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Thursday, 25 January, 2001, 16:24 GMT
SDP: Breaking the mould
SDP launch press conference
The SDP was launched by four former Labour MPs
By BBC News Online's Ray Dunne

It is 20 years since four MPs called a press conference in London to announce their plans to "break the mould of British politics".

It was an ambitious pledge but within 10 years it would become clear that the Social Democratic Party (SDP) would achieve no such thing.

However, the 'gang of four' - Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams - came close and at times it looked like they may succeed.

Lord Owen
David Owen announced the end of the party in 1990
The four left the Labour Party citing major differences over European and defence policies. The party had lost the 1979 general election and was taking a sharp turn to the left under leader Michael Foot.

The 'Limehouse declaration' unveiled at the London press conference outlined an alternative vision.

Within two months, a party had been formed under the title SDP - the four having apparently toyed with the idea of calling themselves New Labour.

Breakaway party

In a recent interview, former leader David Owen now Lord Owen said: "We looked at Radical, New Labour Party, Democratic Labour but we ended up with Social Democratic Party because that was part of the European continental tradition."

He said they had rejected the New Labour name because they wanted the breakaway party to have a wider appeal and attract disillusioned Conservatives as well as Labour members.

For a time it did. The party joined forces with the Liberal Party to create the Liberal-SDP Alliance in autumn 1981.

This electoral alliance was headed jointly by Liberal leader David Steel and SDP leader Roy Jenkins.

By the middle of 1982 the Alliance could boast 30 MPs - nearly all defectors from the Labour benches. Only a single Conservative crossed over although the party did win a handful of by-elections.

Early opinion polls suggested that the British electorate supported this bid to "break the mould". At one point, the Alliance had in the region of 50% support in the polls.

Major upset

However, by the time of the 1983 the poll ratings had fallen. The Alliance secured more than 25% of the vote - just two points behind Labour - and entered the new parliament with 23 MPs.

Shirley Williams
Shirley Williams is now a Lib Dem peer
By the time Margaret Thatcher next decided to go to the country support for the Alliance was still strong.

The 1987 general election saw the Alliance this time under the leadership of the "Two Davids" - David Steel and David Owen - win 23% of the vote and 22 seats.

Labour, with Neil Kinnock at the helm, won 31% of the vote and secured 229 seats.

After six years of existance the SDP and the Alliance, it was beginning to look like the mould of British politics would not be broken.

Official merger

After the election, Liberal Party leader David Steel proposed an official merger or what he called at the time a "democratic fusion" with the SDP.

While most of the SDP's membership voted in favour of the merger, its leader David Owen remained adamantly opposed.

He continued to lead a rump with a pledge to fight the now new Social and Liberal Democrat Party (SLD).

Initially, his move seemed to be well informed. One year after the merger, the SDP pushed the SLD into third place in the Richmond by-election.

But by 1990, everything had gone wrong. The party came seventh out of eight candidates with just 155 votes in the Bootle by-election trailing even the Monster Raving Loony Party.

Within days, David Owen had announced the end of the party that was supposed to break the mould of British politics.

What went wrong? Many have suggested that personalities got in the way. But according to Lord Owen the problems were down to a reforming Labour Party.

Speaking this week, he said: "I think as the Labour Party started to reform it became inevitable that the SDP would not be able to survive as a separate party."

New Labour architect?

The former SDP leader recently caused controversy when he suggested that he was the original architect of the policies behind New Labour.

Lord Owen, who stood down as an MP in the 1992 election, believes that the reformed Labour Party is one of the lasting legacies of the SDP.

Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy was once a SDP MP
Others however would disagree. Some critics have suggested that all the party achieved was a split in the left's vote throughout the 1980s allowing the Tories to remain in power.

But he believes that the "pressure of having a party take away a very substantial proportion of its vote" forced the Labour Party to modernise. Few in the ranks of New Labour agree.

While the gang of four never actually managed to break the mould of British politics, their influence and that of the SDP can still be felt.

All four remain in politics, with Jenkins, Williams, and Rodgers sitting in the House of Lords for the Liberal Democrats.

Lord Owen is a cross-bencher and is these days concentrating on fighting off attempts to get Britain to sign up to the euro as head of the pressure group New Europe.

Many former members of the party are now working in the backrooms for both the Tories and Labour.

But most have remained in the Liberal Democrats - not least their leader, one time SDP MP Charles Kennedy.

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See also:

04 Sep 00 | UK Politics
Owen warns against early euro poll
29 Aug 00 | UK Politics
SDP 'thought of New Labour first'
29 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Former SDP leader to quit Commons
14 Sep 99 | UK Politics
Kennedy appoints chief of staff
09 Sep 99 | UK Politics
Profile: Lord Sainsbury
13 May 99 | UK Politics
Owen's praise for Labour
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