Review: Turning Point: Unscripted Reflections by Steve Richards – The formation of the SDP

Thanks to my friend Neil for drawing this one to my attention. Steve Richards has done a series of reflections on the big turning points in our politics over the last 40 years, from the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister to the 2017 election.

The second in the series concerns the formation of the SDP, when 4 former Labour Cabinet ministers left Labour over that party’s adoption of an anti European, pro nuclear disarmament platform along with internal reforms that gave more power to members and trade unions.

Richards makes the important point that if you are going to form a new party, you can’t just be against stuff. You have to have an agenda. He points out that the SDP had a definite left of centre vision that involved redistribution of wealth, high public spending  and definitely internationalist.

He observed that the party got masses of media coverage because they had credibility as well as novelty.

David Steel’s role in encouraging the formation of a new party rather than just having Labour people joining the Liberals was also highlighted as an early positive.

Richards says despite all of this, there were “impossible hurdles” for the party to overcome.

First of all, the Labour Party was never going to disappear. They were too well resourced.

Secondly, they didn’t attract those on the left of the Conservatives.

Thirdly, the tensions between David Owen and the Liberals were eventually to prove insurmountable. Even without that, the seat negotiations caused all sorts of problems. The lack of clarity and confidence of leadership in the 1983 election campaign and doubts about Jenkins’ ability to connect with voters was cited as a factor in the worse than expected performance.

The lack of any personal or political chemistry between Steel and Owen meant that there was only a downward trajectory for the Alliance after that and meant that merger was inevitable after 1987. I remember being really annoyed with Owen for squandering such a valuable opportunity when the real enemy was actually the Conservative Party and all they were doing.

The four years between 1983 and 1987 showed me that I had much more in common with the Liberal Party than with the SDP. I’d joined the SDP in Wick on my 16th birthday in 1983 more because their average age, at fifty-something, was closer to mine than the Liberals were. However, being anti nuclear power and anti nuclear weapons in a constituency that had a nuclear power plant that employed a lot of people was not the best fit.

Richards was also talking about how the SDP pursed this left of centre agenda. For me, there were great ideas around industrial democracy and employee ownership and redistribution, but the SDP was always a bit too right wing for me to be comfortable with. My heart was always more with the Liberals and I could never have contemplated sticking with Owen’s faction.

It’s hard to imagine, though, that David Owen, who left the Labour Party over Europe and nuclear weapons is now donating to Corbyn’s Labour Party.

I will definitely watch some more of these programmes. You can see them all here. 


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • paul barker 3rd Jun '18 - 2:05pm

    This is one of those Historical episodes where the Myth is more important than the facts. The Myth : that The SDP failed, thus “proving” that Splits from Major Parties cant work is dear to Labour Centrists, absolving them from any responsibility to do anything but whinge.
    In reality, The Alliance came very close to getting more Votes than Labour in the “Khaki” Election of 1983, held in the aftermath of The Falklands War. Without the Argentine Invasion of The Falklands History might have turned out very different.
    Right now the Labour Leadership strategy of slowly wearing down The Centrists (without provoking a split) is working well.

  • I’d be curious to know if you were around at the time, Mr Barker .

    I most certainly was and watched the SDP blow a clear lead in the Darlington by-election in March 1983 (long after the Falklands War) by their own inept campaign. Could you remind us how many seats the parties got in 1983 ?

    Ps it was most certainly not a Khaki election and I’ve still got my1983 election address in neighbouring Richmond, Yorks to prove it. The SDP were most difficult to deal with and had a strong flavour of the right wing early Blair policies about them as well as a conviction that they always new best. Our stance was for more USA new deal social economics to get the economy moving again and to tackle the Thatcher wasteland. Michael Foot bless him was an easier target that Mr Corbyn.

  • I was very much around at the time as a founder member of the SDP after leaving the Labour Party over Europe and proportional representation. I happily worked to get Alex Carlile elected as a Liberal in 1983 and 1987, as did other former SDP members, and supported the merger afterwards. As far as I am concerned the Liberals brought members and drive to the new party at the local level but the SDP brought improved organisational skills and discipline at HQ level.

    David Owen let us down by trying to carry on with a “continuing SDP” after democratic votes by the SDP at the Portsmouth (to open negotiations) and Sheffield (to merge) conferences. I recall watching him follow the Portsmouth debate from an upstairs doorway. The Sheffield conference was where I first met Charles Kennedy

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Jun '18 - 4:48pm

    When the SDP was founded, its intention was to become a replacement for Labour, taking the majority of Labour votes and turning Labour into a small irrelevant party. Almost immediately it failed to do that, it attracted a lot of people who had not been politically committed, and only a small portion of Labour. The next problem was that it failed to realise the extent to which the Liberal Party had already built up to be a successful alternative party in many parts of the country. The devolved nature of the Liberal Party meant there wasn’t much in the way of national reporting of its local activity and success, and so it didn’t get the recognition it deserved. When the SDP started demanding “a share of winnable seats” that was an admission that it wasn’t going to win Labour-held seats, and a request in fact that it should be given seats that had become winnable due to Liberal Party activity in them – a source of great resentment to those who had pushed up the Liberal Party in those seats.

    When Barry Long writes “the SDP brought improved organisational skills and discipline at HQ level”, well, we can see where that led to. The failure of the party from 2010 onwards precisely because it had an arrogant leadership who wanted to control everything and ignored the sense and information coming from grassroots activists. The Coalition was always going to be difficult, but The Leader did almost everything that those of us who were aware of how we won votes and how coalitions at local level work out tried to tell him would be the worst things to do.

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