s a chance for Change UK to use this time out of the media spotlight to regroup. They may wish to borrow a copy of SDP – The first five years to help them. The first five years was published in 1986 and is optimistic in tone, predating the agonies of the 1988 merger with the Liberals. Reading it again, there would seem to be a couple of things Change UK can fix – and one they can’t.
One thing Change UK can’t fix (at least, not quickly) is putting together a broad-based policy platform that their current MPs can agree to. Probably the best article in The first five years book is by Bill Rodgers. In it, he traces the roots of the SDP back to Gaitskell’s loss in the October 1959 general election. Right from the outset the SDP had a clear political philosophy underpinning the party and the policies it developed. It was fairly obvious what kind of party the SDP was going to be from day one.
Outside of opposing Brexit, it’s difficult to understand what Change UK is trying to achieve. But as Nigel Farage demonstrates, being politically opaque doesn’t seem to matter too much at the moment. Provided, that is, you can motivate a reasonable portion of the electorate to vote for you. Unfortunately for Change UK, the Liberal Democrats (and The Green Party) have been far better at motivating voters in recent weeks.
More positively, the first thing Change UK could learn from the launch of the SDP is to actively court other political parties. From The first five years: “After the launch of the new party the overriding political imperative … was to come to some sort of accord with the Liberals”. The SDP was formally launched as a political party on March 26th 1981. By June 16th a joint statement of principles had been agreed with the Liberals. A Fresh Start for Britain addressed topics including proportional representation, incomes policy, the EEC and multilateral disarmament. In October, Bill Pitt became the first parliamentary candidate to win a seat on a Liberal/SDP Alliance ticket.
Should the Liberal Democrats be open to forming some kind of electoral pact with Change UK? Before the Euro elections I would have said definitely yes. Now – I’m not so sure. I’d currently support an arrangement not to stand candidates against their MPs in a general election, but nothing beyond that. Unlike the SDP, Change UK has been too slow to court and too aggressive towards its potential friends. That could change of course and I hope that it will do. But some serious bridge-building and fence-mending is required on all sides. However, some of their MPs and supporters are clearly Liberals and/or Social Democrats. I’d welcome them in a heartbeat to our party.
The importance of being capable of fighting local elections is a second lesson Change UK should learn from the SDP. At the local elections in 1982 the SDP fielded 2,300 candidates. While only around a hundred of these were elected, their average vote share was 27%. It helped to establish the SDP outside of the Westminster bubble. Adopting Liberal savvy in running local campaigns brought success for the Alliance, and enabled the SDP to attract and retain members during the seven years it existed. If Change UK is to establish itself outside of Westminster, then I’d expect to see it fighting many council by-elections sooner rather than later.
One other joy of re-reading The first five years are the stories included from party activists. This story comes from a certain Christopher Huhne, then the SDP’s PPC for Oxford West and Abingdon.