The (re-)birth of the Social Democrats
It is reported that Nick Clegg has ordered a rebranding exercise of the Liberal Democrats to allay fears that his party has shifted too far to the right in coalition with the Conservatives. Apparently, he wants to include the word ‘social’ to give the impression that they are still concerned with such ethical issues as equality and fraternity. That would be consistent, not least because they call themselves both ‘liberal ‘and democrat’, despite being neither tolerant of religious diversity nor particularly respectful of the will of the majority. Last week, LibDem Scottish MSP Hugh O’Donnell resigned from the party claiming that the leadership was ‘neither Liberal nor Democratic’.
If their own politicians believe this, they evidently need no Tory to point it out to them.
Will rebranding help? Pre-fixing Labour with ‘New’ certainly worked, though the ditching of ‘Clause 4’ established a change which was rather more than skin deep, and Tony Blair was the very incarnation of that change. Replacing a patriotic red, white and blue torch with a green tree has not really worked for the Conservatives, and the ‘decontamination’ of the Tory brand continues apace. Ultimately, political philosophy is more important than slogans and logos, and philosophies take generations to develop an incarnational identity, which is perhaps why neither Labour nor the Conservatives ever seriously considered a name change, as Nick Clegg is reported to have initiated.
What would they call themselves? The Liberal Social Democrats is an awful mouthful and the acronym LSD presents an immediate problem, though in terms of their perception of reality it might be appropriate. Perhaps Social Liberal Democrats might be possible, though this abbreviates to SoLiD, which is just silly, and ‘Social Liberals’ sounds sexually cultish. This just leaves the Social Democrats, which is a tried and tested party name and well-established political philosophy all over the world.
But the problem is the UK already has a Social Democratic Party (with 41 members and 4 councillors, no less, and is listed on the Register of Political Parties for England). These Social Democrats profess a direct lineage to the Jenkins-Owen-Rogers-Williams SDP of the 1980s, though it is not clear why they did not find common ground with Tony Blair's New Labour, as the SDP founders and many supporters did. It could hardly have been down to incompatible philosophies: David Willetts once observed that Tony Blair was trying to copy continental Christian Democracy with 'The Project'. Certainly, he moved Labour very much towards the federalising agenda of the EU, not to mention the idealistic belief in the moral regeneration of society, and was duly rewarded with the ‘Charlemagne Prize’ for services to European integration. The Liberal Democrats are very much of this Europhile mould, though rather more secular in their social philosophy than morally regenerative in a Roman Catholic sense.
Perhaps it would be wise for the Liberal Democrats to retain ‘Liberal’ in order to ground them in their historic foundation. And they can’t drop ‘democrat’ because the word really is the last vestige of that political process they retain. A democratic temper is not only incompatible with the authoritarian dogmatism of the Liberal Democrats; it requires large concessions to the exigencies of practical politics as well as toleration of diverse traditions and beliefs. The party, like all of them, is a coalition, and any rebranding that involves a name-change would need to be a very sensitive pursuit, not least because its final ends are dependent upon democratic means. Tilt too far either way, and the Liberal Democrats could split into their Liberal and Social Democratic factions. A revived Gladstonian Liberal Party of Millite possessive individualism would find much common ground with the Conservatives, and the Social Democrat rump could either coalesce with the existing 41 or try to inject Ed Miliband’s reversion to Old Labour with a degree of Blairite moderation.
Ultimately, of course, rebranding is a superficial marketing strategy, and one may well ask what on earth makes Nick Clegg believe the British public will be fooled by such an exercise. They can ditch the parrot and adopt a set of scales, but that won’t dupe anyone into believing they care more about justice than the orange feathers convinced us they soared above the clouds as free as a bird. They can re-name themselves Social Democrats, but a Snicker is still a Marathon, and Starburst will always be Opal Fruits.
But they are desperate: the party faces a decimation (at least) in Holyrood and wipe-out in the English local elections. Nick Clegg has to be seen to be doing something to placate his party’s rank and file and keep Chris Huhne from the leadership door (not least because Mr Huhne is anxious that he is likely to lose the very marginal seat of Eastleigh at the next general election unless he can pull something out of the bag; the profile of the party leadership might just save him). But being seen to be doing is rather more important in modern politics than actually doing. And His Grace is persuaded (not entirely by cynicism) that this story is all froth and bubble. The Conservatives agreed to a five-year coalition deal with a party called the Liberal Democrats; dissolve that, and the contract for government is void.