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]
Political position Centre
National affiliation SDP–Liberal Alliance
European affiliation None
International affiliation None
European Parliament group Technical Group of Independents (1983–84)
Colours Blue and red

The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was a centrist political party in the United Kingdom.[4]

The SDP was founded on 26 March 1981 by four senior Labour Party moderates, dubbed the 'Gang of Four':[5] Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams, who issued the Limehouse Declaration.[6] 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 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 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.

For the 1983 and 1987 General Elections, the SDP formed a political and electoral alliance with the Liberal Party, the SDP–Liberal Alliance. The party merged with the Liberal Party in 1988 to form the Social and Liberal Democrats, now the Liberal Democrats,[7] 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.

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 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.[8] 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.

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

On 25 January 1981, leading figures from the Labour Party (Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers, known collectively as the "Gang of Four") launched the Council for Social Democracy, which later became the Social Democratic Party in March, after outlining their policies in what became known as the Limehouse Declaration. The "Gang of Four" were centrists, who had left the Labour Party due to what they perceived to be the influence of the Militant tendency and the "hard left" within the party,[9][10]

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)[11] 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, MP for North West Norfolk. Williams and Jenkins were not at the time MPs, but were elected to the Commons in by-elections at Crosby and Glasgow Hillhead respectively.

The defecting Labour MPs were:

It was noted at the time that apart from Owen and Rodgers, and to a lesser extent Maclennan and Mabon, none were front-rank figures in the Labour Party, and most were undistinguished backbenchers in danger of deselection.

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.

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).

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.[12] 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 in June 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".[13] 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%.[14]

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!"[15]

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.[16]

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 further damaged by the sustained lampooning of the Alliance by ITV's popular Spitting Image puppet comedy programme, which portrayed Steel as the craven lickspittle of Owen; One sketch had 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.[17]

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.

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.[18] It subsequently disbanded, although a third SDP was formed, though currently operates on a much less influential scale.[19] 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.[20]


Following the dissolution of the SDP, a number of members endorsed John Major in the 1992 election.[21]

Leaders of the SDP

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

Further reading


  1. "BBC ON THIS DAY | 26 | 1981: 'Gang of four' launches new party". BBC News. 1979-03-26. Retrieved 2016-07-25.
  2. Stephen Driver (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. The SDP is widely described as a centrist political party:
  5. This name was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Maoist Gang of Four
  6. Chris Cook; John Stevenson (2000). The Longman Companion to Britain Since 1945. Longman. p. 95. ISBN 978-0-582-35674-0.
  7. Peter Barberis; John McHugh; Mike Tyldesley (2000). Encyclopedia of British and Irish Political Organizations: Parties, Groups and Movements of the 20th Century. Continuum. p. 360. ISBN 978-0-8264-5814-8. Retrieved 26 July 2013.
  8. John Ramsden and Richard Jay, "Lincoln: Background to Taverne's Triumph" in "By-elections in British Politics", Macmillan, 1973, pp. 264-315.
  9. Peter Childs; Michael Storry (13 May 2013). Encyclopedia of Contemporary British Culture. Routledge. p. 485. ISBN 1-134-75555-4.
  10. Donald Sassoon (30 July 2010). One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the Twentieth Century. I.B.Tauris. p. 698. ISBN 978-0-85771-530-2.
  11. "The rise and fall of New Labour". BBC News. 3 August 2010.
  12. Craig, F. W. S. (1984). British Parliamentary Election Results 1974–1983. Parliamentary Research Services. p. 311.
  13. "Sir Cyril Smith obituary". The Guardian. 3 September 2010.
  14. "SDP: Breaking the mould". BBC News. 25 January 2001.
  15. Stone-Lee, Ollie (10 September 2003). "Conference season's greatest hits". BBC News. Retrieved 7 April 2010.
  16. "1983: Thatcher wins landslide victory". BBC News. 1970-06-09. Retrieved 2016-07-25.
  17. 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.
  18. "Lib Dem meltdown: Five other humiliating by-election defeats". The Independent. 6 June 2014.
  19. Philpot, Robert (16 January 2006). "The SDP lives on - in Bridlington". New Statesman.
  20. "Liverpool elected mayor candidates: Steve Radford, Liberal". Liverpool Echo. 8 May 2013.
  21. "Social Democrats Press Release - Supporting John Major". John Major official. 17 February 1992.
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