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SDP-Liberal Alliance


SDP-Liberal Alliance

SDP-Liberal Alliance
Founded 16 June 1981
Dissolved 3 March 1988 (merged into
the Liberal Democrats)
Ideology Centrism,
Social liberalism,[1][2]
Social democracy,
Colours Orange, Black
Politics of the United Kingdom
Political parties

The SDP–Liberal Alliance was a centrist[3] electoral pact formed by the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Liberal Party in the United Kingdom which was in existence from 1981 to 1988, when the bulk of the two parties merged to form the Social and Liberal Democrats, later referred to as simply the Liberal Democrats.

Following the establishment of the SDP by the 'Gang of Four' (Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams), who had left the Labour Party in March 1981, the new party entered into an informal alliance with the existing centre party, the Liberals, led by David Steel. The SDP fought its first by-election, in Warrington, with future leader Roy Jenkins standing as "SDP with Liberal support".

On 16 June 1981, this arrangement was formalised into an alliance, with both parties agreeing to stand down in each other's favour. Between 1981 and 1983, the parties together won seats in by-elections in:

The formation of the SDP and the subsequent alliance came at a time when the British economy was in a deep recession and Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government was proving deeply unpopular as unemployment had risen from just over 1,500,000 since they came to power in May 1979 to 3,000,000 and beyond by 1982, mainly due to the closure of many factories as part of the battle against inflation.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party had shifted dramatically to the left since the election in 1980 of Michael Foot as party leader, and as much as Mrs Thatcher's Conservative government was controversial, many people were just as opposed to the election of a Labour government led by Michael Foot.

With an election not due until May 1984, the Alliance proved to be an instant hit with voters who were disgruntled with the Conservatives and Labour, as many opinion polls in late 1981 and early 1982 showed the Alliance as the most popular political party in Britain, peaking with a 50% showing - up to twice the level on support shown for the Conservatives around this time.[4] Also in 1981, David Steel was so confident in an Alliance victory that during his address the Liberal Party conference, he famously used the phrase: "Go back to your constituencies, and prepare for government!"[5]

However, a series of events followed which saw the political tables turn. Argentine forces invaded the British dependent territory of the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982. A Security Council Resolution 502 was passed the next day demanding an immediate Argentine withdraw, which was ignored, so Britain sent out a task force to recapture the islands using militarily means if need be. The conflict was won by Britain on 14 June, and subsequent opinion polls showed the Conservatives firmly in the lead, and with a general election due by May 1984, it seemed that the most anticipated outcome would be whether the Alliance or Labour formed the next opposition. A Conservative election win was looking even more likely as 1982 drew to a close, as Mrs Thatcher's economic policies were proven to be successful as the recession came to an end and inflation had been cut to 4% from a massive 27% within four years, although unemployment remained above 3,000,000. She felt confident enough to hold an election in June 1983 - a year earlier than necessary.[6]

The Alliance exploited the nation's mass unemployment in the run-up to the election, running a "Working Together for Britain" campaign which it promised would see unemployment reduced by up to 1,000,000.[7]

The Alliance won 25.4% of the national vote in the 1983 general election, compared to Labour's 27.6%. However, a mere 23 Alliance Members of Parliament (MPs) were elected, compared to Labour's 209. The SDP came second in many constituencies, including nearly 70% of the Conservative-won seats, though the bulk of Labour's defectors to the SDP in 1981 lost their seats, but Britain's first past the post electoral system meant that this success did not translate into parliamentary seats. This split in the vote enabled the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher to win the election by a landslide.[8]

Both the SDP and the Liberal party were committed to proportional representation, under which system they would have elected more MPs to the House of Commons.

The Alliance came under heavy criticism from the defeated Labour Party leader Michael Foot in the aftermath of the 1983 election; he condemned them for "siphoning" support away from the Labour Party and enabling the Conservatives to win more seats.[9]

The 1983 general election had given the Conservatives a triple-digit commons majority, but within months a strong challenge to their power - and to the challenge posed by the Alliance - was showing as Labour leader Michael Foot stepped down and was succeeded by Neil Kinnock, whose modernisation of the party saw a dramatic rise in Labour fortunes in the opinion polls - some of which showed them ahead of the Conservatives and the Alliance by March 1984. However, at least one opinion poll showed the Alliance ahead of the Conservatives and Labour as late as September 1985. By this stage, the recession had ended three years earlier and the battle against inflation had clearly been won; however unemployment - seen as a major factor in a string of inner city riots that autumn - was still above 3,000,000. With the economy further improving over the next 18 months and unemployment finally starting to fall, however, Thatcher felt confident to call a general election for 11 June 1987 - although the deadline for the election was 12 months later.[10]

However, the Alliance failed to maintain momentum. In the 1987 general election, the share of the vote for each party fell slightly; the Liberals won 17 seats (the same as in 1983), while the SDP won five (one fewer than four years previously), while Labour were firmly established as Britain's second political party with a much stronger showing than in 1983, although the Conservatives still achieved a third successive election win with Mrs Thatcher still at the helm.

By 1987, relations had become fraught. David Steel proposed a merger of the two parties in following the 1987 general election. The majority of both parties agreed, and a merger was effected early in 1988.

Small factions of both parties established new parties under the names of the SDP and the Liberal Party but, as each was made up of those members who least trusted the other party, there was no chance that the two 'continuing' parties would co-operate.

The SDP was re-established under the leadership of one of the founders of the SDP, David Owen, who had objected to the merger of the two parties. (See : Social Democratic Party (UK, 1988).) Owen and the party's national executive dissolved the party in 1990, but another group of party members continue the party under the SDP name. (See : Social Democratic Party (UK, 1990).)

The Liberal Party was re-established under the leadership of Michael Meadowcroft, and continues to operate. However, many members of this continuity party, including Meadowcroft himself, have since joined the mainstream Liberal Democrats. (See: Liberal Party (UK, 1989).)

See also


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