Uncut review: “Limehouse” – Egos, emotions and lessons for today

by David Ward

“Labour’s fucked!”

The very first words of this play take you immediately into a political drama which feels both historic and immediate.

Following hot on the heels of Headlong’s This House about Labour’s travails in Government in the late 1970s, Steve Waters’ new play brings us the next episode. Limehouse re-imagines the events leading to the 1981 Limehouse Declaration which led four Labour MPs to form the Social Democratic Party.

Going behind the scenes to an apparently faithful replica of David Owen’s 1980’s kitchen, it is a fascinating exploration not just of the period but of politics and politicians behind closed doors.

First there are the personalities. Roy Jenkins, the donnish champion of a broad left/liberal tradition with a taste for fine food and wine, brings to mind some in our current generation from Mandelson to Tristram Hunt. Roger Allam, who many will recognise as Peter Mannion from the The Thick of It, brings him to life along with excellent comic timing.

Shirley Williams is the indefatigable stalwart of Labour’s right resisting the Bennite left on the NEC. Torn between the worsening situation and the party she has grown up in and inherited from her parents. Bill Rodgers is portrayed as a mild mannered political fixer, comfortable across the union movement or CLP tensions and reluctant to step down from a left leaning shadow cabinet.

While Owen is the “hot-head” desperate for action not words, distrusted by the others for his ambition and middle class professional background. Williams even suggests the Owen’s kitchen is too bourgeois. At least he didn’t have two. Yet these accusations would become familiar to Blair only a few years later.

Then there are the issues it raises, many of which call to us down the ages.

A Conservative government bestrides the scene making itself synonymous with patriotism and British identity, while a weakened Labour party led by an ageing leader from its left struggles to respond. At times like this the party can seem to have a predisposition to discover a “religious fanaticism with apostates and traitors”, as Jenkins despairs.

This blends into the fear in MPs of what appear to be organised attempts to attack and unseat them condoned by senior party figures. Not least Tony Benn, “who I consider to be insane” Dr Owen diagnoses. Bill Rodgers arrives complaining of a lack of sleep “I kept dreaming of Tony Benn sitting on my chest with his great pipe…”

The issue du jour, Europe, also makes an appearance with Jenkins bemoaning the parochial British attitude which sees his choice to become leader of “the greatest coalition of countries in the world” as a step backwards.

But of course the real kernel of this play is the decision the four take to abandon the Labour party to create a new force in the centre ground. Last year’s talk of the creation of a new party has now largely subsided, but the points raised are shown vividly here.

Williams and Rodgers both worry that such a party would be “rootless” with no geographic or demographic core. Not to mention the emotional consequences. As Rodgers warns Owen, if the venture doesn’t work “we’ll be hated….and they’d be f***ing right”.

Rodgers in fact is the one most at home with the practicalities of how the party would need to operate, questioning Owen’s antipathy to the Liberals and the reality of needing to peel off substantial parts of Labour’s vote.

Yet the question of the Liberal tradition feels all the more relevant right now, as the term comes to loosely describe opponents of the populist politics of Brexit or Trump. The Labour party of course owes much of its birth and growth to that progressive tradition. However, as Jenkins points out, from the party’s breakthrough in the 1920s to 1981 Labour had only had around 20 years of majority government and “a fraction of the votes of the working classes we claim to represent”.

As conversation increasingly turns to an alleged disconnect between Labour and its traditional support, it’s a question we can’t ignore. After all, despite the 13 years of government from 1997 that ratio is still largely the same.

Yet for all these arguments the essential failure of the SDP project lingers in the mind of the modern audience. And no doubt in that of those MPs who lacked enthusiasm to follow suit last summer.

Perhaps such a decision in 1981 could have prevented a damaging split on the left. Perhaps different circumstances and a better played hand could have seen the third party successfully challenge Thatcher for dominance. We’ll never really know.

In the meantime those of us interested in Labour history will enjoy the chance Limehouse gives us to relive a unique moment in time.

Limehouse runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 15 April

David Ward is a Labour campaigner in south London

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8 Responses to “Uncut review: “Limehouse” – Egos, emotions and lessons for today”

  1. Delta says:

    Its just utterly shocking and surprising how blind you all are to how bad things are in terms of what you are all doing…with erm confidence….

  2. John P Reid says:

    I felt that the hard left had greeted some in the right of the party, poorly,and they felt they had no choice but to leave, as they could appeal to a lot of lsbour voters who didn’t feel labour was them anymore,as much as labour moderate voters don’t feel labour’s for them anymore,NI wouldn’t say there’s anyone in the right of the party who feels the current leadership, has made their life hell, to the point they’d form a new party.

  3. Alf says:

    Many of our PLP would be more at home in the Tory party. No need for SDP mk2.

  4. John P Reid says:

    Alf I’ve heard (no joke) TUSC have broke away from SWP, splitters

  5. Ian says:

    I agree with Alf. The real division in politics is between the Conservative and the Liberal. Labour is doomed to slowly die. Pick your side and act accordingly.

  6. Tafia says:

    Avoids some inescapable truths.

    The Labour ‘right’ (both members and voters) are really. Middle class social democrats and whining minority/special interests groups and are in fact really liberals but too cowardly to go to their natural home – the Liberal Democrats, because they can’t see them ever winning.

    The Labour ‘left’ (both members and voters) on the other hand are more traditional working class democratic socialists.

    The two are mutually exclusive, totally incompatable and really Labour’s so called broad church is really nothing of the sort.

    As for Blair, whether the Lbour Right likes it or not, he only won because people were hacked off at the continued scandals that Major’s two governments were continually mired in and the short recession that hit at that time. He then kept winning in the main because the Tories picked deeply unpopular leaders (Howard, IDS, Hague) and riven with a deep idealogical split (something that has erupted in Laboiur yet again)

    Thatcher at her peak would have eaten Blair alive. Easily.

    And it also avoids something the Labour Party internally strugglles with; that what should be it’s natural bedrock – the blue collar mainly white working class vote, does not like middle class faux socialists who lack national pride, fanny around befriending terrorists such as IRA/Sinn Fein, are weak on law and order and show disrespect to the Armed Forces – such as Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott etc. It’s preferred brand of blue collar socialism is best displayed by the likes of John Mann. Nor do they have any problems switching to the tories when their house in in order and they are saying the right things – hence why they voted for Thatcher repeatedly and now are gravitating around May (and to a lesser exrtent UKIP – who are stilll more popular than the Lib Dems).

    And what can the Labour Party do? Not a lot really. That’s why so many political commentators and pundits repeatedly say that no matter who leads it nor no matter which way it turns it is basically screwed.

    Even simple things – such as being anti-Corbyn aren’t what they seem. Much of the anti-Corbyn support isn’t people who would support a revival of New Labour. Much of the anti-Corbyn support is very left wing – blue collar northern left wing and just doesn’t like southern softie middle class toss-pots and only voted for Blair holding their noses – a mistake they aren’t going to repeat for a similar type candidate.

  7. paul barker says:

    In the 1980s Labour were saved by The Invasion of The Falklands, its hard to imagine something similar coming along this time.
    An SDP style breakaway is not an option this time because The Labour Moderates/Right are bitterly divided over Brexit.
    Labour supporters who want a future in a Non-Marxist Party have no choice but to leave as individuals & join one of The Parties already available : Tories, Libdems or SNP/Plaid.

  8. John P Reid says:

    Paul, The labour moderates are concentrating on not letting momentum infiltrate local parties so we keep councillors in the next few years, I know or he,bets in inner London, who’s majority of residents voted remain, excluding Kate hoeys seat, in Lammy ,Catherine west,ru shami Ali, dr khan Heidi Alexander and Jim Doed, Teresa Pearseand meg hillers seats,the fact that’s more important is we’re losing council by elections due to cobyn

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