by David Ward
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