Britain's Social Democrats try to fashion a distinct, new image

What ever happened to Britain's Social Democratic Party, which grew like a hothouse plant when it germinated three years ago? At that time the Social Democrats were confident they could transform the political landscape by bringing about a major realignment in British politics.

Opinion polls suggested that the Social Democratic Party (SDP) might not only supplant the faction-riddled Labour Party as the major opposition party, but also topple the ruling Conservatives as well.

That was two or three years ago. Today opinion polls put SDP and the Liberals as low as 19 percent, with the Conservatives and Labour at about level pegging with approximately 40 percent of the vote each.

It was a chastened and much more realistic SDP which heard their president, Shirley Williams, tell the annual party conference here in Derbyshire this week that party membership had declined by almost a quarter. Membership is down from its peak of 64,000 two years ago to 50,000 today.

What went wrong?

Some commentators suggest the party lost momentum, and never really regained it, after the nation rallied to the flag and Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands crisis.

A political adviser to the SDP and non-party member thinks the real problem is that the SDP's popularity peaked too soon.

It would have been better if the party had built up support more gradually, he says. In that way, he suggests, the SDP would have won over more members of the Labour Party. But the SDP had reached full bloom before disaffected Labour MPs were convinced that the party was a failure.

Yet the SDP's newest MP, Michael Hancock, who stunned the pundits by taking away the absolutely safe seat of Portsmouth South from the Conservatives less than three months ago, is not discouraged. He believes the current difficulties are symptomatic of the growing pains of a new party.

''What is happening with us,'' Mr. Hancock says, ''is what happens with anything that is new. People rush to join. It's quite natural.''

Yet although 38-year-old Hancock is one of the youngest MPs in Britain, people tend to support the SDP not because it is imaginative and innovative but as a reaction to what they believe is the extremism of either the Thatcherites in the Conservative Party or the Bennites (followers of Tony Benn) in the Labour Party. When their fears are assuaged, the vote flows back to the principal parties.

To many Britons the SDP is between Conservative and Labour. But beyond that the image blurs. This is why the SDP spent so much of its time at Buxton trying to fashion a distinct image for the party.

Even in this attractive old spa town where the sheer size of the conference overwhelmed the community, local residents are unable to get a handle on the SDP.

A mini-survey on the streets of Buxton shows most people haven't any idea about what the SDP stands for.

''It's disgusting. I don't know,'' says Pat Irwin, who owns a jeweler's shop on Spring Gardens, one of Buxton's few main streets.

''When I watched the TV the other night to see if they would show any local shots of Buxton, the camera stopped on the SDP banner outside the hotel. I had to think hard what SDP stood for and then I thought, 'Oh yes, it stands for Social Democratic Party,' '' she says.

Andrew Armstrong, the local butcher, was equally at a loss to explain SDP policies. ''To be honest I haven't a clue.'' He then volunteered a guess: ''A little bit leftish; a little bit rightish. Myself, I'm true blue.'' (Translation: a Conservative Party supporter.)

Yet if the party's policies come across as vague and incoherent, the person most likely to change that is the party's vigorous new leader, David Owen.

Despite Shirley Williams's protestations to the contrary, the original gang of four (Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers, Roy Jenkins, and David Owen) has become a one-man band under the strong leadership of Dr. Owen, a former foreign secretary in the Labour Party.

Against opposition even within his own political hierarchy, he carried the day in moving the party to the right and in rejecting a merger or closer alliance with SDP's election partner, the Liberals.

The Sunday Telegraph calls him ''easily the most attractive figure in British politics.''

With his intelligence, good looks, and political moderation, many Conservatives covet him as the politician they would most like to have in their own party.

And his visibility has increased enormously as the news media pursue him as an instant and incisive analyzer of breaking news. His own political philosophy, ''social market economy'' - a sort of market economy with a human face, also described as ''competitiveness with compassion,'' has now become SDP dogma. His own phrase of a year ago - ''toughness and tenderness'' - has become a SDP catchword.

Those in the party who feel the SDP is drifting too far to the right and would prefer left-of-center radicalism to prevail are worried that the public mood will move their leader to surrender tenderness for toughness.

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