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Monday, March 2, 1998 Published at 21:16 GMT

Special Report

Lib Dems look back on a troubled history
image: [ Liberal Democrats leader Paddy Ashdown heads a party with a troublesome background ]
Liberal Democrats leader Paddy Ashdown heads a party with a troublesome background

Born of a marriage between the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party, the Liberal Democrats came into being on March 3, 1988.

For the first 18 months the party was officially known as the Social and Liberal Democrats. The current name was agreed after a ballot of members in October 1989 and is frequently shortened to Lib Dems.

But in the early months of 1988, supporters of both middle-ground parties had a lot more on their minds than simply what to call the proposed new party.

The merger between the Liberals and the SDP was a messy business, full of squabbling and disenchanted activists on both sides.

Liberals in opposition since 1920

Once a force to be reckoned with in British politics, the Liberal Party's fall from glory dates back to the first half of the century. It had been in opposition since 1920 and for years was considered a spent force - a third party in what had become a two-party state.

The SDP was barely seven years old at the time of the merger. Formed in 1981 by the "gang of four" Labour Party defectors, the SDP had initially been a great new hope for the centre-ground of British politics.

Both the Liberals and SDP identified much common ground and their leaderships knew success depended on an alliance, which was duly formed. By the end of the year the Alliance could claim 39 MPs in the House of Commons, 27 of whom were SDP. However, only two SDP members had actually been elected - at by-elections - while the majority were defectors from other parties.

Fighting under the Alliance banner, the SDP, led by former Labour cabinet minister Roy Jenkins, won six seats at the 1983 General Election. The Liberals, under the leadership of David Steel, took 17.

The Alliance registered more than a quarter of the vote at that election but it found its ambitions curtailed by Britain's "first-past-the-post" voting system. The winning Conservatives took 61% of the 650 seats with just 42% of the vote.

Calls for an official merger

By the next General Election, in 1987, the Alliance had become a more formal arrangement fronted by "the two Davids": Liberal leader David Steel and the new SDP frontman David Owen.

The close partnership did not go down well with the public and the relationship between the two leaders appeared strained. The SDP-Liberal Alliance lost 3% of the vote although it only dropped one MP against 1983's results.

Calls for an official merger soon followed - a policy that was whole-heartedly opposed by Mr Owen who publicly called it a "ghastly mess, a disaster and a shambles". By contrast, his former running-mate, Mr Steel, was an enthusiastic backer.

The merger was sealed following an historic ballot among members of both parties on March 2, 1988. But it was not a clean break - the original SDP carried on under Mr Owen and in 1989 a small group of members broke away from the Lib Dems and reverted to the name of the Liberal Party.

But neither has ranked as anything more than a sideshow next to the Lib Dems.

Best election result since 1935

In 1988, Royal Marine-turned-MP Paddy Ashdown took over leadership of the party and in 1992, guided it to its best General Election result since 1935.

As Labour moved farther towards the centre ground during the 1990s, the Lib Dems hit back with an apparently more radical programme for government in the run up to the 1997 election. One of its key policies, to raise income tax by 1p in the pound to pay for education, was in stark contrast to Labour's pledge not to raise earnings related tax.

The gamble paid off when the party more than doubled its numbers in the House of Commons, winning 46 seats across the UK.

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