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Social Democrat Party

Social Democratic Party

Following Labour’s defeat in the 1979 election, the internecine strife and growing success of the left within the party alienated many MPs and members. Moderate Labour leaders had worked with the Liberal Party during the referendum on membership of the European Community, and during the Lib-Lab Pact which kept Labour in power in 1977–78. On 26 March 1981 a number of them broke away from Labour to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

Launching the new Social Democratic Party (SDP), the former Labour Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins announced that the aim of the new party was to get away from the politics of outdated dogmatism and class confrontation and to release the energies of those who were fed up with the old slanging match. The formation of the SDP marked the culmination of a long campaign by a small group of Labour MPs, who had been working towards a realignment of the left, in order to counteract the increasing militancy of the Labour Party and produce a credible alternative to Thatcherism.

With leading political figures and former cabinet ministers amongst the new party’s 14 MPs, the launch created a great deal of excitement and by the end of 1981, the SDP boasted a membership of 65,000. The new party attracted members of both the Labour and Conservative parties and also brought many people into politics for the first time.

The Liberal Party and SDP formed the Alliance later the same year, agreeing to fight elections on a common platform with joint candidates. The Alliance’s political impact was immediate, wining a string of by-election victories and topping the opinion polls for months. The two parties won 25 per cent of the vote in the 1983 general election, the best third-party performance since 1929, and only just behind Labour, on 27 percent. The Alliance gained further by-election victories in the 1983–87 Parliament, and made significant progress in local government, but tension between the leaderships of the two parties also became apparent.

David Owen, the SDP’s leader from 1983, was personally less sympathetic towards the Liberals under David Steel than had been his predecessor Roy Jenkins, and was also more determined to maintain a separate (and in practice more right-wing) identity for his party; differences emerged most notably on defence. The Alliance’s share of the vote dropped to 23 per cent in the 1987 general election. The Alliance parties spent the following eight months in lengthy negotiations over merger; the new party’s constitution and even its name both proved to be subjects of sometimes bitter controversy.

Realising that the successful days of the Alliance were over, the two parties took the final decision to merge and the SDP finally ceased to exist in March 1988, when the merger negotiations were finally completed. The Social & Liberal Democrats were born on 3 March 1988, with Paddy Ashdown elected as the party’s first leader in July 1988. Owen led a significant faction of Social Democrats opposed to merger, but after a couple of encouraging by-election results, the ‘continuing SDP’ declined into irrelevance and wound itself up in 1990.

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Page last modified: 16-07-2016 19:28:49 ZULU