The reason Tim Farron didn’t vote for merger

Ten years ago, the lib dem blogfather Jonathan Calder wrote an article for the New Statesman about the party’s first 20 years.

But if Liberal enthusiasts for merger were to have their hopes crushed, Liberal sceptics were to be confounded too. There were many who feared the new party would see Liberalism submerged within Social Democracy or junked in an enthusiasm for all things new.

He shared it on Twitter yesterday, saying that he had been one of the Liberal Party members who had opposed the merger.

His tweet prompted a confession from Tim Farron:

I actually came to the new party from the SDP. I had been very much in favour of merger and told Bob Maclennan so in no uncertain terms on the day after the disappointing 1987 election.

In truth, I was actually more of a Liberal. I didn’t have much patience with the SDP’s obsession with NATO and nuclear weapons. However, the average age of the Liberals in Caithness at the time was about 90 and the SDP were a much sprightlier middle aged bunch, and I had huge respect for Bob’s courage in leaving the Labour Party.

But none of that stuff matters now. We are all Liberal Democrats fighting for our common values and when we disagree with each other, as we often passionately do, which party we came from has been irrelevant for a very long time – especially as so many of our members joined the Lib Dems first.

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

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Gordon Lishman 4th Mar '18 - 9:36am

    I voted against merger in Blackpool and, indeed, spoke against it. I then spent quite a lot of time and energy working to keep liberals in the new party as well as helping ALDC (as it became) to come to terms with merger and maintain our momentum.
    The big lesson from the 1980-87 period is the massive waste of energy and potential arising from the Steel/Williams decision to create a separate party (the SDP) and then an Alliance.
    If we could instead have created a “new” Liberal Parry or, indeed, the Liberal Democrats as a single Party, we would have been much stronger.
    The lesson for now is that we need to manage any break-up of the UK Party system so that we are at the core of the new progressive party rather than standing aloof and then trying to negotiate with new parties.
    Crucially, that requires self-confidence in our liberalism as the driving-force of the new politics – which is what some of us lacked in 1987. In the event, there’s no doubt that the Liberal Democrats is a Liberal Party in the UK social liberal tradition. That’s worth remembering over the next few years.

  • John Marriott 4th Mar '18 - 9:54am

    Like Caron I was also a member of the SDP. Actually, I think I stayed in both parties having joined the SDP as well When Lincoln was designated an SDP seat for the 1983 General Election. Most Liberal Party members preferred to help elsewhere, in Gainsborough, for example, which was Liberal domain.

    The merger made sense to me, although following the somewhat disappointing election result in ‘87 and fearing that Owen would outmuscle Steel (remember those ‘Spitting Image’ puppets), I wondered whether personalities would dictate the direction of travel. Well, we all know what happened. ‘Little’ David slew Goliath, or was it just plain hubris?

    With my tongue firmly in my cheek what I would say about Tim Farron’s ‘confession’ is that it might just cast a smidgen of doubt about the suitability of allowing 16 year olds to vote! To be fair, when I was his age then, I wouldn’t have even been a member of a political party to have to make that choice!

  • Kay Kirkham 4th Mar '18 - 11:45am

    I have great respect for Gordon and also worked on the ASDC/ALC merger but I think he is a bit guilty of wishing for something that would not actually have happened. Creating the SDP was a necessary step towards what became the Liberal Democrats ( via the Alliance and the SaLaDS but lets not go there!) What may have look now like a waste of time probably had to happen and didn’t actually stop us getting on with the job and winning elections. On Teesside where I was at the time we went from one Liberal Councillor on one district council to several larger district groups and a council group of 12.

  • Mick Taylor 4th Mar '18 - 1:41pm

    I too voted against merger and I agree with Gordon. I did actually lobby Shirley Williams to join the Liberals and we had some correspondence on the topic. Like Gordon I believe the creation of the SDP ultimately prevented us from winning larger numbers of seats for several years, because we spent time and energy deciding who should do what and far too little time selling our message. I lost the council seat I had held for 12 years largely because of the merger, because many former Labour supporters of mine went back to Labour because we had formed an alliance with ‘traitors’.
    Where I live there was almost zero friction between the two parties but nevertheless our vote suffered.
    Hindsight is of course a perfect science. We are where we are now not because of the merger but because of decisions we have made as a single party since.
    We need to look forward and work on being a radical party with the real solutions to the UKs problems.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 4th Mar '18 - 1:43pm

    As I did not realise Caron was SDP, that’s to her credit.

    Gordon is excellent but wrong in my view , Kay correct.

    I was a teenage Labour anti militant and liked and respected the SDP, Liberals, but the impact would not have been possible without that realignment.

    The Liberals had realised this at top level, aSteel leadership was very sensibly aware the oomph , was with a new party.

    A lot of purist tripe is felt in every party, the greatness of Liberal parties is their flexibility ideologically.

    And yet many Liberals think it a philosophy that is left only or even libertarian, nearly.

    Most Liberals and moderate social democrats are cousins, brothers , sisters.

    It is marvellous to see Tim at that or any age had his priorities completely right.

    He emphasised personal feeling and rights of expression, over poltical ideology and group activity!

  • Peter Watson 4th Mar '18 - 2:40pm

    What I remember most from that time is getting cross about the palaver over naming the merged party. FWIW I fancied something like “The Alliance Party of Liberals and Social Democrats” and then ignoring the second half by emphasising the “Alliance” since that had become something of a brand.

  • Laurence Cox 4th Mar '18 - 8:17pm

    Had David Steel accepted Roy Jenkins’ wish to join the Liberal Party instead of encouraging him to set up the SDP, then he would have brought very few Labour supporters (and probably no other Labour MPs) with him. At that time Roy Jenkins had been out of British politics for several years as President of the European Commission. The strength of the SDP was that it was a new party lacking existing political baggage and, as a result, had the same sort of boost that we have seen from Momentum in the Labour party. Had it not been for the accident of the Falklands War which our military turned into a great sucess for Thatcher, she could very well have been a one-term PM.

    For Gordon Lishman to disparage the SDP as he does, shows that tribalism is still alive amongst those Old Liberals who did not support merger. I saw this at first hand in Harrow at the time of the merger, where Dick Haines (who Gordon Lishman will probably remember) led the Liberals against merger. Those were the days when the Liberal party in Harrow had no less than three power centres that were often feuding with each other, so merger was just another cause for feuds. The SDP was organised on a borough basis, but it took a number of years to convince the local Liberals that the merged party should be organised on a borough rather than a constituency basis. That caused duplication of effort which certainly impaired campaigning in the early years.

  • Neil Sandison 4th Mar '18 - 9:21pm

    30 years of development of a political movement is hardly a single page in history. This party has far to go and grow .As long as we remember the preamble to our constitution and are not seduced by the power for powers sake represented by the Tories and Labour then when the public become sick of polarised politics we should have a coherent movement they will turn too.Stop wasting time on the past lets build that radical ,distinctive movement for the future.

  • The setting up of the SDP was probably necessary in that it did attract Labour supporters across – but I wonder what would have happened had the parties merged in 1983 after the election, rather than waiting four more years to start the process? Given the relative electoral strength – 24% vote share – could it have been possible to push on from that without the divisiveness that followed, thanks mainly to Owen?

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