As a Brexit supporter I was disenfranchised by the Labour Party. Much of it was conspiring to reject the mandate, to dilute or even prevent the delivery of it. I did not vote in 2017 and reluctantly willed the Conservatives to win, only campaigning for pro-Brexit Labour MPs. Then the Tories messed up the election and Mrs May made a similar dog’s breakfast of the negotiations.
Enter Mr Farage with The Brexit Party. Here was a weapon against both of them – a plague on both their houses. I went to their rallies, put up their posters and voted to return two MEPs in their landslide victory. Mr Johnson was then leant my support in 2019 – a support he enjoyed from many voters like me – and he romped home. Then he locked us all up a year later.
In the aftermath of the 2019 General Election I watched The Brexit Party, soon to become Reform UK, with interest. The Social Democratic Party then appeared. “What?” I asked. “Those 1980s Europhiles who bailed on Michael Foot?” No, I found – they were different now, pro-Brexit and socially conservative since the Lib Dems split away. Reform was the more prominent, but the SDP was closest to my economic politics. It seemed to me here, potentially, were the new Tory and Labour parties. They were economically opposed but both common sense and patriotic – the answer to their aged parents now captured by globalism and ‘social justice’.
Yet in election after election I have watched neither party manage to make much impact. Council elections, mayoral runs and by-elections have sped by, yielding nothing. Sometimes the vote tally has only reached double digits. Between them they have a handful of council seats, with the SDP doing especially well in Leeds.
I know how difficult building a party or political base is, but I feel more should have been achieved. The Reform Party especially has been underwhelming, whereas the SDP, with its smaller profile, can be let off somewhat. It’s not just about the parties, it’s about people not looking beyond the traditional duopoly, or not believing there is an alternative, or simply being tired of the constant political psychodrama. Nevertheless, in my estimation, the SDP and Reform have to break through for anything to change in this country. So what are the causes for their underperformance, and what can they do?
THE VOTING SYSTEM
The obvious cause – as other contributo- rs have recently discussed before on SDP Talks is the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, which keeps the two main parties in power and makes it very difficult for anyone else. Despite the potential risks involved, some form of proportional representation (PR) would be purer democracy, and is the only realistic chance of smaller parties making the big time.
FPTP doesn’t make breaking through impossible, and parties such as the Scottish National Party, UKIP, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats have become influential to varying levels. The SDP itself was impactful for a time when it formed. UKIP won council seats (and admittedly European Parliament seats under PR) to apply pressure on the Tory government to call a referendum on EU membership. The Brexit Party picked up that baton and ensured the Conservatives actually delivered (mostly) Brexit.
The notion of ‘job done’ on Brexit, mixed with the new interest in Johnson’s Conservatives and then the stasis of Covid, killed a lot of Reform’s momentum. Both Reform and the SDP opposed extended lockdowns and, despite plenty of Tories and Labour voters being disgusted at the policy, this didn’t translate into votes. Perhaps the ‘anti vaxxer’ and ‘Covid-denier’ labels levelled at both may have put some of the public off. Ironically, of course, many Covid-sceptics considered the parties too tame on lockdown measures and vaccine coercion – especially Reform, with a few unfortunate comments from Farage and others.
For Reform, Farage really is the key factor. Without him The Brexit Party or UKIP would not have had the success they did. His presence would immediately ignite the excitement of Reform’s support base, and voters beyond. You get the impression he is biding his time, waiting for the optimum moment and leaving Tice as a placeholder. But it could be he is happy being a broadcaster on GB News and won’t return to the fray even when he is needed. As for him rejoining the Conservative Party as recently discussed, that’s for the birds.
My main issue with Reform is that it is not a democratic party. It is a company that puts out candidates. Its leader cannot be elected and its policies are chosen at the top. I understand why, having seen the situation with UKIP, where it slipped Farage’s control and led to an anti-Islam faction becoming prominent. To rectify this, and keep broad support for Brexit, he used the Brexit Party to kill UKIP off. He now keeps Reform there waiting should he need it again. It is clever power politics, but it is not sustainable for a political party – especially one dedicated to delivering on a referendum. The SDP has no such problems – it is fully democratic.
To discuss for a moment the other smaller parties, on the right we have UKIP, the Laurence Fox vehicle Reclaim, and David Kurten’s The Heritage Party. These are rather too ‘toxic’ for mainstream voters, in particular Reclaim, considering recent unwise behaviour by Fox. This is not intended as a slight on these parties – just an observation of public perception.
On the left, meanwhile, there are some small socialist parties. George Galloway’s Worker’s Party of Great Britain is the most prominent, which has similar issues of toxicity. Galloway’s unique selling point is he’s a ‘based’ socialist with no time for identity politics other than class, and a distrust of internationalism, where others such as those in Momentum have embraced both. There is also the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and older groups knocking about. TUSC caters more for the Corbynite exiles from Labour, and perhaps will shortly be joined by Corbyn himself.
I do believe there is a place for a socialist party, but these are all far too left-wing for me, and the same will go for the British public in general. The SDP meanwhile promotes centre-left, more free market economics – as Labour traditionally do. However, their socially conservative aspect sets them apart, and also pitches wisely at the public mood. Most people don’t want to badmouth the country, or rail against ‘white supremacy’ and the family, or question what a woman is. Neither do they want a hyper-capitalist neoliberal approach. They want well-funded public services and a strong community, which the SPD offers with its ‘communitarian’ ethos.
Another issue with Reform is they are, at their hearts, neoliberal Thatcherites, concerned with free markets, low taxes, deregulation and fiscal discipline. There is a place for a party that genuinely offers this, as the Conservatives have become high tax and high spend, as well as influenced by ‘progressivism’. However in its pure form, neoliberalism is to be avoided. It was a massive wrong turn for the Western world and is not what we want as a country.
In a nutshell the ethos is about markets ruling most aspects of society, with the government mainly concerned with preventing inflation through interest rates and keeping law and order. Privatisation, anti-union action and spending cuts are the means of doing this. It has caused misery and social destruction, and by putting key issues outside of the public realm it is inherently antidemocratic. In the industrial areas, especially in the North, it cheated a whole generation out of work, prosperity and purpose.
This is why the voters of those areas will not go for a party they suspect of Thatcherism. They are even less likely to do so if Tice persists with clumsily labelling the Tories the ‘Consocialists’. Many backed The Brexit Party in the EU elections because it was a weapon against the elites ignoring their decision. They went for Johnson for the same reason, and also because of the question marks over Corbyn’s patriotism. These were unusual circumstances and these preferences were not about economic concerns. Johnson and Cummings tried to engineer a realignment of politics and keep these voters on board with their ‘levelling up’ splurge, but in the aftermath of Covid and the fall of Johnson that has failed.
These Red Wall voters will revert to Labour without a social democratic alternative, despite Labour being a little neoliberal itself – despite its mass immigration, Brexit hatred and ‘progressivism’. These voters, of course, are much more the natural supporters of the SDP, though the party may struggle to make itself known to them.
Because they are populists, Reform have a few socialistic policies, such as nationalising 50% of ‘key’ utilities (and having the other half owned by British pension funds). Even Thatcher had some, because the post-War consensus demanded it. Nevertheless, compared to the SDP’s proposals to nationalise power, water and the railways, mass build council housing and have a national investment bank, Reform pales in comparison.
Indeed, plenty on the dissident right despise Thatcher’s legacy as well. They bemoan the market forces that have led to globalism and supplanted our national identity and our independence. These people are now actively cheering on the destruction of the Tory Party, and are not likely to be too enthused by similar tendencies in Reform. My advice would be for Reform to distance itself from neoliberalism and embrace the dissident conservative view.
The SDP could do with some Labour figures defecting on points of principle. Goodness knows people like Rosie Duffield and Paul Embery have taken enough abuse from the party – their admirable loyalty not returned. It would raise profile and, if involving MPs or councillors, obtain some power. However, it would be the honourable thing in such an instance to have them resign and run in a by-election. The SDP are not the caddish Change UK, after all…
William Clouston appears often on Mike Graham’s Talk TV show. While Reform is seen quite a lot on GB News and sometimes more mainstream channels, the SDP features much less. Apart from times during elections where they have to be given airtime by law, they have not appeared on mainstream media since they were the third party in the 1980s. The SDP should hustle harder for appearances – although because they might present a threat to Labour, perhaps this explains why they are being denied.
Another reason could be that because of its Farage associations, Reform has a more controversial edge, and that gets more ratings than the comparatively moderate Clouston. That’s not to say the SDP should be needlessly provocative, but perhaps it could be punchier to woo the TV producers.
Of course, we are in the era where broadcast media can be outflanked and is becoming less important compared to alternative media online. The SDP should appear on large video platform channels to reach the hundreds of thousands of subscribers they have. There are a lot out there that share the same socially conservative ground. Clouston has been on Triggernometry and New Culture Forum, but there are many others. Podcasts and live-streams are long form and contemplative, which is perfect for getting complex ideas out there, rather than the quick bursts on news channels.
Doubtless the SDP is attempting this, but the party needs to up its game on its social media too. It needs teams of young, creative, tech savvy folk maximising exposure and keeping a high standard of quality control.
THE TOP TEAM
Clouston cannot do the heavy lifting alone. There need to be several prominent people within the party. Rod Liddle and Patrick O’Flynn are the only publicly known lieutenants – and neither are very active with their SDP hats on. The SDP conferences feature fairly well-known guest speakers who don’t then take up the flag. People with star power need to do this. Imagine for a moment if a figure like JK Rowling got on board over the trans issue… The SDP shouldn’t take any celebrity just for celebrity’s sake, or compromise their polices to secure one – but surely somebody could be found to fit the bill. Parties are like bands or football teams – you need recognisable figures with distinct skills and styles to build a sort of public mythos.
Local events are another key factor in campaigning. Clouston and Co should tour the country, addressing meetings, raising funds and signing up supporters. People really respond to live events. It brings them together and increases morale, as well as letting them appreciate (hopefully) good public speaking. Besides, the key thing for any party is the ordinary members on the ground. Until there is a community and people willing to put leaflets through doors and take elected positions, a party gets nowhere.
Of course the most important factor in a political party is funding. Nothing can get done without it, a major cost being printing and distributing literature, as well as advertising. Paid staff and office space are needed to really professionalise the operation. The larger parties rely on rich donors, corporations and, in the case of Labour, trade unions. Another major source of money is the membership paying their subscriptions and occasional extra donations. The bigger the membership, the bigger the coffers. It is also a lot heathier to get income this way then being beholden to vested interests. Certainly that has been the downfall of Labour and the Tories.
Reform – for now – has better funding than the SDP. However, the SDP announced at its conference that it has secured a million pounds from an undisclosed donor, which is a great start. Nevertheless, political parties are renowned for burning cash. Without a steadily growing membership and committed donors, progress can easily stall. Thus all effort has to be put into maintaining these aspects.
One thing that can boost membership is having flagship policies that differentiate a party from its competitors. It is effective to hold a stance that will have popular backing, but which the main parties are too cowardly to touch. UKIP, The Brexit Party and the SDP had leaving the EU, an issue that had been simmering since the EEC ballooned into something not advertised in 1975. The three key issues today, which are not served by the mainstream parties, are immigration, the Channel crisis and energy and ‘Net Zero’. None of the main parties are willing to fully change position on either, when what we need are radical departures from the norm.
Both Reform and the SDP do offer such departures. With energy, both parties are against the Net Zero targets (while still asserting manmade climate change is real and a problem). Reform politicians are more anti-Net Zero in their public appearances, but the SDP’s literature is just as strong. Both parties are in favour of fracking and extracting North Sea gas and oil, at least while fossil fuels are important in the energy mix. Both are clear development of nuclear energy is essential.
The SDP is more resolute than Reform on immigration – pledging a pause on mass immigration (above 50,000 a year) while we take stock and prioritise integration of those that have come. I notice with some disappointment this has been diluted from the total ‘moratorium’ on immigration promised before, but I understand the new policy is a little more realistic. Reform just wants a tougher points-based system than the damp squib the Tories have presided over. On the Channel Crisis, both parties have a tough stance and advocate leaving the ECHR and UN Refugee Convention. Both support refusing asylum to anyone who turns up uninvited, which would necessitate this, and offshore processing. The SDP want the processing on remote British territory so we have more control over it. The ever subtle Reform is a little more ‘tow the boats back to France’ than the SDP.
Both parties need more of the same on these key issues. They need also to find other topics that will be electorally lucrative (as well as useful for the country). Often the large parties can be quite myopic in spotting things and sluggish in forming policy.
Local policies are also vital in appealing to voters. This is often another blind spot for the big parties. They tend to fixate on their national agenda. The majority of the public often write off the national parties on this basis, which explains why council elections have such low turn-outs. The more successful councillors of major parties might take it upon themselves to champion certain local issues, while independents are even freer to do so. The SDP and Reform don’t need to pull a Lib Dems and change their very ethos depending on geography, but they should still keep a keen eye out for issues local residents care about, and once elected should take action to address them. The SDP’s Councillor Wayne Dixon has done well at this in Leeds, by all accounts.
I would suggest planning is a policy area both Reform and the SDP are rather too ‘Yimby’ [Yes In My Back Yard] on. Others will approve of this, but I do feel the imposition of mass developments on communities can be very detrimental, particularly ugly and low quality builds, or builds nobody can afford. Both parties should balance the urgency of the housing crisis with honouring local democracy and mitigating these concerns. The answer is not only deregulation.
Within the SDP, there has been much controversy about the limited election pact made with Reform. The SDP has agreed not to stand against Reform in its top six target seats, and vice versa. This is sensible. There is no point in cancelling one another out, as there is an overlap in their current support bases. They can win these seats and then do battle with each other once they’ve done this. Yes, Reform is controversial – but then so to some extent is the SDP. Both parties get tarred by the ‘far right’ brush, whatever they do. The SDP seems especially hated because it’s of the left. The type of person saying these things is not going to be won over whether there is a pact or not. Average voters, meanwhile, will be much less bothered. We will see if the scheme bears fruit. If it does yield results, more comprehensive pacts might be considered – not just with Reform but perhaps with independents as well.
There are no easy answers here. The system is rigged against any small party. It is designed that way by the red and blue teams, to benefit them and safeguard against any ‘extremism’ seen in other nations. In our current dire straits, of course, common sense has become ‘extremism’, and certain points of extremism have become the status quo. Mass immigration, pandering to absurd minority views, curbing of free speech, economically flawed green agendas and medical authoritarianism have all taken centre stage. Thus the hopes of the SDP and Reform seem dashed before these parties can even get a glimpse of government.
Nevertheless even within FPTP, powerful political movements can grow and if not lead, they can be influential. And even if it is hopeless, it is human nature to try, to rage against the dying of the light. Doing something is better than doing nothing. The endeavour of building – if not a new government – a likeminded community with political clout is enjoyable and worthy in itself. If it can provide something to the debate others do not, it is still a public service.
Never underestimate the moral majority of this country. The SDP and Reform are both saying common sense things that ordinary people – be they on the left, right or centre – agree with. These people might not be comfortable in saying some of it out loud, but given the right conditions they will vote for a party pledging such policies. Most folk do not spend all day steeped in politics and current affairs. They have general instincts about issues, but not necessarily the full range of information in order to have strong positions. They may not even know about these smaller parties, or perhaps they do not believe such players can break through. Maybe they reluctantly vote Tory or Labour, possibly switching between the two, or they might not vote at all out of weariness.
Whatever their motives, the key is to reach those people and give them confidence, to provide on the ballot paper a box for them to put their tick against. Once you get a vote, you get someone more likely to join and stand for your party. What follows is everything needed to take the project forward – money, publicity, manpower, greater organisation and so on. That’s the name of the game. Except of course it’s not a game, it is the only way to address the dreadful ills besetting our nation.