SDP

SDP
   On 25 January 1981, four former Labour Party cabinet ministers—David Owen, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and Roy Jenkins, known collectively as the Gang of Four—launched the Council for Social Democracy, which became the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in March. The Gang of Four left Labour because of that party’s drift to the far left and changes in the party rules designed to further increase left-wing influence. The SDP was the first political party to be formed since 1900, and by December 1981 it had caused a major stir, attracting 70,000 members and going ahead in the opinion polls with 50 percent of national support. Twenty-seven Labour MPs and one Conservative MP also defected to the new party.
   For the first year of its existence the SDP enjoyed a honeymoon period with the media and the public, and it achieved its biggest by-election successes at this time. Yet when the SDP unveiled its policies they were not particularly innovative, despite its attempts to portray itself as a new, radical alternative of the centre left. In June 1982, the SDP and the Liberals emphasized the common ground between them and announced that they would form an alliance for electoral purposes.
   In the 1983 general election, the SDP/Liberal Alliance with its dual leadership of Roy Jenkins and David Steel gained 25.4 percent of the vote compared to Labour’s 27.6 percent, the best performance by a third party since 1923. Nevertheless, Labour took 209 seats to the Alliance’s 23 (of which only six were held by SDP candidates), due to the first-past-the-post electoral system. David Owen replaced Roy Jenkins as SDP leader, and with Steel led the Alliance into the 1987 election. Here the Alliance’s share of the vote fell and they held only 22 seats. This failure resulted in widespread calls for merger of the SDP and Liberal Party, to which Owen responded by reiterating the ‘need for a fourth party’. Owen was isolated when the SDP membership voted by 57.4 percent to 42.6 percent to join a merged party, which eventually became the Liberal Democrats (see Liberal Party). Subsequently there was an acrimonious split, with the Owenites or ‘continuing SDP’ breaking away. This undertaking was a failure, and the party was wound up in May 1990.
   See also: fringe parties
   Further reading
    Crewe, I. and King, A. (1995) SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party, Oxford: Oxford University Press (a definitive guide).
   COLIN WILLIAMS

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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