The late 1970s saw a marked rise of the left within the Labour Party. Dissatisfaction with the Callaghan government (1976–9) intensified such pressures. Leading ex‐ministers began to contemplate breaking away from Labour to form a new party. The signal came when the party conference in January 1981 voted to vest the election of party leader in an electoral college, in which MPs would have only 30 per cent of the votes. Twelve MPs, led by Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers, David Owen, plus Roy Jenkins (chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1966 Wilson government), formed a Council for Social Democracy, soon transformed into the SDP.
The first task was to create a party structure, the second to negotiate an alliance with the Liberals. The Alliance involved a division of the constituencies between the two parties, and the nomination of a prime minister‐designate, the choice being Jenkins. In the first months, the Alliance was highly successful, winning by‐elections at Croydon NE, Crosby, and Glasgow Hillhead, where Jenkins was returned. By April 1982, 29 sitting Labour MPs and one Conservative had joined the SDP.
Early in 1982 polls indicated a falling‐off of support. One factor was the Falklands War, which rallied opinion to Mrs Thatcher's Conservative government, and another was signs of economic recovery. In the general election of 1983, the Alliance won 26 per cent of the national vote, only 2 per cent behind Labour. But the working of the British electoral system awarded the Alliance only 23 seats, against Labour's 209.
Jenkins resigned as leader of the SDP at once and was replaced by David Owen. Relations with the Liberals became more strained. The Alliance was hampered by the retreat of the left inside the Labour Party, and in the 1987 general election its vote dropped to 23 per cent. David Steel, leader of the Liberals, delivered an ultimatum—either a merger or the Alliance should be dissolved. Owen resigned when a majority of his members supported it. The two parties then formed the new Social and Liberal Democrat Party. Owen and two other MPs stayed aloof in an independent SDP. Owen retired from Parliament at the 1992 election and the two other SDP MPs were narrowly defeated.
Subjects: British History.