Social Democratic Party (UK, 1988)


Social Democratic Party (UK, 1988)

:"This is about the UK Social Democratic Party which existed between 1988 and 1990. For other UK parties of this name see Social Democratic Party." Infobox Historic Political Party
party name= Social Democratic Party
party articletitle= Social Democratic Party (UK)
party
active= 1988 - 1990
ideology= Social Democracy
position= Centre left
international= Party of European Socialists
preceded by= Social Democratic Party
succeeded by= Social Democratic Party (1990-)
colours= Blue and Red
A Social Democratic Party was formed in the United Kingdom in 1981 by a group of dissident Labour Party Members of Parliament (MPs): Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams, who became known as the "Gang of Four".

The SDP soon formed an electoral alliance with the Liberal Party. In 1988, the SDP voted to merge with the Liberal Party. Former party leader David Owen, SDP MPs John Cartwright and Rosie Barnes, together with a minority of party members, decided to continue the Social Democratic Party.

Post-merger SDP

The post-merger SDP carried on with two major advantages over the Social & Liberal Democrats (later known as the Liberal Democrats). Firstly, they enjoyed the financial support of Lord Sainsbury, owner of the Sainsbury chain of supermarkets. Secondly, David Owen was a charismatic leader who looked and acted the part of a potential prime minister. The Liberal Democrats lacked a leader of this stature until the arrival of Paddy Ashdown. But despite an energetic tour of the nation's university campuses by Owen, the party remained very short of active members. A party conference held at Paisley Town Hall in 1989 was done behind closed doors to the general public to conceal the rows of empty seats. A shortage of members left the party exposed to electoral embarrassment if it stood in areas where there was a lack of activists to bring out the vote.

The SDP beat the other parties to second place behind William Hague in the Richmond by-election in 1989 where they had an energetic branch and strong local support. Next, the party contested a seat in Northern Ireland for the first time in the Upper Bann by-election. Previously, the SDP-Liberal Alliance had given support to its sister party, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. The Liberal Democrats continued this policy in Upper Bann. The SDP nominated its own candidate despite having little local organisation, and finished last with only 154 votes. Only one week later, it suffered a public relations disaster when it finished behind the Official Monster Raving Loony Party in the Bootle by-election.

The Bootle by-election

On paper, Bootle looked like fertile territory for the SDP – the local Labour Party had past problems with Militant Tendency, and parts of Shirley Williams' old Crosby constituency were contained within Bootle's boundaries.

The party found itself unable to get any of the media attention vital to compensate for a lack of activists at local level. The level of political apathy was high, and Bootle was considered to be a safe Labour seat. The little media attention that the by-election attracted was focused on a bizarre row between Labour and the Raving Loonies. Relations between the Labour Party and the Raving Loonies had never been good, but they reached a new low when the Labour agent tried erroneously to have the Loony candidate, Screaming Lord Sutch, arrested for breaking an electoral law that had in fact been changed in 1987. Labour tried to have Sutch charged with having a public house as an election campaign headquarters. The main by-election headlines in the tabloid newspapers referred to "Kinnock’s Killjoys" for the campaign's duration.

The final by-election result was that the SDP candidate Jack Holmes finished behind the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. The SDP ended up suffering worse publicity than Labour. Within a week of the result, Owen announced that the party’s National Executive had voted to dissolve the party, saying that the party could not possibly continue after being beaten by the Raving Loonies.

Another breakaway

A number of SDP members, however, promptly accused the party’s National Executive of arranging the Bootle disaster as a “get-out clause” so they could resurrect their political careers within the Conservatives or Labour. In a repeat of the events of 1988, a number of SDP activists met days after the National Executive voted for dissolution, and voted to continue the party in defiance of the National Executive. The continuing group was led by Jack Holmes, whose defeat by the Raving Loonies at Bootle had caused the party's disgrace. "See Social Democratic Party (UK, 1990)."

The final end

Owen did not contest the 1992 general election. John Cartwright and Rosie Barnes – both National Executive members who had left after the 1990 vote – stood as "Independent Social Democrats" in the 1992 general election. The Liberal Democrats gave both not just a “clear run” in their seats, but also helped with their campaigns. The continuing SDP aided both Barnes and Cartwright in their bids for re-election. Cartwright and Barnes were allowed under then Electoral Broadcasting rules to address the whole country in a joint Party Political Broadcast. Both narrowly lost their seats to Labour, who threw considerable resources into winning both seats back.

References


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