Social Democratic Party

views updated May 29 2018

Social Democratic Party. The late 1970s saw a marked rise of the left within the Labour Party. There were demands for the mandatory reselection of MPs, and for the choice of the party leader to be taken from MPs and lodged in an electoral college, which would include the trade unions and the constituency parties. 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. At the end of 1981, 50 per cent of a national sample said they would vote for the Alliance if a general election was held at once. By April 1982, 29 sitting Labour MPs and one Conservative had joined the SDP.

Early in 1982 polls indicated a falling-off of support, possibly instigated by the Falklands War, which rallied opinion to Mrs Thatcher's Conservative government. Another influence was signs of economic recovery. In the general election of 1983, the Alliance won 26 per cent of the national vote outside Northern Ireland, 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 won some by-elections spectacularly and did well in local elections. But it was hampered by the retreat of the left inside the Labour Party, and in the 1987 general election the strains in the Alliance became more visible. Its vote dropped to 23 per cent and a few days after the election David Steel, leader of the Liberals, delivered an ultimatum—either a merger or the Alliance should be dissolved. Owen bitterly opposed a merger and 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 but it had lost most of its support. Owen retired from Parliament at the 1992 election and the two other SDP MPs were narrowly defeated.

Hugh Berrington

Social Democratic Party

views updated May 23 2018


SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY. The Social Democracy of America, a radical labor organization, was formed at Chicago, 15–18 June 1897, of sections of the American Railway Union, the Socialist Labor Party clubs, and various religious and trade union groups. The collapse of the Knights of Labor in the 1880s and the violent repression of labor strikes at Homestead, Pennsylvania, and Pullman, Illinois, in the 1890s had convinced radical leaders that they needed to build popular political support for their cause. Eugene V. Debs advocated implementation of a "colonization" plan, whereby the Socialists would concentrate their forces on a western state, such as Colorado, in which unemployment was to be abolished, cooperative industry fostered, and a Socialist government voted into office. This scheme of colonization was repudiated in June 1898, during the Social Democracy's first national convention, by a group of Socialists led by Debs, Victor L. Berger, and Jesse Cox. This group, made up of thirty-three delegates who preferred direct political activism to state colonization, quickly formed the Social Democratic Party of America. Later that year the Social Democrats were able to send two members to the Massachusetts legislature and to elect the mayor of Haverhill, Massachusetts; during the presidential election of 1900, their candidate, Debs, polled 87,814 votes. The subsequent fusion in 1901 of anti–De Leonites in the Socialist Labor Party and the Social Democratic Party led to a new party designation, the Socialist Party of America. During the next two decades Socialist candidates captured seventy-nine mayoralties throughout the country.


Shannon, David A. The Socialist Party of America: A History. New York: Macmillan, 1955.

Young, Marguerite. Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1999.

HarveyWish/a. g.

See alsoRadicals and Radicalism ; Socialist Movement ; Socialist Party of America .

Social Democratic Party

views updated May 17 2018

Social Democratic Party (SDP) Political party in England (1981–90), centrist in political outlook. At the general elections of 1983 and 1987, the party joined forces with the Liberal Party to create the Liberal-SDP Alliance. By the second election, however, the two parties were already in the process of merging to form the Liberal Democrats.

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