What happened last time Labour split?

Four Labour ex-cabinet ministers split to form the Social Democratic Party in 1981—then split again seven years later.

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Seven Labour MPs quit the party this morning and formed what they call the Independent Group. It’s the biggest split since 1981, when four former cabinet ministers, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers, left to create the Social Democratic Party.

The 1981 splitters were dissatisfied with Labour’s shift to the left under Michael Foot. On 25 January 1981, they invited journalists to watch them sign a declaration saying they would leave. Two months later, the Social Democratic Party was created, with 14 MPs, 13 of whom had defected from Labour and one from the Conservatives. 20 peers also joined.

The first years were rosy. In November 1981, Shirley Williams won a by-election in Crosby, hitherto a safe Tory seat. Four months later, SDP leader Roy Jenkins won Glasgow Hillhead, a Tory-Labour marginal. The new party was emerging as a real threat to Labour in particular. In total, 28 MPs left Labour to join it during 1981 and 1982.

In the 1983 general election, its first real electoral test, the SDP allied with the Liberal Party, and they together took an impressive 25 per cent of the vote – 11.6 per cent of which had gone to the SDP. But although the Alliance polled just two percentage points less than Labour, thanks to the United Kingdom’s First Past the Post electoral system, it won 186 fewer seats than Labour, which won 203 seats. 

Shortly afterwards, David Owen replaced Jenkins as SDP leader, and the party began to spiral into infighting. Owen’s relationship with the Liberal leader David Steel was marred by personal animosities and political differences. They argued over economic policy and whether Owen would be the alliance’s “prime minister-designate” in the next election, as Jenkins had been. The “two Davids”, as they became known, would reportedly refuse to speak to each other for weeks. Meanwhile, Foot had been replaced as Labour leader by Neil Kinnock after the party’s disastrous general election result in 1983. 

In the 1987 election, the SDP returned with a disappointing 22 seats, one less than in 1983. In the immediate aftermath, Steel called for the SDP and Liberals to merge, and despite Owen’s opposition the two parties became one in 1988. They formed the Social and Liberal Democrats, soon shortened to the Liberal Democrats, and Paddy Ashdown was elected their first leader. In 2010, the Lib Dems entered government for the first time in coalition with the Conservatives. 

Three MPs had refused to join the Lib Dems in 1988 and continued the SDP under Owen’s leadership. But within two years that party was dissolved, after its candidate in the 1990 Bootle by-election finished last with 155 votes—fewer than the Monster Raving Loony Party.

Eleni Courea writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2018.