THE Social Democratic Party dwindled to 100 members a few years ago, but aims to replace the Liberal Democrats as third party within a decade. Almost everybody is chasing the optimal blue-red mix (including the Conservative Party and at least five parties formed in 2020 alone: Reclaim, Reform, Heritage, Liberty, Populist). The SDP claims to be alone in reconciling the philosophies to match the objective. It’s a strong claim, but is it true?
Leader William Clouston resists calling his party the ‘new SDP’. He claims three continuities with the old: a general commitment to reform, ‘social market economics’ and communitarianism.
Clouston says the SDP is ‘more socially conservative than the Conservative Party’ but ‘left-leaning’ economically. He defines ‘social market economics’ as ‘the belief that the market and the state are not opponents’. When pressed philosophically, Clouston describes this as ‘properly setting the right frontier between the domain of the state and that of the market – defining what each should do and where they should do it’. He describes the SDP ‘as more pro-market than anyone’ in the sense that the SDP would break monopolies, particularly in big tech, starting with Amazon.
Clouston’s main ideological enemy is ‘neoliberalism’, which he characterises as Thatcherite economics at the expense of communities. He describes New Labour as economically Thatcherite. He fairly criticises the under-regulation of financial services, which does tie Blairism to Thatcherism. Additionally, he may be correct that Thatcherism has ‘no constituency’: even the Conservative Party thinks that denying Thatcher is good politics.
Nevertheless, the SDP offers enough classical liberalism to stop Baroness Thatcher spinning in her grave. It wants to make unemployment benefits more contribution-based, less needs-based. It would issue national insurance identity cards to confirm entitlements to welfare and health care. It would enforce free speech and non-partisanship in education, public broadcasting, and anything publicly funded. Sex segregation would be restored in sports competitions, prisons, and refuges. Headteachers would regain full discretion to exclude miscreants.
Yet Clouston admits he’s not quite offering classical liberalism.
‘The main problem for liberalism is that it’s sort of morphed into a species of indifference. The individual quest for rights and self-actualisation has allowed people to de-couple from the “Us” – what “We” are as a community. In the West, we have got the “I-We” balance wrong, and it needs rebalancing.’
In some areas, a SDP government could be caricatured as a nanny state: it would ban sugary drinks and sweets from schools, enforce a ‘Daily Mile’ of exercise, and place welfare services on campuses.
Clouston shares the progressive’s desire to intervene, but champions opportunities over outcomes, and responsibilities over rights. He shares the socialist’s desire to nationalise railways and utilities (the latter is not yet in the manifesto), but claims to be ‘fiscally sensible’ and ‘quite fiscally conservative’.
In effect, the SDP is committed to spend and tax more than the Conservative Party, but less than Labour. The manifesto commits to normalise public spending at 41 per cent of GDP. (New Labour left government with spending at 45 per cent.) The lower rates of tax would drop to 10 per cent and 30 per cent (funded by increased VAT on luxuries). The top rate would increase to 47 per cent, with a pledge not to exceed 50 per cent of income when factoring in national insurance.
I can foresee that in a general election the SDP would be conflated with Labour, unless it persuades voters that new taxes fund particular services, and are not just redistributive or profligate. For instance, the SDP claims to pay for council houses with a ‘luxury’ council tax band and more tax on second homes. It claims to pay for vocational training with a national insurance premium on businesses hiring foreigners from abroad.
All the parties now claim to be strong on public services, so I pushed Clouston to differentiate. He wants to spend more on the NHS, policing, prisons, the Army, the surface fleet, intelligence and housing, but gets in the awkward position of promising more than the other fellow without cardinal boundaries.
To be fair, Clouston admits that discussion of public services ‘has become an arms race’. On the NHS, he criticises its ‘quasi-religious’ status and claims a ‘realistic approach’.
‘The good aspects of it are universality – it achieves that. In reality, if you look internationally it is a very good second-rate system for a third-rate price [to the patient]. I’m not saying you would get more productivity out of it if you increase the price substantially. You’re going to have to spend more, because of the demographics. My approach to the NHS would be to make it a little more basic, a little more Cuban even – where if you’re seriously ill you get treated promptly and very well. There’s certainly reform that could take place.’
Clouston is keener to talk about the SDP’s ‘mass council house building programme’. He resists quantification, although the manifesto talks of housing more than a million people in 300,000 new council homes within ten years.
This is smaller than Labour’s proposal, but Clouston would reduce net immigration to almost zero until our social crises are relieved. Thereafter, net immigration would be held at fewer than 100,000 per year. Immigrants would be selected by ‘aptitudes’ and a pledge to uphold ‘British values’. A new Bill of Rights would reflect ‘national culture, custom, and traditions’.
The SDP would increase national insurance on companies employing foreigners directly from abroad. It would abolish mandatory overseas aid. It would tax multinationals on excess turnovers, not just profits. Additionally, a SDP government would ‘Buy British where there are credible British suppliers’. It would establish a sovereign wealth fund, investing between £1billion and £2billion per year. Clouston says that the Covid emergency further justifies state aid, for production of medical and other ‘strategic’ supplies.
He is confident about reaching ‘traditional hinterland’ voters who ‘still understand that community is important and we’re in it together. They are patriotic. Many of them voted to leave the EU and want that respected. They also want good public services. They depend on the NHS, and need housing’.
He promises sovereignty before supranationalism, nativism before open borders, tradition before deconstruction, collective responsibilities before individual rights.
He claims to offer the right balance of unionism and devolution (including an English parliament), of free markets and public ownership, of reform and investment, of liberty and communitarianism.
He is confident about supplanting the LibDems, and becoming a credible option for a coalition government, within a decade. Clouston is a persuasive advocate. He is authentic, unblemished by political double-speak, an everyman drawing on both philosophy and practice, relatable at all levels. I don’t need to agree with his politics to fancy his chances.