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The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was a political party of the United Kingdommarker that existed nationwide between 1981 and 1988. It was founded by four senior Labour Party 'moderates', dubbed the Gang of Four: Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams. At the time of the SDP's creation, Owen and Rodgers were sitting Labour Members of Parliament (MPs); Jenkins had left Parliament in 1977 to serve as President of the European Commission, while Williams had lost her seat in the 1979 general election. The four left the Labour Party in the belief that it had become too left-wing, and had been infiltrated at constituency level by Trotskyist factions whose views and behaviour were at odds with the parliamentary party and the Labour-voting electorate.

For the 1983 and 1987 General Elections, the SDP joined the Liberal Party in the SDP-Liberal Alliance. The party merged with the Liberal Party in 1988 to form the Liberal Democrats, although a minority left to form a continuing SDP.



The origin of the party can be traced back to the ideological divisions in the Labour Party in the 1950s (with its forerunner being the Campaign for Democratic Socialism established to support the Gaitskellites), but publicly lies in the 1979 Dimbleby Lecture given by Roy Jenkins as he neared the end of his presidency of the European Commissionmarker. Jenkins argued the necessity for a realignment in British politics, and discussed whether this could be brought about from within the existing Liberal Party, or from a new group driven by European principles of social democracy.

There were long-running claims of corruption and administrative decay within Labour at local level (the North-East of England was to become a cause célèbre), and concerns that experienced and able Labour MPs could be deselected (i.e., lose the Labour Party nomination) by those wanting to put into a safe seat their friends, family or members of their own Labour faction. In some areas, the Militant tendency were held to be systematically targeting weak local party branches in safe seat areas in order to have their own candidates selected, and thus become MPs.

Eddie Milne at Blythmarker (Northumberland) and Dick Taverne in Lincolnmarker were both victims of such intrigues during the 1970s, but in both cases there was enough of a local outcry by party members – and the electorate – for them to fight and win their seats as independent candidates against the official Labour candidates.

March 1973 Lincoln by-election

In Taverne's case, he had been fighting efforts by the Lincoln Constituency Labour Party to deselect him largely over his support for British membership of the European Communities. In October 1972 he resigned his seat to force a by-election in which he fought as a Democratic Labour candidate against the official party candidate. Taverne won by an unexpectedly large margin. He founded the short lived Campaign for Social Democracy thereafter, and wrote a book about events surrounding the by-election called The Future of the Left – Lincoln and After (1972). But the CFSD failed to gain nationwide support, and Taverne lost the seat at the October 1974 General Election. Some independent Social Democrats contested the October 1974 and 1979 General Elections, but none were elected.

Taverne's Lincoln by-election campaign was also helped to a lesser degree by problems with the Conservative candidate, Monday Club chairman Jonathan Guinness. His suggestion during the by-election that murderers should have razor blades left in their cells so they could decently commit suicide resulted in him being nicknamed "Old Razor Blades" during the campaign. This, combined with considerable Conservative grassroots disquiet over the Club's links to the National Front, persuaded some Conservative voters to switch to Taverne in protest as much as tactically to ensure Labour suffered an embarrassing loss. (Guinness had been elected as Chairman specifically to eradicate such links.)

The Manifesto Group and the split from Labour

Many original members of the future Social Democratic Party had been members of the Manifesto Group within the Labour Party. This group opposed what they saw as a leftward shift in Labour policy, the increasing prominence within the party of Tony Benn, and the involvement of trade unions in choosing the leader of the Labour Party. They argued that a new type of political force was needed to challenge the Conservative Party. Further, they opposed the creation of an electoral college to elect the leader of the Party, who had previously been elected by members of the Parliamentary Faction – in particular, the arrangement of block voting by constituency parties and trade unions, with the total votes of a constituency party or trade union being given to a candidate based on a first-past-the-post within that CLP or union, or changed at the discretion of delegates (similar to primary elections in the United States). They were also vehemently opposed to unilateral nuclear disarmament, an increasingly popular policy amongst members of the party.

The final straw for many in the Manifesto Group was the behaviour of former Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey at a meeting with them during the Labour leadership campaign to replace James Callaghan. He bluntly told those assembled to vote for him and answered their questions uninformatively. At the end, one asked him why they should vote for him, and Healey answered "You have nowhere else to go" (to stop the left-winger Michael Foot from winning). Healey's arrogance convinced many that their days as members of the Labour Party were now over. Ivor Crewe and Anthony King found five defectors who claimed to have voted for Foot in order to saddle Labour with an unelectable leader and make life easier in their new party. One defector, Mike Thomas, said he was tempted to send a telegraph to Healey reading "Have found somewhere else to go".

Newspapers of the period reported that the announcement of the new party came as a complete shock to MPs from all sides of the Commons, including members of the Manifesto Group, as the 'Gang of Four' had kept their preparations a closely guarded secret. One notable Manifesto Group exception was its secretary, future Defence Secretary George Robertson, who was the only officer to remain. The story got around that he had refused to join the new party because he feared he would not be able to keep his Hamilton seat at a general election; local Scottish National Party supporters nicknamed him "Chicken George".

Creation of the SDP

The founding members or 'Gang of Four' were Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams, all leading figures within the Labour Party, and all 'moderates'. They announced the new party at a press conference, and outlined their policies in what became known as the Limehouse Declaration.

Democratic, Democratic Labour, New Labour and Radical were all mentioned as possible names for the new party, but eventually Social Democratic was settled on because the 'Gang of Four' consciously wanted to mould the philosophy and ideology of the new party on the Social Democracy practised on mainland Europe.

Twenty-eight Labour MPs eventually joined the new party, along with one member of the Conservative Party, Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler. Williams and Jenkins were not at the time MPs, but were elected to the Commons in by-elections at Crosby and Glasgow Hillhead respectively. Much of the party's initial membership came from the Social Democratic Alliance.

The party enjoyed a considerable honeymoon period with the press, who made considerable mileage out of their quirk for proffering claret at their functions. Claret is an "agreeable" wine, and a metaphor for the party's harmonious internal relations compared to those of the strife-torn Labour Party of the period.

The policies of the SDP emphasised a middle position between perceived extremes of Thatcherism and the Labour Party. The SDP favoured Thatcherite economic reforms during the 1980s (such as anti-trade union legislation and the privatisation of state industries), but took a more welfarist position than the Conservative Party, being more sceptical of Conservative welfare reforms (particularly regarding the Health Service).

At the party's first electoral contest, Jenkins narrowly failed to win a by-election at Warrington in July 1981, describing it as his "first defeat, but by far (his) greatest victory". In the Glasgow Hillhead by-election in March 1982, another candidate named Roy Jenkins was nominated by Labour Party activists to contest the seat in order to confuse voters and split his potential vote. SDP polling agents were given special dispensation by the Returning Officer to have placards outside of polling stations to state which one on the ballot papers was the 'real Roy'. Ultimately, the SDP's Jenkins was elected.

A leadership election was held later in the year, Jenkins beating Owen in the ballot to become the first party leader.

The Alliance

The SDP formed the SDP-Liberal Alliance with the Liberal Party late in 1981, under the joint leadership of Roy Jenkins (SDP) and Liberal leader David Steel. The Liberal Party, and in particular its leader, David Steel, had applauded the formation of the SDP from the sidelines from the very start. Senior Liberal MP for Rochdalemarker Cyril Smith caused some embarrassment, however, by publicly stating that the SDP "should be strangled at birth". During an era of public disillusionment with the two main parties – Labour and the Conservatives – and widescale unemployment, the Alliance achieved considerable success in parliamentary by-elections. At one point, the party had an opinion poll rating of over 50%. By 1981, David Steel was able to address the Liberal Party conference with the phrase "Go back to your constituencies, and prepare for government!"

In early 1982, after public disagreements over who could fight which seats in the forthcoming election, the poll rating dipped, but the party was still well ahead of the Conservatives, and far ahead of Labour. Labour lost Bermondsey, one of their ten safest seats, in a by-election in early 1983 to Liberal candidate Simon Hughes: the sitting Labour MP Robert Mellish resigned to work for the London Docklands Development Corporation but being opposed to the selection by his left-wing Constituency Labour Party of Peter Tatchell, supported the former leader of Southwark councilmarker John O'Grady as "Real Bermondsey Labour" giving an impression of Labour division and infighting.

However, following victory in the Falklands War in June 1982, the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher soared from third place in the public opinion polls. The standing of the Alliance and Labour declined. The Alliance did well in the 1983 general election, winning 25% of the national vote, close behind Labour's 28%. Because of the British "first-past-the-post" electoral system, only 23 Alliance MPs were elected, six of whom were members of the SDP. Two more SDP MPs were elected in by-elections in the next four years, but in the 1987 general election, with the SDP under the leadership of David Owen, the Alliance's share of the vote fell slightly, and the SDP's parliamentary party was reduced from eight members to five. Roy Jenkins was amongst those who lost their seats. Mike Hancock had won a by-election at Portsmouth South in 1984 from the Conservatives, and Rosie Barnes had won the bitterly contested Greenwich by-election in 1987 from Labour. Neither victory could disguise the fact that the electorate's "love affair" with the Alliance was beginning to cool: local government election results proved disappointing even after the Portsmouth result.

From the outset, the formation of the Alliance had raised questions as to whether it would lead to a merged party, or the two parties were destined to compete with each other. This in turn led to grassroots tensions in some areas between Liberal and SDP branches that impaired their ability to mount joint campaigns successfully. Such cross-party feuding was part of the reason for Jenkins losing his Hillhead seat to Labour candidate George Galloway in 1987.

Matters were exacerbated by tensions between local Liberal and SDP branches over joint "Alliance" candidate adoptions. Liberal pride was damaged by the sustained lampooning of the Alliance by ITV's Spitting Image puppet comedy programme portraying Steel as the craven lickspittle of Owen. Both Owen and Steel were to admit years later that Spitting Image did a lot of damage to the Alliance, which was heavily dependent on positive publicity to make up for the lack of activist numbers of the Conservatives and Labour.

One Spitting Image sketch had a Machiavellian Owen proposing to a simpering Steel that the parties merged under a new name: "and for our side we'll take 'Social Democratic', and from your side, we'll take ‘Party'", to which a hesitant Steel agreed.

Jenkins' critics believe that he saw the SDP as only a vehicle for siphoning off the right wing of the Labour Party into a new centrist party with the existing Liberals. This would provide a more pro-European and stable party of government within a Proportional Representation system of elections, avoiding the destructive policy swings from left to right caused by Labour and the Conservatives. Owen however saw the party as being a replacement for Labour altogether, of the same mould as the German Social Democrats which benefit from not being tied down by Trade Union control, and thus were seen as more approachable by business interests. Tony Blair, the Labour MP from Sedgefield, was a very vocal critic of this SDP-business link.

Merger, disestablished and splits

After the disappointment of 1987, Steel proposed a formal merger of the two parties. Jenkins and Steel had believed this to be eventually inevitable after the party failed to break through at the 1983 election. The proposal, also supported by Williams and Rodgers, was fiercely opposed by Owen, who argued that such a merger would not be accepted by the electorate, and would not reverse their declining share of the vote. Owen was quoted as saying that Jenkins had intended a merger all along, and should have been honest and joined the Liberals in 1981 with his closest supporters, including Dick Taverne, Tom Ellis, Tom Bradley and Neville Sandelson. Jenkins denied that a merger had been his original intent.

But the majority of the SDP's membership (along with those of the Liberals) voted in favour of the union. Owen resigned as leader and was replaced by Robert Maclennan. Steel and Maclennan headed the new "Social and Liberal Democrat Party" from 3 March 1988. An interim working name for the party, the "Democrats", was adopted by conference on 26 September 1988. This proved to be unpopular, and the party was re-named the Liberal Democrats in October 1989, as had been originally proposed at the September 1988 conference by the party's Tiverton branch.

Most SDP members, including SDP MP and future Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, joined Maclennan in the merged party, but Owen created a continuing SDP, along with two other MPs, John Cartwright and Rosie Barnes. There was also a continuing Liberal Party, led by Michael Meadowcroft and David Morrish, mainly based around Liverpool and West Country Liberals who feared a dilution by the former SDP members of the Liberal tradition within the merged party.

Some members simply dropped out of politics altogether out of disillusionment when the time came to renew their membership subscriptions. After a series of highly publicised expulsions of Militant tendency members, the Labour Party led by Neil Kinnock benefited in the opinion polls from the feuding within the former Alliance. The Liberal Democrats also lost to the continuing SDP its one major backer, Lord Sainsbury.

The subsequent election of a new Liberal leader, Paddy Ashdown, revived the new party's fortunes in time, and turned it into the most successful "third party" electorally in British politics since the days of Lloyd George. Under David Owen, the SDP continued from 1988 to 1990, and subsequently, but without Owen's involvement.


Most members of the SDP who joined the Liberal Democrats have remained in that party. There have been a few exceptions: notably Roger Liddle. Polly Toynbee was among those who left the Labour Party to return to their ranks later. Some Owenites joined the Conservative Party, with one, Danny Finkelstein becoming a close aide of both John Major and William Hague. Their critics believe that this had more to do with the desire to continue to do the most damage towards Labour than true political conviction, but their supporters disagree, arguing that the Conservative Party is the best long term bet for supporters of Owen's social market approach.

It has been argued by some that the creation of the SDP led eventually to Tony Blair's movement of the Labour Party back towards the political centre under the banner of "New Labour". But some of those Labour moderates who remained in the party, such as Roy Hattersley, argue that the so-called "split in the centre-left" both aided the Conservatives and delayed the move of the Labour Party to a centrist position.

Perhaps more convincingly it has been argued that the impact of the SDP was to show those on the soft left of the Labour Party that they could not rely on a pendulum effect to propel a leftist Labour Party back to power – Labour had to actively engage with the electorate's concerns. Both Kinnock and Blair came from that soft left position.

The SDP also accelerated the breakup of the political Labour Movement. SDP politicians did not necessarily come from an anti-trade union position: many were, in fact Labour-right wing union organisers before joining the SDP. But being in a party without a direct trade union link, together with their experience of the unions move to the left in the 1970s, made them more responsive to the anti-union mood of the country and less likely to defend the unions: in time, too, Labour had to respond to that mood.

But most important of all, the Social Democratic Party strengthened the political credibility of the Liberals. The national status of Roy Jenkins (former Chancellor and Home Secretary) and David Owen (former Foreign Secretary who had been widely tipped as a future Labour Prime Minister) helped the Liberals become something more than a source of shock by-election results and a party for those living in rural areas such as the Highlands and Cornwall. The SDP also helped the Liberals attract attention from the media for their policies after a long period when the only media interest in the party resulted from the trial of former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe.

The SDP proved that a brand new party outside of the major two could fight elections anywhere in the country, and win – but in their patronage by Sainsbury's they also proved that a substantial source of income outside of that raised by members was required in order to be able to fight elections on equal terms with the "big two".

See also

Leaders of the SDP

Portrait Entered office Left office Date of Birth
1 Roy Jenkins 7 July 1981 13 June 1983 11 November 1920 – 5 January 2003
2 David Owen 13 June 1983 14 June 1987 2 July 1938 – present
3 Robert Maclennan 14 June 1987 3 March 1988 26 June 1936 – present

Further reading

  • Ivor Crewe & Anthony King, SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party, OUP 1995
  • Hugh Stephenson, Claret and Chips: The Rise of the SDP, Michael Joseph 1982
  • John Stevenson, Third Party Politics since 1945: Liberals, Alliance and Liberal Democrats, ICBH 1993
  • Patricia Lee Sykes, Losing from the Inside: The Cost of Conflict in the British Social Democratic Party, Transaction Publishers 1990
  • Roy Jenkins, A Life at the Centre, Macmillan 1991
  • David Owen, Time to Declare, Penguin 1992
  • Bill Rogers, Fourth Among Equals, Politico's 2000
  • Journal of Liberal History, Issue 39 Summer 2003, A Short History of Political Virginity (edition devoted to the SDP)
  • Journal of Liberal History, Issue 18 Spring 1998, Ten Years On, The Legacy of the Alliance and Merger


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