The Limehouse Declaration Anniversary Dinner
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 22nd January, 2016
Thirty-five years ago, Labour’s “Gang of Four” — Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rogers — met at Dr Owen’s home in Narrow Street, Limehouse, where they signed the Limehouse Declaration, which would soon lead to the formation of the Social Democrat Party, the SDP. Last night, just a few doors down the road from Dr Owen’s House, Liberal Democrats gathered to celebrate that anniversary and to give the City and London East GLA campaign a hefty boost. Though none of the three surviving Gang of Four was present, there was a stellar line-up of speakers, starting with Vince Cable, who had started his political life as a Labour councillor in Glasgow before joining the SDP and eventually getting elected as Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham. He noted the parallels between the situation in the Labour Party in 1981 and that today under the respective leaderships of Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn, and said that many moderate Labour MPs now are running round like headless chickens, alarmed by the way things have developed within the party but unable to decide what to do about it. Moreover, in 2016 the dissidents lack figures of the gravitas of the Gang of Four who could be capable of organising a break-away. The fate of the SDP under Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system was also a dire warning. As Lord (Dick) Newby reminded us in his speech last night, although the SDP-Liberal Alliance polled 25.4% of the vote, compared with Labour’s 27.6%, the Alliance only bagged 23 parliamentary seats as opposed to Labour’s 209. Only five of the SDP MPs who had defected from Labour hung on to their seats and the party’s only gain was Charles Kennedy.
Tom Brake — London’s sole-surviving Liberal Democrat MP — warned that we must not assume that the Party will just bounce back in 2020 and that it is vital that we consolidate our hold on the eight seats we still have, as well as building in the targets. The compere for the evening, Dr Mark Pack, gave his own thoughtful commentary on the rise and fall of the SDP as well as providing some colourful memorabilia, which did indeed bring back memories among those of us old enough to remember the heady days of 1982, when the Alliance was leading in the opinion polls, only to have our hopes dashed on the rocks of the Falklands War, which saved Mrs Thatcher’s political skin. Interestingly, many of the guests at the Limehouse Declaration anniversary dinner were too young to have such memories, including the GLA constituency candidate Elaine Bagshaw who rounded off the evening and highlighted the remarkable rise in membership and activities in the local parties of Tower Hamlets, Newham and Barking & Dagenham.