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Social Democratic Party (UK)

For the current minor political party of this name, see Social Democratic Party (UK, 1990–present).

Social Democratic Party
Abbreviation SDP
Founder Roy Jenkins
David Owen
Bill Rodgers
Shirley Williams
Founded 26 March 1981[1]
Dissolved 3 March 1988
Split from Labour Party (de facto)
Merged into Liberal Democrats
Ideology Centrism
Social liberalism[2][3]
National affiliation SDP–Liberal Alliance
International affiliation None
European affiliation None
European Parliament group Technical Group of Independents (1983–84)
Colours Blue and red
Politics of the United Kingdom
Political parties

The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was a centrist political party in the United Kingdom.[4][5][6][7][8] It was founded on 26 March 1981 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 as a result of policy changes enacted at the January 1981 Wembley conference which committed the party to unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Economic Community. They also believed that Labour had become too left-wing, and had been allegedly infiltrated at constituency party level by Trotskyist factions whose views and behaviour they considered to be at odds with the Parliamentary Labour Party and Labour voters.[citation needed]

For the 1983 and 1987 General Elections, the SDP formed a political and electoral alliance with the Liberal Party known as the SDP–Liberal Alliance. After a ballot of members and the passing of a motion at the 1987 Portsmouth conference, the party merged with the Liberal Party in 1988 to form a unified party known as the Liberal Democrats (initially the Social and Liberal Democrats),[8] although a minority left to form a continuing SDP led by David Owen.



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 Commission. 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.[citation needed]

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),[citation needed] 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 Blyth (Northumberland) and Dick Taverne in Lincoln 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.[9] He founded the short lived Campaign for Social Democracy (CFSD) 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 and Unionist Party candidate, Conservative 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 Monday 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 Labour Party – in particular, the arrangement of block voting by constituency parties and trade unions, with the total votes of a Constituency Labour Party (CLP) 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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".[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] 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".[citation needed]

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 in 1981, after outlining their policies in what became known as the Limehouse Declaration.

Democratic, Democratic Labour, and Radical were all mentioned as possible names for the new party, as well as New Labour (which future Labour leader Tony Blair would use to promote the Labour Party more than a decade later)[10] 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.

The opening statement of principles contained in the preamble of the party's constitution stated that "The SDP exists to create and defend an open, classless and more equal society which rejects prejudices based upon sex, race, colour or religion". The constitution set out the establishment of a "Council for Social Democracy" (CSD) which was, in effect, the party's standing conference. Each area party was entitled to elect delegates to the CSD. A number of internal groups flourished within the new party, the most notable of which was the Tawney Society (mirroring the function of the Fabian Society within the Labour Party).

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 also received a boost with the recruitment of former student leaders from outside the Labour Party. These included former Communist Party of Great Britain member Sue Slipman as well as Conservative party members including Adair Turner, Anna Soubry and Tom Hayhoe.[11]

Although the SDP was seen as being largely a breakaway from the right wing of the Labour Party, an internal party survey found that 60% of its members had not belonged to a political party before, with 25% being drawn from Labour, 10% from the Conservatives and 5% from the Liberals.

The party enjoyed a considerable honeymoon period with the press, who made much 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. Its constitution argued for "the fostering of a strong public sector and a strong private sector without frequent frontier changes". The SDP favoured some neoliberal Thatcherite reforms during the 1980s, such as legislation aimed at reforming the trade unions (although the parliamentary SDP actually split three ways on Norman Tebbit's 1982 Industrial Relations bill, most voting for, some against, and others abstaining), but took a more welfarist position than the Conservative Party, being more sceptical of Conservative welfare reforms (particularly regarding the Health Service).[12]

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 called Douglas Parkin, nominated by a party called the Social Democratic Party which had been formed in Manchester in 1979, changed his name to 'Roy Harold Jenkins' to contest the seat.[13] 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. Later in the year, Shirley Williams defeated Bill Rodgers in the ballot to become SDP president.

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 Rochdale Cyril Smith caused some embarrassment, however, by publicly stating that the SDP "should be strangled at birth".[14] 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 in late 1981, the party had an opinion poll rating of over 50%.[15]

Also in 1981, David Steel was able to address the Liberal Party conference with the phrase "Go back to your constituencies, and prepare for government!"[16]

In early 1982, after public disagreements over who could fight which seats in the forthcoming election, the poll rating dipped, but the party remained ahead of both Labour and the Conservatives. However, following the outbreak of the Falklands War on 2 April 1982, the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher soared from third to first place in the public opinion polls. The standing of the SDP–Liberal Alliance and Labour Party declined. By this stage, however, the SDP–Liberal Alliance already 30 MPs in parliament - virtually all of them defectors from Labour, joined by just the one Tory MP.

Labour lost Bermondsey, one of their ten safest seats, in a by-election in February 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 council John O'Grady as "Real Bermondsey Labour" giving an impression of Labour division and infighting.

In the 1983 general election, the SDP–Liberal Alliance won more than 25% of the national vote, close behind Labour's 28%, but well behind the 44% secured by the Conservatives. However, because of the first-past-the-post electoral system used in the United Kingdom, only 23 Alliance MPs were elected, six of whom were members of the SDP. The party's leader, Roy Jenkins, managed to hold his seat at Glasgow Hillhead, but SDP President Shirley Williams was defeated at Crosby (which she had won in a by-election in November 1981) as a result of unfavourable boundary changes. Labour leader Michael Foot, who resigned within days of the election, was critical of the SDP–Liberal Alliance for siphoning support away from Labour, allowing the Conservatives to win more seats and secure a triple-digit majority, while Labour was left with 209 seats in parliament.[17]

The MP for Plymouth Devonport, Dr David Owen (who had been a Labour government minister under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan between 1974 and 1979), took over as SDP leader after the 1983 General Election. He was more sceptical about close relations with the Liberals than his predecessor Roy Jenkins, and favoured retaining the party's distinct identity. Owen's influence ensured that proposals for a merger between the two parties were shelved after a lengthy debate at the SDP's 1983 Conference.

During the 1983-87 parliament some SDP members started to become unsettled at what appeared to be the increasingly right wing course taken by SDP leader David Owen. This resulted in some members launching the Limehouse Group in an attempt to keep the party on the centre-left course that was first propounded in the Limehouse Declaration.

Two more SDP MPs were elected in by-elections during the 1983-87 parliament, but in the 1987 general election, the Alliance's share of the vote fell to 23%, 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 which was lost in 1987, but Rosie Barnes, who had won the bitterly contested Greenwich by-election in February 1987 from Labour managed to hold on in the June General Election.

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.

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. 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.

Merger, disestablishment 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. Jenkins denied that a merger had been his original intent.[18]

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 Democrats" 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 renamed the Liberal Democrats in October 1989, as had been originally proposed at the September 1988 conference by the party's Tiverton branch.[citation needed]

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. This party performed poorly at the May 1990 by-election in Bootle, behind the Monster Raving Loony Party.[19] It subsequently disbanded, although a third SDP was formed and continues to operate as of April 2015, though on a much less influential scale.[20][21] There was also a continuing Liberal Party, led by Michael Meadowcroft and David Morrish, mainly based on Liverpool and West Country Liberals who feared a dilution by the former SDP members of the Liberal tradition within the merged party.[22]


Most members of the SDP who joined the Liberal Democrats have remained in that party. There have been a few exceptions to this, with Roger Liddle and Polly Toynbee among those former Labour Party members of the SDP who returned to Labour ranks subsequently. Roger Liddle went on to become Special Adviser on European matters to Tony Blair and Chairman of the international think tank Policy Network in which capacity he has had a major influence on modernising the political philosophy of the Labour Party. Following the dissolution of a the rump SDP a number of endorsed John Major in the 1992 election.[23] Some Owenites joined the Conservative Party, with one, Danny Finkelstein, becoming a close aide of both John Major and William Hague, some other former SDP members went on to become Tory MP's such as David Mundell and Chris Grayling.

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 Scottish Highlands and the West Country. 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

See also

Leaders of the SDP

# Name
Portrait Constituency Entered office Left office
1 Roy Jenkins
60px Glasgow Hillhead from 1982 7 July 1982 13 June 1983
2 David Owen
(1938– )
60px Plymouth Devonport 13 June 1983 6 August 1987
3 Robert Maclennan
(1936– )
60px Caithness and Sutherland 29 August 1987 3 March 1988

Further reading


  1. ^
  2. ^ Stephen Driver (16 May 2011). Understanding British Party Politics. Polity. p. 117. ISBN 978-0-7456-4077-8. Retrieved 20 July 2013. 
  3. ^ Ian Adams (1998). Ideology and Politics in Britain Today. Manchester University Press. p. 63. ISBN 978-0-7190-5056-5. Retrieved 20 July 2013. 
  4. ^ Jeffrey Kopstein; Mark Lichbach (5 September 2005). Comparative Politics: Interests, Identities, and Institutions in a Changing Global Order. Cambridge University Press. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-521-84316-4. Retrieved 19 August 2012. 
  5. ^ Mark Kesselman; Joel Krieger; Christopher S. Allen; Stephen Hellman (12 February 2008). European Politics in Transition. Cengage Learning. p. 88. ISBN 978-0-618-87078-3. Retrieved 19 August 2012. 
  6. ^ John R. Cook; Peter Wright (6 January 2006). British Science Fiction Television: A Hitchhiker's Guide. I.B.Tauris. pp. 211–. ISBN 978-1-84511-048-2. Retrieved 19 August 2012. 
  7. ^ Kerstin Hamann; John Kelly (2011). Parties, Elections, and Policy Reforms in Western Europe: Voting for Social Pacts. Taylor & Francis. p. 75. ISBN 978-0-415-58195-0. Retrieved 19 August 2012. 
  8. ^ a b Peter Barberis; John McHugh; Mike Tyldesley (2000). Encyclopedia of British and Irish Political Organizations: Parties, Groups and Movements of the 20th Century. Continuum. p. 302. ISBN 978-0-8264-5814-8. Retrieved 20 July 2013. 
  9. ^ John Ramsden and Richard Jay, "Lincoln: Background to Taverne's Triumph" in "By-elections in British Politics", Macmillan, 1973, pp. 264-315.
  10. ^ "The rise and fall of New Labour". BBC News. 3 August 2010. 
  11. ^ Times; Guardian; Daily Telegraph; Sun; Daily Mail; Daily Express; Mirror 12–14 August 1981
  12. ^ Hames, Tim (13 June 2005). "At last it can be told David Owen was Tony Blairs secret political father". The Times (London). Retrieved 7 April 2010. 
  13. ^ Craig, F. W. S. (1984). British Parliamentary Election Results 1974–1983. Parliamentary Research Services. p. 311. 
  14. ^ "Home". Total Politics. Retrieved 18 April 2010. 
  15. ^ "SDP: Breaking the mould". BBC News. 25 January 2001. 
  16. ^ Stone-Lee, Ollie (10 September 2003). "Conference season's greatest hits". BBC News. Retrieved 7 April 2010. 
  17. ^ 1983: Thatcher wins landslide victory
  18. ^ Jenkins, Roy. A Life at the Centre. Politico's. p. 535. ISBN 978-1-84275-177-0. The case for merger arose only once the partnership had been tried on the ground ... At the beginning, while I was committed in my mind to a close partnership, I had no set view either for or against eventual merger. 
  19. ^ "Lib Dem meltdown: Five other humiliating by-election defeats". The Independent. Retrieved 20 November 2014. 
  20. ^ "Social Democratic Party". Social Democratic Party. Retrieved 20 November 2014. 
  21. ^ Philpot, Robert (16 January 2006). "The SDP lives on - in Bridlington". New Statesman. Retrieved 10 September 2012. 
  22. ^ "Liverpool elected mayor candidates: Steve Radford, Liberal". Liverpool Echo. Retrieved 20 November 2014. 
  23. ^ Social Democrats Press Release - Supporting John Major

External links