Today marks 37 years since the Gang of Four broke away from the Labour Party to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP shook up British politics, and later merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats.
A dominant Conservative government and a Labour Party veering off to the left, leaving the internationalist centre ground relatively vacant. Sound familiar? Though history doesn’t repeat itself, it often rhymes. The politics of the late 1970s and 1980s, superficially at least, echoes a lot of today’s situation.
It was in the context above that four former Labour ministers – Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, and Bill Rodgers– decided to quit the Labour Party. The Labour Party at the time was increasingly under hard-left influence, and committed to withdrawal from the European Economic Community, leaving many of its MPs disillusioned. At the same time, Margaret Thatcher’s government was pushing through a radical agenda, rolling back the welfare state, leaving many in the country dissatisfied and struggling.
The SDP breathed new life into the UK’s political debate. In their Declaration they espoused many of the principles that ‘radical centrists’ would recognise and gush at today. A commitment to an open and international minded Britain; a belief in the role of the state and the markets; and a commitment to real political reform.
The Gang of Four (who were also joined by 28 Labour MPs and one Conservative MP) were mighty impressive in their own right, let alone as a team. Shirley Williams was Secretary of State for Education and Science. Bill Rodgers was a Secretary of State for Transport. David Owen was a Foreign Secretary. And Roy Jenkins as served as both Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary and was largely response for the decriminalisation of abortion and homosexuality. The “permissive society” he said was in fact the “civilised society”.
The SDP went from strength to strength in by-elections. At one point in late 198s the party was polling at 50% in certain polls – unthinkable for a third party. However this success was interrupted by the Falklands War, which saw Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party jump from third to first place in the polls.
The First Past The Post system of British politics is notoriously hard for new entrants to crack. 25% in the polls won’t necessarily translate into 25% of seats. Acknowledging this – and their shared values and views – the SDP and Liberal Party agreed to form an electoral alliance in 1983. In the 1983 General Election the Alliance secured 25% of the national vote (just 3% behind Labour), but only captured 23 Parliamentary Seats.
In 1998 this relationship went a step further: the parties merged to form the Liberal Democrats. With over 100,000 members – we are now the second largest party in British politics.
On Tuesday Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats celebrated the anniversary of the Limehouse Delaration with our annual dinner, just across the road from the scene of the declaration. Elaine Bagshaw, Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Spokesperson for Poplar and Limehouse, said recently “if you think you can’t make a difference, four people started a movement which is now the second biggest political party in the country”.
The British centre currently feels unrepresented by the two dominant parties. As the successors to the SDP and their vision for an open and free Britiain – that’s our job.
Join the Liberal Democrats today at libdems.org.uk/join.