Steve Richards: In the long shadow of the SDP

Party boundaries are under more strain than usual. The Ultra-Blairites, Cameroons and Cleggite Liberals dance to the same tune

The Social Democrat Party came and went in a flash more than two decades ago, and yet its leading lights seem to be everywhere. The party's former leader, David Owen, was expressing his muscular views on Libya yesterday at peak time on the Today programme. Towards the end of last year Ed Miliband invited Owen for a cup of coffee, hoping to attract him back to the Labour Party. Shirley Williams is another target for Miliband. A co-founder of the SDP, Williams ranges widely in her continued prominence.

For those hooked on the BBC serial South Riding, Williams has written the introduction to a new edition of the book. Her mother Vera Brittain was a close friend of its author, Winifred Holtby. Of more immediate political significance, another former SDP activist, Andrew Cooper, moves into No 10 in an attempt to sharpen up David Cameron's Government. From South Riding to No 10, there is no escape from the SDP.

There is another connection with Yorkshire and the current Government. The other day I had an email from the candidate who fought the Richmond by-election in 1989 for the "continuing SDP". The Conservative candidate was William Hague. By then, most SDP members had voted to merge with the Liberals, but some of Owen's followers stayed on to fight as a separate party.

The SDP candidate, Mike Potter, reminded me he had two minders plotting the defeat of Hague. They were Andrew Cooper and Daniel Finkelstein. Cooper is about to work for Cameron. Finkelstein went on to work with Hague and, as well as being a Times' columnist, remains close to the Tory leadership. Potter fought a highly polished campaign, but in doing so inadvertently helped Hague to become a Tory MP. Hague's opponents were split between the SDP and the new merged party, allowing him to come through the middle. Even as their party was sinking, and the SDP was almost sunk by then, those that clung to the wreckage made waves. They continue to do so.

Why do some of the SDP's key players still wield considerable influence, and why did several senior figures choose to join the Conservatives while others switched to Labour, or at least looked leftward? The answers cast light on the fluid state of current politics.

The answer to the first question is partly mundane. The SDP attracted a number of relatively young people. Even its founders were at the younger end of Labour politicians. Partly they are still public figures because they are still alive, with the sad exception of Roy Jenkins. His assessment of the Coalition is sorely missed.

More significantly, their approval confers kudos on the other parties. Miliband has discussed with his close entourage the potential impact of Owen and others rejoining Labour. Would younger voters know who they are? Would it make an impact? They have concluded rightly that the return of such iconic figures would do so. From their equally insecure perspective, Cameron and Osborne were desperate for defections in opposition and failed to get any of significance. Instead they retain a respect, admiration and in some cases friendship for those who joined their party in the early 1990s from the SDP.

Perhaps the staying power also reflects a more determined commitment to politics, a seriousness of purpose that was a quality of the SDP whether or not one agreed with its policies or its impact on British politics, which was to make inevitable landslide victories for Margaret Thatcher.

For all those involved in the SDP it was a momentous decision either to defect from another party or to join for the first time a party without a past or clearly defined future. The Bennites of the early 1980s are nowhere to be seen now, although they were as prominent as the SDP then. Many of them became Blairites and left the political stage when their latest hero departed.

Perhaps their commitment to politics was more dependent on attachment to charismatic individuals than ideas and policy. The SDP was not without a whiff of glamour, but never possessed an orator of Benn's mesmerising gifts or a performer quite like Blair. Evidently the commitment went beyond fleeting idolatry of a single figure. Of much greater interest is why some in the SDP turned to the Conservatives and others moved leftward. Partly their moves were a matter of timing. When the likes of Cooper and Finkelstein switched to the Tories in the early 1990s it looked as if the party was going to rule eternally. Labour seemed unelectable. The party run by John Major and Chris Patten appeared briefly to be moving in a more Christian Democratic direction.

In one of few public engagements in recent years, Major told Elinor Goodman in 2007 that he was to the left of Cameron and Osborne, an accurate assessment in my view. But if they'd waited until 1994, when Blair became Labour leader, I suspect Tory SDPers would have been tempted to join Andrew Adonis and Roger Liddle, both of whom were key figures in Blair's No 10.

More importantly, there was an ideological divide within the SDP. As with Labour and the Liberal Democrats now, the split then was over the relationship between markets and state. On the whole the SDP avoided the issue because, like Europe, it is one that tears parties apart. They got closest to a substantial debate under Owen's leadership when the economist Robert Skidelsky guided them towards advocacy of a social market economy. Even then the SDP was to the left of Blairite new Labour. Some of its key figures still are.

The great Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee was a leading figure in the Owenite SDP. Skidelsky is the biographer of Keynes and recently praised Gordon Brown's book on the financial crisis in a review, not a fashionable act these days. Skidelsky is a strong critic of Osborne's economic policies. Owen is a self- proclaimed social democrat. I saw him at one of Polly Toynbee's book launches towards the end of the Labour Government, in a room surrounded by figures on the centre left. He said to me: "They don't discuss equality enough." In contrast, when Finkelstein joined the Tories he wrote an article for The Independent, arguing that his support for market-based policies meant he had no choice but to join the party on the centre right.

The former SDPers range widely. But so do Labour and the Lib Dems. In their policy disputes with Blair, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls would often sigh in private "It all comes down to a view of the state".

Party boundaries are under more strain than usual in that they do not represent accurately the ideological currents in British politics. Ultra Blairites, Cameroons and Cleggite Liberals could all happily dance together in the same party. While other Tories would join the economic dance, their obsession with Europe and hostility to social liberalism place them as dissenters to even this Coalition of the radical right.

Messrs Miliband and Balls are pragmatic social democrats, closer to Owen, Williams, and Clegg's recent predecessors. Charles Kennedy was also a prominent member of the SDP. To the left of the two Eds are some in Labour who would go much further in terms of their hostility towards capitalism. In the mix are former members of the SDP who by definition have been members of more than one political party. They are less tribal when the tribes are going through identity crises. This is what gives them their lasting and distinct influence on the current state of nervy, shapeless British politics.

s.richards@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/steverichards14

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