Opinion: Happy birthday, 20 years on

It’s 20 years ago to the day since the Liberal Party and SDP formally became one party, the Social & Liberal Democrats. Liberal Democrat Voice invited Chris Rennard to take a trip down memory lane…

Twenty years ago the ‘merger’ of the Liberal Party and the SDP was generally seen by the media more as a ‘split’ than it was a bringing together of two parties.

Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, in their history of the SDP, have an absolutely damning section on the conduct of David Owen and his clutch of supporters over this period.

The acrimonious ballot of SDP members led to the inevitable collapse in support for a party alignment whose unique selling proposition was initially based mostly upon the concept of two parties working together.

The launch of the new party was without any clear message. The new slogan (I opposed it at the time), ‘The New Choice: The Best Future’, was supposed to last a decade. It probably lasted ten days. The compromise party name of ‘Social and Liberal Democrats’ was unworkable.

The beginnings of the new party could not have been more difficult. The Owenite SDP was devious and undemocratic in maintaining the branding of the original SDP. Tragically, they retained the massive financial support of the original SDP’s main backer, David Sainsbury.

Owen’s supporters fought spoiling campaigns in successive parliamentary by-elections. The effect was to deprive the newly formed ‘merged party’ of gaining the momentum required to establish early credibility.

At the same time, a number of deluded and disappointed Liberals also formed their own ‘Liberal Party’ which caused confusion, split votes, and helped our opponents.

The first national election for the party saw our share of the vote in the European Elections of 1989 fall to just 6%. Our national poll rating was just 5% in July 1989. The poor political situation and poor management led to most of the staff being made redundant that summer.

The turning points were in 1990. We maintained our local government base with strong local campaigns against the poll tax. I returned to my Liverpool home to help fight the Bootle parliamentary by-election. Owenites and so-called Liberals stood against us, but they were both humiliated.

Owen’s party polled just 155 votes – whilst the Monster Raving Loony Party’s Screaming Lord Sutch polled 450. “Owen’s in Sutch as state that he can’t beat the Loonies” was The Sun’s headline. The Owenites packed up that month.

In October, we fought the Eastbourne by-election overturning a 16,000 Tory majority to win by 4,550. Liberal Democrat opinion poll ratings went from 8% to 18% that month. The mood in the party that greeted this win was euphoric. But the truth was that we had simply ensured the survival of our party.

* Chris Rennard became Director of Campaigns and Elections in August 1989 and is now Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats.

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  • This article is so loaded with bile I am surprised it made it on here. Rennard slags off, the people who launched the party, Owen, Sainsbury and labels old style Liberals (like Meadowcraft) as deluded.

    What a horrible article.

  • Sorry “Meadowcroft”. The article has made me so mad I did not check the spelling.

  • Jim,

    Have a look at the programme BBC Parliament broadcast yesterday (Sunday)called “Made in Portsmouth”. Search BBC.co.uk/Iplayer and enter the word Portsmouth.

    Having watched that I think you will see that Chris’ article is perfectly fair.

  • Hywel Morgan 3rd Mar '08 - 9:50pm

    It’s fair enough to reminisce about routing the SDP/rump liberals. For the first couple of years of the party it wasn’t always certain that would happen.

    What’s interesing (in terms of party strategy) is what Chris focuses on.

    No surprise that there is a chronology of by-elections famous and infamous (though no mention of Mid-Staffs which was a notable “not as bad as people thought we would do” election).

    However two aspects are missing which were crucial IMO in the party’s survival in the “5% days”.

    Firstly was the decision to back the cause of the Hong Kong chinese UK passport holders after Tianamen square. The Thatcher government wouldn’t allow them permission to come to the UK and we called for them all to be given permission.

    Paddy took that decision just after the 1989 Euro debacle – a lot of activists at the time were wondering exactly what the point was in carrying on. Suddenly the leader was front and centre advocating the sort of issue that was at the core of our beliefs. It was helped by a supine Kinnockite Labour party who decided that to curry favour with the tabloids decided to send their troops into the same lobby as Norman Tebbit on an immigration vote.

    The second was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait which put security issues at the top of the news agenda where we had a highly credible leader in the ex-SBS Paddy.

    The point is – it wasn’t just by-election wins that put the party back on the road to success. It was also our position on key issues like those.

  • I remember with great fondness a number of by-elections at that time

    Richmond (Yorkshire) where the SDP tick came within a hundred votes of winning with a farmer called Mike Potter
    The Sunday Times said
    For a mouse leader of a mouse party this is as good as it gets… (refering to the SDP tick)

    Kensington and Chelsea by-election where Willie Goodhart was our candidate and we beat the SDP and the Vaxhall by-election (Mike Tuffrey) on the same day as the Euros where Philip Arnold was the agent.

    The By-election in Epping (Mike? Thompson)which we could have won in Epping Forest

    The Bootle reality however was that the SDP tick stopped ticking when they were beaten by David Sutch in Bootle…..

    I hope my memories are correct

  • Chris’s account of the early years of the Liberal Democrats is perfectly accurate. Except that he glosses over one crucial facet – his own role. The Party might have survived without Paddy Ashdown, but would it have survived without Chris?

    The merger was a debacle for one reason and one reason only: the egomaniacal and spiteful behaviour of one man – Dr David (now Lord) Owen.

    Owen knew that a merged party would never make him leader, so he set out to destroy it, like the spoilt playground thug that he is. Owen only cares about himself. He is utterly indifferent to the damage he causes, to the people he uses, to those who go down with him.

    As a minister, he delighted in humiliating junior staff, and threw his weight about wherever he went. A friend on my mother’s, who worked at the US Embassy in Washington, once wrote: “I told that arrogant young man David Owen exactly what I thought of him.” A pity more didn’t do the same.

    The scowling Owen got his peerage as a reward for endorsing John Major in 1992. Then he went on to back Tony Blair. And most recently, Cheney’s war in Iraq.

    He isn’t known as “Dr Death” for nothing.

  • Alex Macfie 14th Mar '11 - 1:00pm

    The Party might have survived without Paddy Ashdown, but would it have survived without Chris?

    Possibly not. Chris’ article ends with the Eastbourne by-election, which Paddy (according to his memoirs) originally didn’t want the party to contest due to the circumstance that caused it (MP murdered in an IRA terrorist attack). Chris persuaded him that the party wouldn’t benefit from such a noble-yet-futile gesture.

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