Remembering the SDP

SDP logoThe events that led to the formation of the SDP were also formative years for me as a very young man becoming fascinated with politics.

I can recall Roy Jenkins giving the Dimbleby Lecture and the Labour party conference of 1980 when the left won every vote on key issues such as Europe and Defence.

Then the elevation of Michael Foot to the post of leader an election in which many had thought the moderate candidate Denis Healey would triumph.

James Callaghan had timed his resignation so that MPs would elect his successor before  a conference arranged to discuss changing the method of election was held at Wembley.

Callaghan knew that the conference would adopt an electoral college system widening the franchise to include trade unions and constituency parties.

This change would give a left wing standard bearer a much better chance of winning.

Healey bungled his chances by alienating key moderates and the dye was cast. It wasn’t long before he would face a strong challenge for the deputy leadership from Tony Benn.

By then Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers had walked out of the party taking a substantial number of MPs with them.

They formed a new party the SDP.

An electoral arrangement with the Liberal Party followed, by-elections were contested and some famously won.

For a time, opinion polls indicated that the Alliance, as the two party arrangement became commonly known, were leading in the nations popularity stakes.

It didn’t last and by the time of the 1983 General Election the Tories with the self styled Iron lady at the helm had recovered from an earlier slump in support largely on the back of victory in the Falkands war.

That election was the beginning of the end for the new party.

The inequities of the First Past The Post voting system meant Labour got 209 seats with 27 per cent of the vote and the Alliance 23 with 25 per cent!

In the years that followed leading up to the next test of national opinion in 1987 the SDP continued but survival became increasingly questionable.

A merger of the two Alliance parties came in 1988.

A rump SDP continued for a while but it was finished as a serious political force.

Now in 2018 as something of a political veteran I find myself wondering if we will see another breakaway fom Labour along similar lines to those that brought us the SDP.

The circumstances are certainly similar.

The left is more in control of Labour than at any time in its history and some of their MPs  are visibly struggling with the new regime.

However whatever else can be said of the politicians who founded the SDP they were clearly people of principle who took a massive step, risked their futures and walked way from a party they loved.

Sadly I don’t see their like in today’s Labour party.

A breakaway should occur but I won’t hold my breath waiting for it.

* David Warren is a lifetime political activist for progressive causes and a liberal.

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  • ‘Sadly I don’t see their like in today’s Labour party.’

    Chuka Umunna? It would make so much sense for him to do it. I think there’s probably a lot more love for him here than in his own party.

  • Yes, I remember them.

    Scattered to the winds now most of them – many back in the Labour Party (Adonis, Liddle etc, ) despite what you say, Mr Warren.

    A few in the Tory Party (Horam, Finkelstein) and some cross benchers.

  • David Evans 20th Feb '18 - 2:52pm

    David That’s a bit unfair. We also had Shirley Williams, Bob McLennan and Charlie Kennedy – the best leader we ever had.

  • David Warren 20th Feb '18 - 2:57pm

    The point I was making is that all of the gang of four had spent a long time in the Labour party and fought hard for social democracy within it.

    I don’t think that could be said for Chuka Umunna or any of the other Blairite types.

  • paul holmes 20th Feb '18 - 3:55pm

    @David Raw. Of course there still some of us around of SDP origin. Such as the Leader of the Party, Vince Cable and our current Leader in the Lords, Dick Newby and the current Chief Whip in the Lords, Ben Stoneham. Then there was Charles Kennedy and Shiey Williams only recently retired from Politics.

    Not an insignificant contribution to the Liberal Democrats.

  • John Marriott 20th Feb '18 - 4:16pm

    Oh the euphoria of those heady days – especially up to the 1983 General Election. In Lincoln, our little group of Dem Labs (the party formed to support Dick Taverne back in the 1970s that briefly controlled the Lincoln City Council) Liberals (me and a couple of others) under the charismatic leadership of one Freddie Stockdale (who went on the found and run his own opera company that toured schools for many years – brave man) ran Labour a close second but, like many other campaigns, foundered on the rock of FPTP.

    By the 1987 General Election the gilt had worn off the gingerbread, as epitomised by the little David Steel puppet in the David Owen puppet’s pocket on ‘Spitting Image’ and, the most symbolic, and probably unintended moment of all (to least for yours truly) when the two ‘Leaders’ launched their 1987 election campaign on the steps of SDP/ Alliance HQ, shook hands, boarded their respective bright yellow campaign buses, which then drove off in separate directions.

    Could it happen again? Unlikely. Once bitten, as they say. BUT never say never.

  • John Marriott 20th Feb '18 - 4:19pm

    Got carried away again. For ‘separate’ read ‘opposite’ directions. I need to get out more!

  • What are we going to do about the new party “Renew”, campaigning for the Referendum result to be reversed, and they say fielding 200 candidates at the next election?

  • Richard Underhill 20th Feb '18 - 6:10pm

    David Evans 20th Feb ’18 – 2:52pm Charles did not defect as an MP, he was elected in 1983, although David Owen had hardly heard of him.
    Liberal leader David Steel MP was on the lunchtime news every day saying that we should co-operate with those considering leaving Labour.

  • Richard Underhill 20th Feb '18 - 6:32pm

    John Marriott 20th Feb ’18 – 4:16pm: The two Davids were interviewed on TV by the grand inquisitor who asked which would be Prime Minister if the Alliance did well enough. He was proud of asking clever questions. Both Davids replied immediately “The one who has more MPs”. (They might have said ‘most’ but there were only two of them). Robin Day was visibly surprised (although he had stood as a Liberal candidate under Jo Grimond’s leadership)

  • Lorenzo Cherin 20th Feb '18 - 8:28pm

    Very good to read you David as in Warren on here talking sense as ever.

    I am just a few years your junior, I was in the Labour party from thirteen or fourteen, they let me in earlier than their usual rules. I was not keen on divisive politics, and thought then as now I would be more at home in a Democrat US style party of liberals, progressives, social democrats and democratic socialists.

    David as in Raw, I am surprised knowing so many good genuine people like our commentator here, Paul Holmes and Shirley Williams and Vince Cable, and the finest person in the local politics I know, Barbara Pearce who despite every ailment known has fought for the values we hold close to our hearts!

    My hero Lord Richard Attenborough was a Labour member for forty years then joined as a founder member of the SDP. His beloved wife Sheila Sim, Lady Attenborogh remained a Liberal Democrat voter, but “Dick”, knowing Neil Kinnock, went back to the Labour party at the post 1987 election .

    There was and is much cross pollination between these centre left parties.

    I was and am keen on an alliance. But the radical nature ostensibly of a moderate centrist party, reveals policies that were as social democratic and centre left as that tradition was and is.

    A lot of nearly factless nonsense is written on SDP or other social democrats.

    The statement of Gaitskell on the values he and his colleagues between them advanced, reads today as always as more humane and staunch than much today or ever.

  • OnceALibDem 20th Feb '18 - 8:33pm

    “especially up to the 1983 General Election. In Lincoln, our little group of Dem Labs (the party formed to support Dick Taverne back in the 1970s that briefly controlled the Lincoln City Council) Liberals (me and a couple of others) under the charismatic leadership of one Freddie Stockdale (who went on the found and run his own opera company that toured schools for many years – brave man) ran Labour a close second but, like many other campaigns, foundered on the rock of FPTP.”

    Eh? Lincoln result in 1983:
    Conservative 25,244 46.4%
    Labour 14,958 27.5%
    Social Democratic 13,631 25.1%

  • @ Paul Holmes. Paul, of course you’re a good ‘un. Sorry if I didn’t say so before –
    and yes we’ve had some other good ‘uns too – especially poor dear Charlie who I wish was still with us.

    As for Owen, ‘fraid not my cup of tea….. or many other people’s come to that. Be interesting to know if the Gang of Four was a zero question on the ‘Pointless’ show today, though.

    Lorenzo, you’re far too young to remember anything about it….. or of the local SDP Chairman in the seat I fought in 1983 who told me to focus on the Tory candidate’s ethnicity. He got a very dusty answer and I can safely say it now because he’s long gone to the great polling station in the sky.

  • John Marriott 20th Feb '18 - 9:10pm

    Perhaps I didn’t explain properly what happened. By ‘ran Labour a close second’ I meant that the ‘Alliance’ came pretty close to coming second to Tory, Kenneth Carlisle, who had taken the seat from Margaret Beckett in 1979. With ‘foundered on the rock of FPTP’ I was referring to the large vote secured by the third party locally and nationally that failed largely to be reflected by the parliamentary seats it actually won in comparison particularly with Labour. Eh?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 20th Feb '18 - 11:10pm


    I was active in politics in my early teens so at that time !

    A few terrible people no more make the reputation of a party than a few crooks do a nation !

    The people I mention are not friends or colleagues, I know , they are the good people of politics I and all of us admire.

    They were many then and some are yet.

  • Neil Sandison 21st Feb '18 - 10:44am

    David Warren .Good piece on SDP .remember Shirley Williams coming to Warwick and being mobbed by shoppers who couldnt wait to speak to her and bless her she tried to respond to every question .But the experience of that period proves how hard it is to break FPTP without the support of one of the establishment parties .We are the modern suffragettes of our time.We should look to build new alliances with the Greens ,Renew and the Womens Equality Party .a new progressive coalition that will in turn pull the the centre of both Labour and the Conservatives towards us. Being holier than thou and purest as some would like us to be cul-de sac of isolation when the Liberal Democrats need to demonstrate our commitment to liberty ,equality and community.

  • I joined the SDP as soon as it was formed. They were indeed heady days. It is surprising how many active Lib Dems I meet in Wales who were SDP before supporting the merger. I still have an SDP mug commemorating a visit by Roy Jenkins to a conference in Llandrindod Wells. The Liberals were a much stronger campaigning force but the SDP brought discipline and planning to the running of the merged party.
    With only 1,000 supporters, we don’t know if Renew will actually take off as a force (and I doubt if they will). If they do and are serious about the EU they will not stand in Lib Dem target seats or in areas where we have strength on the ground. If they stand in such seats they are a “spoiler” party being set up by Brexiteers to split the pro-EU vote.

  • Richard Underhill 20th Feb ’18 – 6:10 pm
    Not sure what your point is here. Charles was a member of the SDP and won Ross, Cromarty and Skye standing as an SDP candidate against the Conservative MP from the old seat Ross & Cromarty in 1983. He didn’t defect as an MP, but he did win it from scratch (the Libs were 4th in 1979). And to my mind he was the best leader we have ever had.

  • Sue Sutherland 21st Feb '18 - 1:35pm

    David I don’t think you cover that part of the history of the Lib/SDP Alliance which reminds me most of the position we are in now. That is when the Alliance broke up and we were very unpopular for a few years. The merger itself was a time of great emotional distress for many, particularly in the Liberal party because of its long history. I can remember wondering what to do at that time and realising that I was, politically, in a family that I belonged with and I still believe that today.
    I am emphasising that low period because we achieved great things afterwards with more MPs than we had had for a great many years. Of course we can do it again, with even more success.

  • My memories of the SDP are probably a bit lopsided since I regard negotiating South Yorkshire parliamentary seat allocations as the worst night of my political life!
    In the SDP there were some liberal instincts rising to the surface in different places (as in the Labour Party actually) which eventually could be recognised in the merged party. There were also some dubious attitudes from ex-Labour MPs pitching for survival. At the time of the breakaway I noticed some interesting ways in which the “Left” within the Labour Party mirrored the “Right” in terms of intolerance, arrogance and authoritarianism. If the Labour Party were to split (unlikely any time soon) then Liberal Democrats should avoid over-simple responses.

  • David Allen 21st Feb '18 - 7:49pm

    Nobody ever thought Michael Foot was an electable party leader, until he was. Nobody ever thought Jeremy Corbyn was an electable party leader, until he was. The similarities – dogmatically principled, old-fashioned, impervious to style, quietly and politely forthright – are remarkable. Perhaps there is a certain archetypal personality which people identify (disastrously?) with “Leadership”? Perhaps it is the archetype which Jacob Rees-Mogg is now cultivating, hopefully to no effect?

  • markfairclough 21st Feb '18 - 8:05pm

    @Geoff Reid3, in 1983 I was member of SDP in Barnsley & of the 3 seats we had then in the Barnsley borough both sides of the Alliance fought the wrong seats .
    There is still an SDP in existence with a website, they are pro brexit though.

  • John Marriott 22nd Feb '18 - 9:22am

    And finally……What if David Owen’s fag end SDP hadn’t fielded a strong local candidate against the newly formed Social and Liberal Democratic Party in the 1989 Richmond (Yorks) By Election? Perhaps the winner would not have been a certain William Jefferson Hague!

  • In fairness, the Owenite SDP actually beat us in that by election in Richmond – by virtue of a very popular local candidate. It was technically we LibDems who split the vote!
    Had he lost, Hague would of course have got another seat. Or he’d have fought Richmond again and won it. He was on the fast track ever since he made that famous speech as a teen at the Tory conference in the 70s.

  • David Evans 22nd Feb '18 - 4:33pm

    Indeed Tony. Richmond was the most winnable seat in the whole country for the Owenites and it was essential that we stopped them dead. If not the momentum they would have gained could have led to them starting to win and our recovery might have been stopped dead. I was proud to be there at the time and the fact that our vote largely held up meant that the Conservative share of the vote fell from 61% to 37%. But as John implies, a Lib Dem gain would have been better.

  • And Barbara Pearce would have been an excellent Lib Dem MP. I spent some of my holiday time campaigning in Richmond for her at the time but only ever met her in very recent years when we have worked together on the East Midlands Regional Executive. A wonderful individual and one of the many unsung stalwarts who havenever received the recognition and thanks they deserved.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Feb '18 - 11:39pm


    I mention Barbara on this thread here, you may see it , and often pay her the respect online she deserves, one of the best this party has, and ex SDP herself !

    She was considered for a peerage but like much in politics the best often unsung more than lesser ones.

    True in the performing arts these days alas sometimes too !

  • David Warren 24th Feb '18 - 2:19pm

    What a healthy debate.

    Thanks for all the comments everyone.

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