The Social Democrat's support base had been completely hollowed out
“The SDP has struggled to renew itself within a political environment which favours populist alternatives. The events of recent days have not proved helpful in reviving the SDP's fortunes. The SDP’s current travails have reinforced the impression that the UPA might yet be capable of squeezing the SDP when Britain next goes to the polls. Such a prospect helps to explain why Burnham’s opponents within the party felt compelled to move against him. Leaderless, and with its image and credibility reaching a nadir, the SDP remains divided. Rank-and-file members largely backed Burnham’s stance and resented the manner in which he was "betrayed". The truth is that the party’s problems go well beyond the question of who will lead the party. Both Hague and Ribeiro must be rubbing their hands.”
- The SDP in Crisis, Lecture by Paul Kennedy, London School of Economics (2017)
Andy Burnham had finally ran out of road, after losing two elections and even the official opposition slot at PMQs his position was completely untenable. After a tumultuous meeting of the Common’s much reduced Social Democratic caucus Burnham confirmed to MPs and journalists alike his plan was to resign. Burnham had never been the party establishment’s first choice for leader, with many welcoming his departure, but the contradictions inherent to the SDP project were more visible than ever. There was no obvious successor to Burnham, no unifying figure
No one seemed keen to drink from the poisoned chalice, with senior Ministers like Polly Toynbee, Tim Farron and Margaret Hodge declining to run, some doomed backbench runs from figures like Luciana Berger, David Babbs and Sarah Champion all failed to receive any noticeable backing and quickly dropped out. Instead the party consolidated in two broad tendencies, the first were those loyal to Burnham, who supported keeping National at an arm's length and at least talking to the UPA. The other wanted absolutely no cooperation with the UPA and for the Social Democrats to chart a course back towards the Johnsonite centre of British politics.
The SDP's soft left had seen a bruising few months
Emerging as Burnham’s preferred successor was Sadiq Khan, a runner up from the previous election Khan had remained loyal to Burnham on economic issues, whilst charting a more pro-European and cosmopolitan attitude towards social issues - conveniently placing him in line with the median SDP member. Khan had the backing of Burnham’s remaining campaign infrastructure, including major affiliated unions like Amicus. On the moderate end of the party emerged Rachel Reeves. A former diplomat, Reeves wanted to see the party take a more aggressive line against the radical left and seperatist parties, she also had the backing of the party’s establishment - including Alan Johnson.
The timing of the leadership election was interesting, with the new National administration promising sweeping electoral reform - including open primaries for party leadership elections - it was likely to be the last SDP leadership election fought on the old conference delegate model. Most expected this to benefit Khan as he could rely on the block vote of the SDP’s remaining unions, as well as the support of more ideological party delegates. To counter this the Reeves aligned federal council also set the timetable for the election to be relatively short, at just five weeks - privately hoping the rawness of the party’s election wipe-out would push party delegates into Reeves’ camp.
“Analysts and party leaders argue that the biggest challenge facing the next SDP leader is likely to be internal. “If Rachel Reeves wins, she will have the support of the party apparatus, but she is a pretty unpopular candidate outside the SDP. She will struggle to win support from younger voters and urban voters,” said Peter Dorey, a professor of politics at Cardiff University. “If Khan wins, you have the opposite problem. He is more attractive to voters but the party apparatus is very distant and critical. This could trigger a new civil war inside the SDP.” According to Prof Dorey, the party will struggle to win back voters from UPA under either candidate: “The loyalty to one or the other party is now very high. The left is divided into two symmetrical parts and their base is pretty consolidated,” he said.”
- Rachel Reeves to run for SDP Leadership, Tobias Buck, Financial Times (2017)
Reeves' campaign, dubbed "shock and awe" hoped to steamroll the opposition before they could get organised
Reeves was seen as a strong front-runner in the early days of the campaign, despite her relatively low profile. In a campaign launch in Leeds Reeves was joined by all four SDP former leaders and deputy leaders (Johnson, Miliband, Boycott and Umunna) as well as leading Shadow Cabinet Members like Douglas Alexander, Polly Toynbee and Ed Balls. Reeves was also endorsed by sixteen former SDP ministers and seven of the eight remaining SDP Provincial Presidents. Reeves focused her campaign around her electability, accusing Khan of “not serious about winning”, as well as her appeal to party heartlands as a West Yorkshire MP.
The leadership election quickly became a battle along geographic lines, whilst nearly a quarter of SDP members resided in London alone, politically the party had been devastated as the UPA now held all four London provinces. In terms of political strength most of the party’s MPs got their voters from suburban neighbourhoods like Bury, or Dagenham and smaller cities like Coventry, Bedford and Warwick. With the UPA ruling the inner city and National dominating the countryside, the Social Democrats had little in the way of true strongholds where it could rebuild its strength. These geographic divisions were also replicated in the political theatre, with bookies giving a 3/1 odds the party would split after the leadership election.
Whilst the relationship between the two candidates was relatively cordial, their backers became increasingly venomous in their clashes. Andy Burnham said a Reeves Leadership would place the SDP “under National’s boot”, whilst Alan Johnson had allegedly told one Khan aligned MP to “fuck off and join the People’s Party”. Reeves hoped to wrap her campaign around Alan Johnson, still a folk hero to many within the party and the broader centre left, she whole-heatedly defended the Johnson administration in her campaign, Khan took a more critical line - pointing towards Johnson’s failure to radically reform the military, court and general authoritarianism of the British state, as well as his support for austerity. With the leadership election descending into a debate around history, the Social Democrats continued to appear a party without a future, obsessed with it’s past.
“The SDP are going through a similar crisis to their centre-left brethren across Europe. The SDP's adherence to a united Britain means the polemic issue of self-determination has been damaging to the party in Scotland. The SDP came fifth in December in terms of Scottish seats. SDP lawmaker Stella Creasy said the party has suffered at the ballot box because of the lack of a defined position on regional self-determination. Some regional divisions of the party became “close to the nationalists,” she said. As the party struggles to define itself, another SDP MP, Matt Forde, recommends imitating the party’s comrades in Scandinavia. Social Democrats there focus on goals without getting hung up on the means and “analyse problems without much passion.” The Brits, “love the big debates,” said Forde.”
- The SDP’s Scottish Factor, Charlie Cooper, Politico (2017)
The SDP would struggle to return to power without the votes of Scottish loyalists