Political breakaways are no easy option – a reminder of how the last one played out…

In 1981 and 1982 the Alliance between the two parties, under the leadership of Roy Jenkins and David Steel, was seen to be the perfect answer to Mrs Thatcher’s highly controversial first government, then two years old. Polls suggested that the Alliance could win power ‘if there was an election tomorrow’ as the polls liked to say, but, as many will remember, there wasn’t an election tomorrow. Instead there was the Falklands War, which Mrs Thatcher led us all into and won, thereby turning round many public perceptions of her. The Tories won the 1983 election comfortably, in the process reducing the number of seats held by MPs who had switched to the SDP from 35 to 8.

There had been some leadership and policy difficulties in the Alliance during that first Thatcher term but until the Falklands war began parliamentary by-elections and council seats had continued to be won.

Leadership and policy differences became notably more acute, particularly on defence, after David Owen became leader of the SDP and these differences could not always be disguised. Although Labour under Neil Kinnock still did not perform particularly well in the 1987 election once again the Tories very comfortably won the election and the Alliance actually lost one of its 23 seats, despite taking 22.6% of the vote (down from 25.6% vote in 1983). It is worth noting that in both 1983 and 1987 the electoral system worked heavily against the third party achieving more seats, as it would again today in any similar circumstance.

In the weeks that followed, three important announcements were made by the Alliance parties;

  1. In the autumn both Alliance parties would be entering talks with a view to the possible merger of the Liberal and Social Democratic parties in a new party (name to be decided!)
  2. David Owen would not be joining those talks but would be leading a continuing Social Democrat breakaway (soon known by Liberals as ‘The Rump)’. He would be joined by two other SDP MPs, Tom Cartwright and Rosie Barnes (who had won the Greenwich by-election during the last Parliament with a mass of Liberal help.
  3. David Steel announced that he would not be standing in the election for leadership of the new party, which would be held after, and if, the merger talks were agreed.

In September 1987, following a year as President Elect and Liberal/SDP Alliance candidate in Wimbledon I became what was to turn out to be the last President of the Liberal Party and I was thrown immediately into the negotiations.

Those negotiations were never easy for either side. With David Owen and his rump taking their futile steps into an independent SDP world outside, only Bob Maclennan and Charles Kennedy remained as MPs of the original party founded by Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and the reluctant David Owen. The SDP was by now even more heavily out-numbered in parliamentary and council seats by the Liberal Party.

Inevitably there was a different approach to internal party structure and policy-making and particularly strong feelings about the name. ‘Democrat’ was not a problem word but the addition of Social was as sacred to Bob Maclennan as ‘Liberal’ was to the Liberal Party. To achieve agreement a cumbersome compromise was reached (‘The Social and Liberal Democrats’ – abbreviated to ‘The Democrats’), thankfully to be ditched by the ‘new party’ within a year.

In those early months of the new party it was running at 6% in the opinion polls. Only after the Eastbourne by-election win in 1990 did politics begin to change again for the better.

Much of this re-cap will be very familiar to older Liberal Democrats, but possibly much less so to the current generation of parliamentary and constituency activists in the Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat parties, and even in sections of the Tory party today. where the claim to see ‘centrism’, ‘realignment’ or ‘parties working together’ is too easily seen as the ready route to better politics. Soggy centrism has never worked and the process of arriving at a realignment that actually achieves something is very far from easy, particularly without reform of the electoral system. Radical Liberalism should be seen as a combination of open mind a strong streak of social and racial tolerance and internationalism, firmly based on a serious commitment to a fairer social structure and better health and education for all, in a world in which the environment is of real benefit to all rather than a threat to our future.

That is what I believe the Liberal Democrats stand for, or should if they don’t, but, before the party even contemplates rushing into any new political arrangements, as result of Brexit or any other event, it would be as well to remember the difficulties of cross party negotiation, the thanks we never gave or got for all that hard work put in by Lib Dem MPs during the Coalition.

And to remember equally that it took nearly 10 years under the leadership of Paddy Ashdown before the party or the country saw any substantial increase in Liberal Democrat representation in Parliament as a result of merger.

An open party door to the right kind of new members is one thing but without electoral reform, restructuring of small groups into larger groups could be a depressing waste of time.

* Adrian Slade was President of the Liberal Party at the time of the merger with the SDP in 1988.

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20 Comments

  • *John* Cartwright.

  • Andrew McCaig 19th Feb '19 - 11:35am

    Adrian.
    Good summary. I was elected as an SLD Councillor in a by-election and seem to recall being on rather less than 6% in the polls actually.

    I do remember though that under Paddy’s charismatic leadership we quite quickly improved our national support, even if it did not translate into MPs. Maybe with a new, young and female leader by the end of this year as seems probable) we can do the same? 15% in the polls would make a huge difference in winning back council seats and would get us back into second place in many constituencies. That is what we should be aiming for.
    Personally I tbink this new grouping does not seem to have much chance of success. But it is bad news for the Labour Party and that could be good news for us. I am already planning the target letters to Labour Remainers for April…

  • Paul Barker 19th Feb '19 - 1:16pm

    The SDP/Liberal Alliance “failed” because of The Falklands War, a completely unpredictable, once in a lifetime event. That makes the relevance of the Alliance experience hard to assess. All we can do really is look at what happened before The Argentine invasion.
    If we cut out the results of the various Byelections, which gave temporary boosts but had no long term effect, the trend of the Polls was fairly straightforward : a rapid rise for about 3 Months, followed by a much slower rise till the Invasion. Even the slower rise was twice as fast as the Recovery we have been experiencing over the last 18 Months.
    If any New Alliance can do as well then we have good reasons to be optimistic.

  • John Marriott 19th Feb '19 - 3:02pm

    @David
    I think Mr Slade must be a cricket fan. The late Tom Cartwright was a more than useful County cricketer who played serveral times for England in the 1970s. John Cartwright was MP for Woolwich East from 1974 to 1992. He managed to survive the 1987 General Election but failed to hold his seat five years later, standing as an Independent Social Democrat with a Lib Dem support. I seem to recall that he was often on TV in the middle 1980s I think he’s still around.

    As Mr Slade reminds us, all this may be very new to those who weren’t around in the 1980s. For those of us who were, it might appear, in the immortal words of baseball player, the late Yogi Berra, to be a case of “déjà vu all over again”.

  • @Paul Barker

    It is a little bit of myth that it was only the “Falklands Factor” that saved the Tories but does have some truth to it. It is of course though impossible to re-run history. Mark Pack’s database of opinion polls has a decline for the Alliance at the beginning of 1982 when according to Wikipedia it was squabbling about seat allocation – essentially from above 40% at the end of 1981 (there was BTW only one poll according to the database that had the Alliance above 50% (50.5%)) to around and mostly below 35% by Spring 1982

    Conversely there was a mild recovery for the Tories in Spring 1982 before the invasion of the Falklands on April 2nd. By the 1983 election there was I believe some economic recovery and of course the Tories could highlight what it was like with the Winter of Discontent under Labour.

    I believe that Professor Vernon Bogdanor has said in his lectures which are on youtube – I believe on the history of the Tories but may be on certain General Elections (and they are BTW well worth watching for political nerds) that he thinks the Tories would have won the 83 election without the Falklands. It clearly though helped.

    We don’t know how Brexit will pan out but it does have to be said that a 40% poll rating at the moment for the Tories is quite strong especially with 80% disapproving of their conduct of Brexit negotiations.

  • Good points here and maybe a bit early to focus on strategy, however if there are two parties with a similar message competing against each other in a large number of seats would hadly be a recipe for success with FPTP. Of course just why was AV Referendum accepted rather than true PR,seemed it was not big enough prority for Nick clegg and allies at the time and whilst some policies achieved did not play best hand in many areas and the country unused to coalitions.

    Polling evidence suggested it would have been a closer contest though still may not have been right time to suceed. Seems unlikely a new party will be exact parallel of SDP and their stronger figures generally, however these are fluid times and could argue in some ways main parties are more extreme.

    Personally I think Falklands overplayed in conservative revival and Alliance decline, though undoubtably made a difference. In sane vein formation of SDP in keeping Labour out of power to my mind is a bit of a fallacy .

  • Adrian I remember you as president, and it is nice to see you posting here. Do you still have that copy of Milton’s Areopagitica, signed by all the Liberal party president’s over the years? I suppose as the last President you would have got to keep it (?)
    I agree – more or less – with what you are saying, and certainly it’s important to learn from the past. But politics, and indeed life in general, is different from the 1980s. Voters are more fluid in their allegiances now, and social media drives a very different type of political communications.
    I love your short description of what our party stands for, and we need to be getting that message out there under our new leader – whoever it is. I saw a pundit yesterday, someone who is pro-the 7, saying they could kickstart a broad centrist movement and the LibDems could be ‘folded into’ that. NO!! I’m up for sensible co-operation, but as we do that we must keep our distinct Liberal identity – and that starts with proclaiming it a bit more.

  • Andrew McCaig 19th Feb '19 - 6:35pm

    Anyone who doubts the Falklands effect should actually look at the polls instead of vaguely remembering them. On the eve of the war all three Parties were in the mid 30’s and the Alliance had just overtaken the Tories again. Then the Tories went up over 10% overnight and both us and Labour went down to the mid 20’s. That did not change significantly before the 83 election. An election fought on the pre-Falklands 3 way tie would likely have been a hung Parliament with maybe 100 Alliance MPs. I suspect Labour would have been the largest Party actually, just because we always find it easier to take Tory seats.
    It is conjecture what would have happened without the Falklands of course, but for me the smell of real change was in the air for the only time in my life….

  • As I said I consulted Mark Pack’s database of opinion polling – probably the most definitive list of opinion polls available.
    It gives the three opinion polls done in March 1982 just before the Falklands War on 2nd April as:
    Con 29.7%, Lab 33%, Alliance 29.4%
    Con 31.5%, Lab 33%, Alliance 33%
    Con 34%, Lab 34%, Alliance 30%

    This contrast with the 2 polls in December 1981:
    Con 23%, Lab 23.5%, Alliance 50.5%
    Con 27%, Lab 29%, Alliance 43%

    It looks as if the Alliance suffered in the Spring 1982 and the Conservatives and Labour gained. One has to guess whether or not the improving economy would have continued that for the Tories. I think it is a little too easy to highlight one pivotal event on what was actually happening anyway. It would be absolutely wrong to assert that the Falklands did not have any effect. It clearly did and it enabled Thatcher to re-establish her authority over her cabinet and party.

    Prof Vernon Bogdanor has this to say in his lecture on the Falklands War: “there’s an argument about whether it helped Margaret Thatcher win the 1983 General Election. The Conservatives were already beginning to improve in the polls before the Falkland War began because inflation was falling, and on 2nd April, the very day of the invasion, the Conservatives took the lead in the polls for the first time in a year. Their economic policy was popular, despite the rise in unemployment, because the unemployed tended not to vote and tended to live in safe Labour constituencies so they weren’t electorally significant. The fall in inflation was more important electorally and the right-to-buy policy was also popular and the fall in income tax and the weakening in the power of the trade unions. It seems to me that something fundamental had happened in British politics, and this was best summed up by a guru of the left, the Marxist Eric Hobsbawm, who said this: “The war had mobilised a public sentiment which could actually be felt, and anyone of the left who was not aware of this grassroots feeling ought seriously to reconsider his or her capacity to assess politics.”

    Personally I feel that feeling would have been there with the improving economy and Labour’s previous mess of it but the Falklands may well have amplified it.

  • A fine and incisive article from the former Liberal Party President. It is good to also see an acknowledgment that public service is a job of work, and a difficult one at that, in terms of “the thanks we never gave or got for all that hard work put in by Lib Dem MPs during the Coalition.”

    The inadvertent cricket reference reminded me of Fred Trueman who played cricket for Yorkshire and England when I was a schoolboy in the sixties.
    Fred was the epitome of a plain-speaking Yorkshireman, once commenting he “didn’t play cricket for social reasons like some of the fancy amateurs”. It was his living and he “played to win.” Something this new breakaway group will need to bear in mind if it is to be more than a footnote in the Brexit saga.

  • John Marriott 19th Feb '19 - 9:09pm

    As the 1983 General Election was the first in which I was really involved, I can speak from personal experience and not rely on statistics. What did for the Alliance was FPTP. What did for Labour was what the late Gerald Kaufman christened “the longest suicide note in history”. What saved Lady Thatcher was the Falklands war. Ironically, it was Labour’s Foreign Secretary, none other than one David Owen, whose decision to maintain a naval presence around the Falklands back in 1978 deterred the Argentine Junta from acting back then, while it was the incoming Tory government’s apparent laissez-faire attitude to our commitment to the Falklands that encouraged Argentina to gamble on invasion.

    There is no doubt that the 1980s were a lucky time for the Tories – a split opposition, suicidal unions, the North Sea oil bonanza paying for the unemployment their policies inevitably created. I just wonder whether, nearly three decades later, a few chickens are finally coming home to roost.

  • Good resume – and required reading of anyone who thinks the Labour right is a natural ally for us.

    Please all remember the key lesson of 83, Thatcher didn’t win because of the Falklands, she gained 43% of the vote (or at about 70% turnout, about 1 in 3 adults?) . Thatcher won because of the failed electoral process. We should focus on that!

  • ADRIAN SLADE 20th Feb '19 - 11:01am

    Thanks for all your comments. I am glad my piece struck a chord with so many but I have also been enjoying the corrections of cricketer ‘Tom’ Cartwright. Of course it was not ‘Tom’ but John Cartwright who was the MP for Woolwich East. My apologies.
    Re the Areopagitica… rather than keep it when I ceased to be President, I thought it more appropriate that it should go into the library at the National Liberal Club, and hopefully that is where it still is.

  • Sue Sutherland 20th Feb '19 - 12:49pm

    I am astounded by the news that 3 Tory MPs have joined the Independent group. Back in the days of the Alliance the Tories were renowned for sticking to the party line come what may, even though they might disagree internally. Can we persuade any of them to back the radical liberalism Adrian Slade mentions?

  • Sue Sutherland,

    whatever the future holds for the new group it does represent grown-up politics in setting aside tribal loyalties to hold firm to the basic values they espouse. As with the coalition government of 2010-2015 (and the SDP/Liberal merger), there will almost certainly be internal wrangling in agreeing on a common platform, but that is the case within any political party/grouping.
    For the next few weeks, the single issue is Brexit and the extension of article 50 pending a 2nd referendum.
    Many aspects of Liberalism are embedded in the social democratic wing of the Labour Party and modern one nation conservatism, whether adherents of these philosophies realise it or not. As a consequence, there will almost certainly be abundant issues where sufficient common ground exists to work together on a cross-party basis.

  • I suspect a lot of pundits are overestimating the personal appeal of MPs, underestimating Labour and are desperate for the certainty they felt about the direction of politics in the previous decade. The idea of the end of history and the notion of the ” grown up” politics of “the third way” is still very powerful in some quarters. The problem is it ended in a series of futile wars, mass surveillance, regular terrorist attacks, debt, uncertainty, scandals and economic collapse. A nicely presented narrative will not undo this.

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