Social Democratic Party (UK, 1988)

The Social Democratic Party (SDP) formed in 1988 was a political party in the United Kingdom led by David Owen which lasted for only two years. The party was formed as a result of the original Social Democratic Party, created in 1981 by the "Gang of Four" (Owen, Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams, all dissident Labour former ministers) voting to turn its electoral alliance with the Liberal Party into a full merger of the two parties. The new Social and Liberal Democrats (SLD) party thus gained all of the records and assets of the original SDP.

Social Democratic Party
DissolvedMay 1990
Split fromSocial Democratic Party (1981)
Succeeded bySocial Democratic Party (1990)
IdeologyRadical centrism
Social liberalism
Social democracy
Political positionCentre
ColoursBlue and Red

Three sitting SDP members of parliament—Owen, John Cartwright, and Rosie Barnes—did not join the SLD, and opted to create a new "continuing" Social Democratic Party. They were joined by a small minority of former members of the original SDP.

The party was dissolved in 1990 in the aftermath of a by-election in Bootle in which the party's candidate was beaten by Screaming Lord Sutch's Official Monster Raving Loony Party.

Post-merger SDP

The SDP was not alone in having members who rejected the merger with the Liberal Party to form the Social and Liberal Democrats. Among Liberals, Michael Meadowcroft led a breakaway faction which created a new Liberal Party.

The new post-merger SDP had two major advantages over the Social and Liberal Democrats (later known as the Liberal Democrats). Firstly, it enjoyed the financial support of Lord Sainsbury, owner of the Sainsbury chain of supermarkets. Secondly, its members regarded David Owen as a charismatic leader who looked and acted the part of a potential Prime Minister. The party also held the allegiance of seventeen members of the House of Lords, led by Phyllis Stedman.[1] But despite an energetic tour of the nation's university campuses by Owen, the party remained very short of active members. A party conference at Paisley Town Hall in 1989 was held behind closed doors without the usual television coverage to conceal the rows of empty seats. A shortage of members left the party exposed to electoral embarrassment if it stood candidates in areas where there was a lack of activists to bring out the vote.


In the Richmond by-election of 1989, held in a constituency where it had an energetic branch and strong local support, the new SDP took second place behind Tory candidate William Hague, who retained the seat for the Tories. Shortly afterwards, it contested a seat in Northern Ireland for the first time in the Upper Bann by-election. Previously, the SDP-Liberal Alliance had given support to the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. The Liberal Democrats continued this policy in Upper Bann. Apart from the Conservative Party, it was, and remains, extremely rare for a party from elsewhere in Britain to contest elections in Northern Ireland. The SDP nominated its own candidate, despite having virtually no local organisation, and finished last with only 154 votes.

The Bootle by-election

On paper, Bootle looked like fertile territory for the SDP – the local Labour Party had faced major problems with the entryist Militant tendency some years before, subsequent boundary changes had incorporated parts of the Crosby constituency into Bootle – nine years after Shirley Williams had won the party its first seat there. However, the party found itself unable to get any significant media attention, vital to compensate for a lack of activists at local level.

The level of political apathy was high, and Bootle was known to be a Labour safe seat – traditionally one of Labour's safest seats nationally. The little media attention that the by-election attracted was focussed on a bizarre row between Labour and the Raving Loonies. Relations between the Labour Party and the Loonies had never been good, but they reached a new low when the Labour agent tried erroneously to have the Loony candidate, party leader Screaming Lord Sutch, arrested for breaking an electoral law that had been changed in 1987. He attempted to have Sutch charged with the former offence of using a public house as an election campaign headquarters. The main by-election headlines in the tabloid newspapers referred to "Kinnock’s Killjoys" for the campaign's duration. In the event, when the votes were counted the SDP candidate, Jack Holmes, finished far behind the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, and the SDP suffered even worse publicity than Labour. Within a week of the result, Owen announced that the party's National Executive had voted to dissolve the party, saying that it could not possibly continue after finishing behind the Raving Loonies.

Another breakaway

A number of SDP members, however, accused the party's National Executive of arranging the Bootle disaster as a “get-out clause” so that they could resurrect their political careers within the Conservative or Labour Parties.[citation needed] In a repeat of the events of 1988, a number of SDP activists met days after the National Executive had voted for dissolution and in defiance of the National Executive voted to create a new Social Democratic Party. This group was led by Jack Holmes, whose defeat by the Raving Loonies at Bootle had caused the party's demise.

The end

Owen did not contest the 1992 general election. John Cartwright and Rosie Barnes – both National Executive members and members of parliament who had been left without a party after the 1990 winding-up vote – stood as "Independent Social Democrats" in the 1992 general election. The Liberal Democrats did not run candidates against them, and helped them with their campaigns. The new SDP (of which they were not members) also aided both Barnes in Greenwich and Cartwright in Woolwich in their bids for re-election. Cartwright and Barnes were allowed under Electoral Broadcasting rules to address the whole country in a joint Party Political Broadcast. Both narrowly lost their seats to Labour, which made substantial efforts to win both seats back.

Election results


Constituency Date Candidate Number
of votes
 % of
Position Winner
Kensington 14 July 1988 John Martin 1,190 5.0 4th Conservative
Epping Forest 15 December 1988 Michael Pettman 4,077 12.2 4th Conservative
Pontypridd 23 February 1989 Terry Thomas 1,199 3.1 5th Labour
Richmond (Yorks) 23 February 1989 Mike Potter 16,909 32.2 2nd Conservative
Vale of Glamorgan 4 May 1989 David Keith Davies 1,098 2.3 5th Labour
Glasgow Central 15 June 1989 Peter Kerr 253 1.0 6th Labour
Mid Staffordshire 22 March 1990 Ian Wood 1,422 2.5 4th Labour
Bootle 24 May 1990 Jack Holmes 155 0.4 7th Labour
Upper Bann 24 May 1990 Alistair Dunn 154 0.4 11th UUP

European elections

of votes
 % of
198975,8860.5010th | Labour