In retrospect, it was inevitably destined to fail in its original incarnation; it was a fragile four-way partnership from the beginning. Like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recording one landmark LP before internal conflict ceased to inspire creativity, competing egos scuppered any chances of long-term success. But hopes were certainly high in some quarters 35 years ago today, when Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers issued the Limehouse Declaration, a media event that confirmed the Gang of Four’s split from Labour and the formation of a new centre-left political party, the SDP. Who can forget that logo – a post-punk graphic classic? Using the same font ‘Melody Maker’ was then employing as its masthead, it made an instant impact at a time when political parties weren’t branded as they are today. In its own small way, that logo said as much about the desire to break with British political tradition as the party’s policies. For a brief moment in 1981, some saw the birth of the Social Democratic Party as the light at the end of the gloomy tunnel the nation had been travelling through for far too long.
From the mid-70s onwards, there had been a series of defections from the Labour party – whether the likes of Dick Taverne and Eddie Milne standing against Labour candidates as independents, having been threatened with de-selection by their local branches as they were infiltrated by Trotskyites, or the likes of Christopher Mayhew and Lord Chalfont joining the Liberal cause – something that suggested Harold Wilson’s largely successful role at playing the pacifist parent keeping his warring offspring on the Left and the Right from engaging in ideological fisticuffs was not entirely effective. It was evident that trouble was brewing beneath the united front, and even the election of moderate Jim Callaghan as Wilson’s successor couldn’t prevent growing dissatisfaction from other moderates within the party over the increasing influence of the far Left. As the Tories took the country to the Right in the wake of the 1979 General Election, the appointment of Michael Foot as Labour leader was the last straw for the Gang of Four.
Despite the shaky start Margaret Thatcher made as Prime Minister – there were even rumours of a coup at one stage in 1981 – the Labour party was already regarded as unelectable; its move towards the far Left in the wake of the 1979 General Election defeat had been a disaster for Labour in popularity polls, with only its most loyal, diehard supporters sticking by Michael Foot, a principled and passionate politician, yes, but one utterly unsuitable for the task of leading the country. The public had blamed the industrial chaos of the late 70s on the more militant tendencies of the Left, and a Labour party still in thrall to the unions, led by a wild-haired eccentric who resembled a mad professor from a Children’s Film Foundation movie, was never going to be elected to office. The calamitous drubbing Labour received at the 1983 General Election had been forewarned by a quartet of Labour moderates stranded by the party’s lurch leftwards.
Jenkins, the avuncular old-timer, Owen, the suave matinée idol for the housewives, Williams, the bossy headmistress, and Rodgers, the Ringo of the band, were all former Labour Ministers who had become disillusioned with their party’s self-destructive policies and felt there was an unoccupied middle ground within British politics at a time when Labour and Conservative were positioned at ideologically-opposed extremes. Some still argue they bottled the challenge of wrestling control of Labour from Foot and Benn in a civil war they perhaps knew they could never win. But the formation of the Social Democratic Party, coming when Thatcher’s popularity was at her lowest ebb and Michael Foot was Public Enemy Number One in the eyes of the right-wing tabloid press, was generally well-received as breath of fresh air.
There were plenty floating voters around in 1981 whose faith in Labour and the Tories was waning after the two had swapped places over the past decade without any discernible improvement in the country’s fortunes, and they welcomed something different. Twenty-eight Labour MPs and one Tory eventually joined the SDP, and a series of by-election victories leading up to the 1983 General Election suggested the new party was a force to be reckoned with, achieving an opinion poll rating of 50% at one stage in 1981.
The arrival of the SDP had also been welcomed by several senior members of the Liberal Party, including their leader, David Steel; it was felt by many Liberals that the two parties were far more ideologically matched than the Liberals had been with Labour during the short-lived Lib-Lab Pact of 1977/78. Perhaps a partnership between the SDP and the Liberal party was inevitable, and the two entered into a mutually-beneficent union at the end of 1981 as the SDP-Liberal Alliance. Although their instant popularity received a knockback when Thatcher’s standing rose considerably in the wake of the Falklands War of 1982, at the 1983 General Election, the party polled 25% of the national vote – though the ‘first past the post’ British electoral system only resulted in 23 Alliance MPs being elected. They fared worse at the 1987 General Election, by which stage the party’s honeymoon period was long gone and Mrs Thatcher was at the peak of her powers.
A complete union between the SDP and the Liberals had long been mooted, but disputes over who should lead them, and growing ideological differences, continued to plague the two parties as the initial promise of the SDP appeared to have floundered in the eyes of voters. Splits within the SDP were compounded when they and the Liberals officially combined as the Liberal Democrats in 1988, a new party that drew most of its numbers from the SDP, yet was led by a former Liberal, Paddy Ashdown. SDP members who opposed the union, most prominently David Owen, staggered on before eventually disappearing from the mainstream political map in the late 1990s, whereas the Lib Dems gradually became the most significant third party in British politics for more than a generation, peaking with a tally of 62 seats at the 2005 General Election under Charles Kennedy.
Some have reduced the SDP to a footnote in British political history, buy there’s no doubt that the SDP proved to the ailing Labour party that it was possible to move towards the middle ground as the warring extremes of Left and Right began to turn many potential voters away from politics by the mid-80s. Labour’s own ideological shift started in earnest during the aftermath of the humiliating ’83 Election hammering, with the appointment of Neil Kinnock as party leader, the first step on the long and winding road to New Labour and power. 35 years on, with the Lib Dems reduced to eight measly MPs (even less than the Liberals had in 1981) and Labour again led by an old-school Socialist with his head in the clouds, could history repeat itself? If so, any breakaway from Labour would require the presence of figures with a little more clout than Chukka Umunna, Liz Kendall or Tristram Hunt. But there aren’t any.
© The Editor