Britain's only Social Democratic Party councillor Wayne Dixon on why Leeds City Council needs to get the basics right

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Thursday, 26th May 2022, 11:47 am

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Beyond Thatcherism, there are few things for political nerds that are more evocative of that decade than the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which all but disappeared within 10 years of its birth in 1981.

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Wayne Dixon is the first Social Democratic Party councillor to be elected in Leeds in five years.

It has been rebuilding since a relaunch in 2018 though and hopes for a comeback of its own, so could its fortunes be about to change?

Leeds' Wayne Dixon, who has just become the SDP’s first elected councillor on a unitary authority for five years, believes it might.

“People have realised the big parties take us for granted a little bit, and they’re looking for something different,” says Coun Dixon, who was elected to represent the city’s Middleton Park ward ahead of Labour.

“We’re not extreme on the left and we’re not extreme on the right. We’re just common sense.

“There are some SDP parish councillors but anything above parish council level, I’m the only one. Touch wood, let’s hope we get more.

“I was shocked we didn’t get more this year to be honest because we had some really good candidates around the country.”

The SDP was originally formed by four breakaway Labour MPs who were disillusioned with their old party’s lurch to the left under then leader Michael Foot.

An electoral pact with the Liberal Party was struck and together the newly christened Alliance even topped opinion polls during a dizzying honeymoon period.

But unable to make serious inroads in Westminster, the two formally merged in 1988 to become the Liberal Democrats, leaving a handful of upset members on both sides trying to sustain the parties they had first joined.

The SDP did carry on but beyond places like Bridlington and South Wales, where they managed to claim and hold council seats for long periods of time, they went largely unnoticed.

“Everyone thinks we’re not the same party, but we are,” Coun, a former Labour member himself, says. “It just kept going on a really small scale. People forgot about us.

“Since then I think the party’s changed its views on a few things. On the EU for example, we were pro-Remain in the 80s. Now we’re a democratic party and we recognise the democratic vote (on Brexit).”

Coun Dixon, 39, admits that when he first looked up the SDP in 2017 he thought they “seemed a bit UKIP-y for me.”

Indeed, one-time UKIP big-hitter Patrick O’Flynn has since joined and is credited with helping to shape the relaunched SDP’s policies.

However, after attending a party conference in Birmingham, Coun Dixon says he found a “good mix of people” and he subsequently signed up.

He adds: “I realised it wasn’t UKIP-y. It was just ordinary people who wanted something different.

“We’re economically left-wing, which I am, and socially we’re a bit more traditional. That works for me.”

A one-time forklift truck driver who now works as a mental health support worker, Coun Dixon is well-known in the Middleton area where he grew up.

In a previous job, he helped vulnerable people, including refugees, either get work or stay in it.

He recalls how professionals, such as an Afghan doctor and a married Libyan couple who had both been university lecturers, were told their qualifications were meaningless in the UK and they had to start their careers again from scratch.

“It doesn’t feel like you’re helping them, putting them in a low-paid job,” Coun Dixon reflects.

“But it gave them a step I guess, that’s how I suppose you have to look at it. We gave them the tools to get by. Writing a CV is hard when English isn’t your first language.”

A Leeds United diehard and former youth worker, Coun Dixon also coaches kids aged between 18 months and four years old at the Middleton Park Football Club.

He himself helped found the club, where he doubles up as the secretary, in 2004.

And sports facilities in general is one area he hopes to make a difference in his new political role.

“The facilities are shocking round here,” he says. “Across Leeds they’re shocking.

“You go to away matches and you see the facilities people have got and it’s poor, really. Very few clubs have even got changing rooms.

“There’s been a lack of investment for years. The council have never seen it as a priority and now they’re moaning about obesity – it’s stupid.”

When it is put to Coun Dixon that austerity has forced local councils to cut back on such facilities, he replies: “There’s ways round it. I’d say lease the land to the clubs for a peppercorn rent and then let them fundraise and apply for funding to build their own clubhouses.

“What I’m saying is people power will get it over the line if they want it. The council just has to give people the tools to do if they want it.”

Coun Dixon also proclaims himself a believer in the broken windows theory – an idea that visible evidence of vandalism leads to more crime if it’s not cleaned up quickly.

“Our problem, and this is what I’ve campaigned on for the last six years, is getting the basics done,” he suggests.

“It’s the little things. Things getting damaged and left. That’s been a problem round here for a while.

“The government cuts have been disgusting really. They’ve gone too far. But I also think the council could have been a bit savvier with the money as well.”

Voter disillusionment with Labour and Tories has long been used by the fringe parties to try to get their own message across.

With crowded ballot papers and first-past-the-post, few have succeeded to any huge degree over the last 40 years.

Now in its second life, the SDP – who say their membership has ballooned since 2019 – are the latest to knock on the glass ceiling.

If they were to break it, then perhaps like DI Alex Drake in Ashes to Ashes, we’ll all feel for a moment like we’re back in 1981.