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Britain's Social Democrats face their first big test

After the jamboree comes the real test. This is a fact of life for Britain's Social Democratic Party (SDP). The jamboree is the first annual conference of this newest political party, not yet seven months old. The real test, less than a fortnight after the conference, will be a parliamentary by-election in Croydon North West, on the fringe of London.

This Oct. 22 by-election will make political history. For the first time the name of the SDP-Liberal Party alliance, which has staked its claim to form the next British government, will appear on a voting paper.

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The candidate is a Liberal. But because he is the first-ever alliance candidate, and not a nationally known politician, his performance will say a mouthful about the realignment of British politics that the SDP claims to have initiated.

The SDP has already had a go at one by-election. It did well, too. But its candidate was a big name: Roy Jenkins, a former deputy leader of the Labour Party, former chancellor of the exchequer, former head of the European Community.

Jenkins is also one of the "gang of four," former Labour Cabinet ministers who formed the SDP when they felt that the Labour Party was irretrievably in left-wing hands. He may even become leader of the SDP when it gets around to electing one.

Everyone had heard of "Woy," as as he is sometimes called from his inability to pronounce the letter "R." But Bill Pitt, alliance candidate in Croydon, is just another guy who would like to sit in Parliament.

That's why he is significant. That's why he'll say much more about the outlook for the alliance than SDP ex-Lobour minister Shirley Williams would have done if, as opinion polls opine, she had stood and won.

You'd call the SDP a funny old party if "old" wasn't the wrong word. Liking to be seen to be different, it has been holding its conference in three different places. Delegates have traveled on a special train, nicknamed "The Smoked Salmon Special."

Again, because the party has no constitution, it also has no policy and has been taking no conference votes. It has, however, made clear that it backs the alliance with the Liberals that they recently voted for.

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Instead of voting on policy, it has been listening to members of the "gang of four" tell it what its policy should be. Still, one of the four, looking forward to real decisions next year, did tell delegates: "You will make the policy -- not anyone on this platform."

This one-person-one-vote principle is widely held, though whether it will eventually elect the leader is something on which the party is divided. It's a bit like the kind of Labour Party disagreement that the defectors -- they now like to be called refugees - hopes they had left behind.

Then what if this rank and file should vote, against advice to get out of the European Community and for unilateral nuclear disarmament? David Steel, leader of their Liberal allies simply said when hs conference voted antinuclear that he wouldn't be bound by it.

Many who have said they'll vote SDP are, in fact, anti-European Community and unilateralist. But with many disenchanted Tories joining the dissident Labour nucleus of the SDP, the party seems less likely to take these "anti" stances.

Cynical observers see little difference between policies party leaders would like to adopt and some Tory policies. On economic policy they favor a greater role for the state, but in a way that would allow them happily to fell at home with former premier Edward Heath and other left-wing Tory dissidents.

SDP leaders don't feel recent Labour conference moderation has encouraged a return to the party. More Labour defections have encouraged this view. There have been 18 defections of members of Parliament from the Labour Party and conservative parties to the SDP-Liberal alliance, including David Ginsburg on Oct. 6 and Richard Mitchell on Oct. 5.

And that historic by-election?

The SDP-Liberal alliance candidate, who has failed badly in four previous bids in Croydon as a Liberal candidate, would need half the Tory votes and a good slice of Labour votes at the last election to win.

Will the big guns of the SDP risk an all-out campaign for an apparently unlikely winner? If they do, they could be embarrassed by backing a loser. If they don't, their allies could accuse them of having failed to back a potential winner.

It is going to be an all-out campaign by Labour, with leader Michael Foot at the eve-of-poll meeting in this former Tory stronghold where creeping urban decay makes a Tory defeat almost inevitable. And a Labour win would be very bad news for the SDP and its allies.

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