Tag Archives: SDP

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.

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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.

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350 years of Liberal history in 32 pages

If you want to read a short summary of the last 350 years of Liberal politics in Britain, the Liberal Democrat History Group has just the thing for you – a new edition of our booklet Liberal History: A Concise History of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats.

This is designed as a comprehensive but relatively short (about 10,000 words) summary of Liberal, SDP and Liberal Democrat history for readers wanting more detail than they can find on the party website, but less than a full book. We produced the booklet originally in 2005, and we’ve revised it twice since; this edition is up to date as of summer 2016.

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Party like it’s 1981

Imagine that, alongside Michael Foot as leader, Tony Benn had won the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 1981; it almost happened. Would the creation of the SDP then seem wrong even to Labour loyalists and even today? There is certainly a view within the Labour Party, shared with The Guardian editorial writers, that a way must be found to keep the current party together rather than face the alternative: “No one who remembers or knows about past divisions, notably the breakaway of the Social Democratic party in 1981, should want a return to that.”

The argument runs that the SDP split the Left, enabling Thatcherism to run riot in the Eighties without a strong, electable opposition. With many moderates leaving Labour, the hard Left almost triumphed and Neil Kinnock needed a monumental effort of will to turn the party around into something more, though still not quite, electable.

This line of reasoning is obviously flawed. In the Eighties, Benn did not defeat either Denis Healey for the deputy leadership or Kinnock for the leadership. Jeremy Corbyn (Foot without the charisma) and the hard Left already control the Labour Party. Good luck to Owen Smith trying to do a Kinnock, but if, as seems likely, he fails, what then? The Guardian suggests that the answer is Shadow Cabinet elections.

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David Owen – remember him?

William Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins & David Owen with funds from SDP supporters, Feb 1981

Some of us were members of the SDP and recall still the various reasons why this new political party was created – not least to combat the anti-European mood which then gripped Labour (the Conservatives were largely fine on the issue. The irony…)

Six years later, Owen refused to accept the will of his own Party to merge with the Liberals. He pretended for a while that the majority who joined the merged party had somehow ‘left’ the SDP and he could therefore continue as Leader of the much reduced force. He finally killed it off when it was overtaken by the Monster Raving Loony Party in a by-election in Bootle.

Since then he has floated around the political scene, with sporadic not terribly perceptive interventions on Radio 4 as a ‘former Foreign Secretary’ and the occasional advice to his imagined followers to vote this or that way in General Elections.

So it comes as no surprise that he is reduced to appearing in the Sun urging people to trash their future by voting for Brexit.

His arguments are thin to say the least. For example this insight:

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Dick Newby writes….Limehouse at 35

2016-01-20 13.51.09

35 years on from the Limehouse Declaration and the launch of the SDP it’s easy to see the similarities. We have a Labour Party with a very left wing leader pushing ideologically driven policies and zero prospect of winning the next election. And we have a Conservative Party which is pursuing harsh economic policies at home and is split down the middle over the UK’s relationship with the EU.

But if there are similarities with 1981 there are even more differences. Britain is now a very different place socially and economically. It is much more ethnically diverse, particularly in the large cities. It is far less deferential and far fewer people have a strong party loyalty. It is also much more affluent – the average household is now earns twice as much as it did in 1981 – and unemployment and inflation are both much lower.

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Opinion: What’s in a name ?

 

Having recently finished reading a biography of Charles Kennedy, which covered the merger of the Liberal Party and SDP in detail, I pondered for some time on the controversy surrounding the names and philosophy of political parties.

In the late 1980s the Social and Liberal Democrats or SLD were lampooned as the Salads, the use of the shorter Democrats was unpopular because it omitted the word liberal, so we ended up with the Liberal Democrats – a title that is now long established.

If you look beyond the UK though, the confusion really begins.

Posted in Op-eds | Also tagged | 66 Comments

Ukip examined: who they are, what they stand for, and what it all means for British politics

revolt on the right ukipI’ve just finished reading Revolt on the Right, Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin’s fascinating book analysing the rise of Ukip and what makes the party and its voters tick. Mark Pack has already written a very good review for LibDemVoice here. Here’s my take on some of its key insights.

Who votes for Ukip? The ‘left behind’

For a start, it debunks the myth that Ukip is a party of disaffected, well-to-do, shire-Tories obsessed by Europe and upset by David Cameron’s mild social liberalism on same-sex marriage. Yes, there are some Ukip voters like that, but they tend to be its peripheral voters, the ones most likely to give the Tories a kick in the Euros next month then return to their traditional True Blue ways in time for the general election. Ukip’s core vote in reality is made up of what the authors define as ‘left behind’ voters, overwhelmingly comprising older white working class males with no formal educational qualifications.

Posted in Books and Op-eds | Also tagged , , , , and | 85 Comments

“It was a tough battle” – Shirley Williams on the birth of the SDP

Shirley Williams tells the story of the 1981 Gang of Four breakaway, which eventually led to the formation of the Liberal Democrats, in the first issue of AD LIB magazine, out next week.

“…we said, if we haven’t got anywhere else to go, we’ll create one.”

Those nascent views crystallised after the party’s 1981 Wembley conference which committed it to unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the EEC and NATO. Within hours Williams, Owen and Rodgers were drawing up the plans which would lead to the creation of the SDP.

“The three of us met – not Roy, at that point –

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Opinion: Why are we waiting?

We have played the waiting game before. It didn’t work in the 1980s, and it won’t work now.

In the 1983 Election, the Alliance reached a high water mark with a 26% vote. But there was discord. The Liberals, who won most seats, felt they should take the lead. The SDP, with their heavyweight experience, saw things differently. Problems grew when Owen took over, refused to collaborate properly, and set out to undermine theAlliancefrom within. A stalemate developed, and a waiting game began.

The Alliance announced to a stunned public that two-headed leadership was the new future. Their slogan “Not Left, Not …

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Thatcher papers show 25 Tory MPs considered joining early SDP

A number of things hit the headlines this morning as the Margaret Thatcher Foundation reveals papers from 1981.

The early morning BBC radio headlines focussed on a meeting between Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch around the time News International acquired:

Margaret Thatcher had a secret meeting with Rupert Murdoch at Chequers weeks before his 1981 purchase of the Times newspapers, newly released files show.

A note by her press secretary Bernard Ingham says the prime minister thanked Mr Murdoch for “keeping her posted”.

But the contentious issue of whether to refer the bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission was not raised.

But as …

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Revealed: The Liberal Democrats’ new HQ

Great George Street SW1

The Liberal Democrats plan to relocate this summer to a new headquarters in Westminster, close to Whitehall and the Houses of Parliament.

The party has chosen newly-refurbished offices on the second floor at 8-10 Great George Street, opposite the Treasury.

Party staff can look forward to a modern, open-plan office on one floor, in contrast to the current Cowley Street offices – which are arranged over five floors, in an array of dolls’-house type compartments.

At around 7000 square feet, the floor area is …

Posted in News and Party policy and internal matters | Also tagged , , and | 29 Comments

Who are the heirs of the SDP?

Today (March 26th) is the 30th anniversary of the founding of the SDP. To mark the occasion last Monday CentreForum organised a discussion “the Class of 81: Who are the true heirs of the SDP? with leading former SDP members, Chris Huhne , Greg Clark (Tory Decentralisation Minister) and Andrew Adonis (Labour’s former Transport and Schools Minister) on the panel. In the audience were Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams, members of Roy Jenkins’ family, countless former SDP members as well as a good few ”political anoraks”.

It was an evening of reminiscing, “what ifs”, analysis, historical reflection and a few amusing ironies. …

Posted in Op-eds | 23 Comments

Today’s the anniversary of the Limehouse Declaration

On 25 January 1981, four senior Labour politicians – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams – issued the Limehouse Declaration, so called after David Owen’s East London home. It set out their plans which were to result in the formation of the SDP. As you can see, many of their policy concerns are still highly relevant:

Posted in Op-eds | Also tagged | 53 Comments

Opinion: pots and kettles – names and games and a journey towards political maturity

Michael Collins, a lecturer in twentieth century British history at UCL, has predicted at Open Democracy–Tuition fees just the beginning of Lib Dem troubles that the “SDP contingent” in the Liberal Democrats faces an existential battle with “coalition Liberals” over the future of the party.

Collins’ fantasy Lib Dem politics isn’t very convincing but there are a growing number of matching accounts, which mirror his portrayal of Liberal Democrat division, include accusations of unprincipled behaviour and go on to predict the party’s demise. It seems reasonable to respond to Collins’ account of ‘Lib Dem troubles’ with a little history and …

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Daily View 2×2: 26 March 2010

Time flies – Friday already! And is it really 29 years to the day that the Gang of Four launched a new political party: the Social Democrats?

Roy Jenkins said at the launch:

We want to get away from the politics of our dated dogmatism and class confrontation. We want to release the energies of people who are fed up with the old slanging match.

Watch the video of the launch here.

2 Big Stories

Digital economy bill to be pushed through parliament next month

The controversial digital economy bill will be pushed through in the “wash-up” leading up to an election, after the government confirmed that it will receive its second reading in the Commons on 6 April – the same day that Gordon Brown is expected to seek Parliament’s dissolution.

Harriet Harman, the leader of the house, said today that the bill will get its second reading. But when questioned by Labour MPs Neil Gerrard and Tom Watson about the lack of time given to debate over controversial issues in the bill, she said only that “ministers are aware” of the strong feelings that the proposed legislation has engendered.

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YouTube ‘cos we want to: an SDP special

If the SDP had lived on*, 2009 would have marked its 18th** 28th birthday – which spurious segue is all the excuse we need to dust off three video clips tracing its rise and fall.

Let’s begin at the beginning, with the explosion of the ‘Gang of Four’ – Roy, David, Shirley and Bill – onto the scene, here holding their first press conference in March 1981:

For a year or more it really did seem as if the SDP might truly break the mould of British politics. But the party was shattered by the results of the June 1983 general election, winning only six seats. Here’s the start of the BBC’s election night results programme.

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Are there more ex-SDP members on the Tory front-bench than the Lib Dem front-bench?

Danny Finkelstein asks the question over at The Times’s Comment Central here. Scores on the doors (allegedly) so far show it to be a draw…

Tory shadow cabinet ex-SDPers: Greg Clark, Chris Grayling, Andrew Lansley and David Mundell.
Lib Dem shadow cabinet ex-SDPers: Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, Tom McNally and Paul Burstow

Or can LDV readers point out more…?

Posted in Humour and News | Also tagged , , , , , and | 13 Comments
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  • User AvatarAlex Macfie 25th Sep - 8:32pm
    Yes, take away the areas we gained and we made no gains at all. Funny that.
  • User AvatarIan 25th Sep - 8:15pm
    Take away Remain-central SW London and South Cambs and we made no gains in the local elections at all. It was right that made the...
  • User AvatarAlex Macfie 25th Sep - 8:14pm
    Michael 1: You write "[Clegg] had a very good 2010 election campaign" I disagree. We should NOT have lost seats to Labour in 2010. Simple...
  • User AvatarTonyH 25th Sep - 7:31pm
    @OnceaLibDem, I'm sure people worked very hard in lots of areas, and I don't know why some didn't get the results they wanted. I do...
  • User AvatarOnceALibDem 25th Sep - 7:27pm
    @Paul Holmes "Others have already made the point that policies such as PR and Votes at 16 will not win elections. I agree with both...
  • User AvatarOnceALibDem 25th Sep - 7:19pm
    "Clearly there are always many factors." Indeed. However what TonyH said was "you... have proved there is no great secret." which are two very different...