The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party brings back memories. Of when a Labour activist grabbed me by the throat, and a Trotskyist threatened to break my arm.
Few Labour members in the 1980s were violent, and nor are the vast majority of Corbyn supporters. But I have no doubt that the same intolerance and intimidation that I experienced at university is being felt by moderate Labour members today.
There will be many lifelong supporters of the Labour party, who believe as we do, that to fight poverty you need a vibrant economy. People who are now being told that they are not welcome in the Labour party.
As Liberal Democrats, we would love them to join us, but it won’t be easy. Liberalism has a long heritage, but so too does social democracy.
If they leave the Labour party, they may be turning their backs on decades of their life, be cutting ties with many friends.
They will hate the idea of abandoning the rich tradition of social democracy, to join a party about which they have many misconceptions. This is why I believe we need to explicitly reclaim our social democrat heritage.
The Liberal Democrats were formed as a merger of the Liberal party and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Former members of the SDP have been among our most prominent figures: Vince Cable, Charles Kennedy, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, Bill Rogers, Bob Maclennan, to name just a few.
However, too often, the SDP is airbrushed out of history, and we are simply described as a continuation of the Liberal party.
Social democracy lives on in the preamble to our constitution. We are not a party that is only interested in liberty, but seek “to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity“.
The words of the founding declaration of the SDP still resonate with many Liberal Democrats today: “We want to eliminate poverty and promote greater equality without stifling enterprise or imposing bureaucracy from the centre. We need the innovating strength of a competitive economy with a fair distribution of rewards.“
Like most members of the SDP, I was enthusiastic about the merging of our two parties into the Social and Liberal Democrats.
From the start, there was controversy about the name of the party. We needed to move on from those arguments, so I was one of those who voted for the new name, Liberal Democrats.
In practice, that name change meant little. When I meet new members of the party today, they are inspired by much the same values that brought me into the SDP in 1981.
Since then, I might not have thought of myself as a Liberal, but I was happy to simply call myself a Liberal Democrat.
When Jeremy Corbyn was elected this autumn, that changed.
What really matters is what we believe in. But labels are also important, because they shape perceptions. If Labour are foolish enough to discard their social democrat heritage, we should reclaim ours, and, by doing so, show that social democrats have a home with us.
To help reclaim that heritage, I would like to suggest a new fringe group within the party.
It would have two aims: to celebrate and develop our social democrat heritage, and to reach out to social democrats beyond the party.
In the private members forum, we have discussed what to call this group, and we settled on Social Democrat Group.
Our party faces very serious challenges, but the need for the Liberal Democrats is as great as ever. This is also a time of opportunity, when we may be able to draw in many who share our values, but who don’t think of themselves as Liberals.
Let us take that opportunity.
Written by George Kendall, who is convener of the Social Democrat Group, which is being formed to celebrate and develop our social democrat heritage, and to reach out to social democrats beyond the party.