Social Democratic Party (UK)

From Academic Kids

The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was a United Kingdom political party that existed between 1981 and 1990. It was founded by defectors from the Labour Party, who considered that Labour had become too left wing, and was led by Roy Jenkins. It entered into an electoral alliance with the Liberal Party in the 1983 and the 1987 general elections. It formally merged with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988.




The origin of the party lies in a 1981 speech by Roy Jenkins - that year's Dimbleby Lecture - as he finished his time working for the European Commission. Jenkins argued the necessity for a realignment in British politics, and discussed whether such a concept should be done around the existing Liberal Party, or from a new grouping based on social democratic principals similar to other European states.

There were long-running claims of corruption and administrative decay within Labour at local level, and concerns that experienced and able Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) of many years could be deselected (i.e., lose the Labour Party nomination) by those wanting to put either their friends or members of their own Labour faction (in particular, the Militant Tendency) into a safe seat. Eddie Milne on Teeside and Dick Taverne in Lincoln were both victims of this intrigue during the 1970s, and in both cases they fought for and won their seats again as independent candidates against the official Labour candidates. In Taverne's case, he resigned his seat to force a by-election to highlight the issue. Militant were held to be systematically targetting weak local party branches in safe seat areas in order to have their own candidates selected, and thus become MPs.

Many members of the future Social Democratic Party were members of the Manifesto Group within the Labour Party. The final straw for them appeared to be the behaviour of Denis Healey at a meeting with them during the leadership campaign to replace Jim Callaghan. He bluntly told the assembled to vote for him "because you haven't really got any choice, have you?" Healey effectively told party members that they had to back him simply as the lesser of two perceived evils, the other being the leftist Michael Foot. the arrogance of this remark convinced many that their days as members of the Labour Party were now over. One notable exception was future Scottish Secretary George Robertson, who openly refused to join the new party because he feared he would not be able to keep his seat at a general election. This earned him the nickname of "Chicken George" thereafter.

This group opposed the leftward shift in Labour policy following the election of Michael Foot, and the involvement of trade unions in choosing the leader of the Labour Party. They argued that a new political force was needed to challenge the Conservative Party, and the leader of that party should be elected by its entire membership, rather than the electoral college in use in the Labour party.

The founding members or "gang of four", Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers, and Shirley Williams, were leading figures on the Labour Right. They announced the new party at a press conference, and outlined their policies in the "Limehouse declaration" [1] (

Twenty-eight Labour MPs 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. Jenkins had also unsuccessfully contested a by-election at Warrington in March 1982. In the Glasgow Hillhead by-election, another candidate named Roy Jenkins was nominated to contest the seat in order to confuse voters and split his vote.

The formation of 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. Initially, the Alliance achieved considerable success in parliamentary by-elections and, at one point, an opinion poll rating of over 50%. In early 1982, after public disagreements over who could fight which seats in the forthcoming election, the poll rating dipped, but was still well ahead of the Conservatives, and far ahead of Labour. Labour embarrassingly lost one of their ten safest seats - Bermondsey - in a by-election in early 1983 to Liberal-SDP candidate Simon Hughes. (The local Labour MP - Bob Mellish - had resigned over similar circumstances to that of Dick Taverne in Lincoln). Bermondsey has remained in an SDP/Liberal Democratic constituency ever since. Following victory in the Falklands War of March to June 1982, the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher gained popularity, and the standing of the Alliance and Labour declined.

The formation of the Alliance raised questions as to whether it would lead to a merged party, or the two parties were destined to compete with each other.

The Alliance did well in the 1983 general election, winning 25% of the national vote, close behind Labour's 28%. Only 23 Alliance MPs were elected, however, only six of whom were members of the SDP. 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 parlimentary party was reduced from eight members to five. (Mike Hancock had won a by-election at Portsmouth South in 1985 and Rosie Barnes had won a bitterly contested by-election in 1987 at Greenwich - on both occasions these were former Labour seats where the local party had been taken over by the Militant Tendency.)

Proposed merger

After the disappointment of 1987, Steel proposed a formal merger of the two parties.This had arguably been what Jenkins had wanted all along. He was fiercely opposed by Owen, but the majority of the SDP membership agreed to the union.Owen was quoted as saying that Jenkins should have been honest and joined the Liberals in 1981 with his closest supporters, including Dick Taverne, Tom Ellis, Tom Bradley and Neville Sandelson. Owen resigned as leader and was replaced by Robert Maclennan. Steel and Maclennan headed the new "Social and Liberal Democrat Party" (SLD) from March 3, 1988. The party was re-named the Liberal Democrats in October 1989.

Many SDP members, including SDP MP and future Leader of the Liberal Democrats Charles Kennedy, joined Maclennan in the merged party. But Owen remained defiantly at the head of the newly re-established and much reduced SDP, along with two other MPs, John Cartwright and Rosie Barnes.

The Owenite rump

The SDP carried on with the financial support of Lord Sainsbury, owner of the Sainsbury chain of supermarkets. The rump SDP beat the other parties to second place behind William Hague in the Richmond by-election in 1989, but in 1990, it finished behind the Official Monster Raving Loony Party in the Bootle by-election. Within a week Owen had announced the end of the party.

A small number of SDP activists carried on without David Owen under the SDP name for several years after the official demise of the party in 1990. The rump SDP finished fourth at the Neath by-election in 1991, and they were to hold a number of council seats in Yorkshire and South Wales throughout the 1990s. To this day the occasional Social Democratic Party candidate pops up in the odd council election, and there have been occasions when they have won. A "Social Democratic Party" is officially listed on the Register of Political Parties for England, Scotland and Wales only; the cited leader is John Bates. Bates was a formidable figure, forever seen in bow tie. But the party grew smaller and smaller in size- holding a 2000 conference in a Birmingham school and a 2001 conference in a small Weston-super-Mare hotel.The only elected member now is Cllr. Ray Allerston at Bridlington, East Yorkshire.It may be the case that Mr.Allerston's group is the last redoubt of the party.


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 those Labour moderates who remained in the party, such as Roy Hattersley, argue that the split in the centre-left both aided the Conservatives and delayed the move of the Labour Party to a centrist position. The more cynical point out that those "moderates" that stayed in the Labour Party did so more out of fear of losing their seats (e.g., George Robertson) than loyalty. Hattersley, whose marginal Birmingham seat explained much about his ever swinging opinions, particularly on immigration, and a large part of Labour's parliamentary group were known to automatically swing whatever way the leadership wanted or public opinion demanded in order not to fall foul of either. As post-1983 events proved, the old style Labour Party had a habit of "blood-letting", purges and scapegoating within its own ranks whenever faced with electoral defeat.

The Social Democratic Party helped restore the political credibilty of the Liberals. The national status of Roy Jenkins (former Chancellor, Home & Foreign Secretary) and David Owen (former Foreign Secretary that 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 High Court trial of former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe.

The SDP proved that a brand new party outside of the major two, mainly reliant on members' subscriptions and fundraising rather than business backing could fight elections anywhere in the country, and win.

'Tough and tender'

The policies of the SDP often were described by members of the party as being 'tough and tender'. This meant that the SDP accepted the 'tough' Thatcherite economic reforms of the economy during the 1980's (such as anti-trade union legislation and the privatisation of state industries). However, they advocated a 'tender' approach coupled with the acceptance of Thatcherism, which included the provision of extra welfare.

Leaders of the Social Democratic Party, 1982-1988

See also: Politics of the United Kingdom, Social Democratic Party (SDP) politicians.

The Social Democratic Party was also the official name of the Social Democratic Federation after 1907.

External Links

  • Limehouse Declaration [2] (

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