UK Politics

SDP founders see prospect of another Labour breakaway

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Media caption"The SDP did not die in vain": Lord Owen

Two founding members of the SDP have speculated that there could be another breakaway from the Labour Party.

Former Labour foreign secretary Lord Owen told the BBC's Newsnight critics of Jeremy Corbyn should "fight like hell" for the next two years but that creating a new party was an option.

Baroness Williams said she saw a new party of the centre-left party reviving "the concept of the SDP".

She said Mr Corbyn was "an idealist" being "manipulated" by others.

Two of the so-called "Gang of Four" former Labour MPs who set up the Social Democratic Party in 1981 have been talking to Newsnight ahead of the 35th anniversary of the establishment of the party.

Lord Owen, who served in Jim Callaghan's Cabinet before leading the SDP-Liberal Alliance, told the programme that Labour MPs opposed to Jeremy Corbyn should remain where they are for the timing being and fight for their values.

"For at least two years fight like hell I would say," he said. "I wouldn't contemplate a new party until the end of 2017."

But he said what the SDP stood for and achieved was still relevant four decades later.

"Labour MPs are thinking about creating a new party. Why? Because they see you can do it; It may not have succeeded in every aspect but that's an option open to them. So the SDP did not die in vain, it planted many new ideas into British politics."

'Foot's son'

Baroness Williams, who later became Lib Dem Leader in the House of Lords, also told the programme she thought the exact same people who made her feel compelled to leave Labour in 1981 had returned to the party under Mr Corbyn's leadership.

"I think he [Corbyn] is like Michael Foot's son - a kind of idealist - who is I think being manoeuvred and I think manipulated by exactly the same people as I couldn't stand but who are not visible in the same way."

She added: "I think the one way we get out of the mess at the moment is the SDP concept struggling back and becoming eventually there will be a new party of the centre left."

Former Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley advised Labour centrists not to emulate the Gang of Four's example and to stay within the party and fight, as he did in the early 1980s. But he acknowledged that Labour's situation is "now is worse than the 1980s".

"I think our chances of getting back are still there and we will get back but it will take longer," he said. "I think it's more difficult for a number of reasons; I think the leader is less susceptible to reason than Michael Foot was, he was a sensible and mature politician although of the left.

"I think the trade unions are in a different position to what where they were in 1979 and 1983. But somebody has got to carry on the fight and must carry it on internally not externally. The lesson of the Gang of Four is you don't win by leaving you win by staying and fighting."