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The Social Democratic Party (UK)

The British Social Democratic Party (SDP) is a defunct United Kingdom political party which existed between 1981 and 1990.

It was created in 1981 as a breakaway group from the Labour Party by those who thought the Labour Party had moved too far to the left, making it unelectable and leaving the Conservative Party effectively unchallenged. The founding members, the "gang of four", were senior Labour officials: the leader Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers, and Shirley Williams. They announced the new party at a press conference and outlined their policies in the "Limehouse declaration".

The SDP did not prosper. It created the SDP-Liberal Alliance with the Liberal Party late in 1981, under the joint leadership of Jenkins and David Steel. The Alliance did quite well in the 1983 general election, running Labour very close, winning 25% of the national vote (to Labour's 28%) and having 23 MPs. It did not expand on this advantage however; in 1987 under David Owen and David Steel the party's share of the vote fell slightly.

After the disappointment of 1987, Steel proposed a formal merger of the two parties. He was fiercely opposed by Owen, but the majority of the SDP membership agreed to the union. Owen resigned as leader and was replaced by Robert Maclennan. Steel and Maclennan headed the new Social and Liberal Democrat Party (SLD) from March 3, 1988 while Owen remained defiant at the head of the newly re-established and much reduced SDP. The SLD were renamed the Liberal Democrats in October 1989. Although they beat the other parties to second place behind William Hague in the Richmond by-election in 1989, by 1990 the SDP finished behind the Official Monster Raving Loony Party in the Bootle by-election. Within a week Owen had announced the end of the party.

It can be argued that the creation of the SDP led eventually to Tony Blair's movement of the Labour Party back towards the political centre from within - indeed Lord Sainsbury was the major financial backer of the SDP and later on of the so-called "New Labour". However, Blair - along with the likes of Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett, Paul Boateng[?], John Prescott - and other Labour MPs around at the time of the Alliance were regarded as atypical hard line left-wingers in the Foot mould - indeed Beckett and Blunkett were both named in Neil Kinnock's subsequent investigation and expulsion of members of Militant. The real truth was that by 1992, after the surprise victory of John Major's Conservatives yet again, Labour were willing to take on board any style or policies, just so long as they could get back into power - and if appearing to take the SDP's clothes were what it took, so be it.

The SDP was to live on without Owen, finishing a close fourth at the Neath By-election a year after their supposed "demise", and were to hold a number of council seats in Yorkshire and South Wales throughout the 1990s.

Leaders of the Social Democratic Party, 1982-1988

See British politics.

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