The Alliance: a chronology

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Parts of the following chronology have been used in various Liberal Democrat History Group publications over the years, but here it is all together in one place. For a short history of the Liberal, SDP and Liberal Democrats, see here.


3 May General election won by Tories. Defeated Labour MPs include Shirley Williams.
June Social Democrat Alliance (SDA) reorganises itself into a network of local groups, not all of whose members need be in the Labour party.
July “Inquest on a movement” by David Marquand appears in Encounter.
22 November Roy Jenkins delivers the Dimbleby lecture, “Home thoughts from abroad.”
30 November Bill Rodgers gives speech at Abertillery: “Our party has a year, not much longer, in which to save itself.”
20 December Meeting of Jenkinsites and others considering forming a new party organised by Colin Phipps. Robert (Bob) Maclennan declined invitation.


January NEC refuses to publish report from Reg Underhill detailing Trotskyite infiltration of Labour.
1 May Local elections. Liberal vote changes little, though seats gained with large advances in Liverpool and control of Adur and Hereford.
31 May Labour Special Conference at Wembley. Policy statement Peace, Jobs, Freedom, including pro-unilateralism and anti-EEC policies, supported. Owen deeply angered by vitriolic heckling during his speech.
7 June Owen, Rodgers and Williams warn they will leave Labour if it supports withdrawal from the EEC: “There are some of us who will not accept a choice between socialism and Europe. We will choose them both.”
8 June Williams warns that a centre party would have “no roots, no principles, no philosophy and no values.”
9 June Roy Jenkins delivers lecture to House of Commons Press Gallery, calling for a realignment of the “radical centre.”
15 June Labour’s Commission of Inquiry backs use of an electoral college for electing the leader and mandatory reselection of MPs.
24 July SDA announces plans to run up to 200 candidates against Labour left-wingers.
1 August Open letter to members of Labour from Owen, Rodgers and Williams published in Guardian.
9 September David Marquand speaks at Liberal Assembly. David Steel says Labour rebels have six months to leave the party.
22 September Group of 12 MPs, led by Michael Thomas, publish statement in The Times, calling for major reforms in Labour’s structure.
29 September – 3 October Labour conference at Blackpool votes to change method for electing leader. Unilateral disarmament and withdrawal from the EEC passed as policy. Shirley Williams and Tom Bradley refuse to speak from the platform on behalf of the National Executive Committee (NEC).
15 October James Callaghan resigns as Labour leader.
4 November First round of Labour’s leadership election (Healey 112, Foot 83, Silkin 38, Shore 32).
10 November Michael Foot elected leader of Labour, defeating Healey 139-129.
21 November Owen announces he will not be re-standing for Shadow Cabinet.
28 November Williams announces she cannot be a Labour candidate again with its current policies
1 December Labour proscribes SDA.
10 December Meeting in Williams’ flat, including Ivor Crewe and Anthony King, who outline considerable possible support for a new party.


6 January Jenkins returns to Britain from Brussels.
12 January Liberals publish ten-point plan for economic recovery. Several Labour MPs publicly welcome it.
14 January Meeting of the “Gang of Four” (Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers and Williams) at Williams’ flat.
18 January Gang of Four meets at Rodgers’ house, and agree to issue a joint statement following Wembley Conference.
24 January Labour Special Conference at Wembley. New electoral college for electing the leader gives trade unions the largest share of the vote (40%, with 30% for MPs and 30% for constituency parties). Owen fails to get one member, one vote adopted. Opponents include Neil Kinnock.
25 January Limehouse Declaration issued by Gang of Four
26 January Nine Labour MPs join the Council for Social Democracy
30 January Owen tells his local party he will not be standing for Labour at the next election
31 January Joint rally by SDA and Association of Democratic Groups, chaired by ex-Labour foreign secretary Lord George-Brown.
5 February Advert published in The Guardian sees 100 people declare their support for the Council for Social Democracy and elicits 25,000 letters of support. Alec McGivan appointed organiser of the Council.
9 February Council moves into offices in Queen Anne’s Gate. Williams resigns from NEC.
20 February Two Labour MPs resign whip and sit as social democrats.
2 March Ten Labour MPs and nine peers resign whip and sit as social democrats.
17 March Christopher Brocklebank Fowler becomes only Conservative MP to join Council.
26 March Official launch of SDP in Connaught Rooms, Covent Garden complete with high-tech directional microphones. More than 500 press attend.
April Anglo-German Königswinter conference, where Rodgers, Williams and Steel meet and agree on the outlines of an alliance between their parties.
7 May Local elections. Liberal vote rises thanks to increase in number of candidates. Liberals take control of Isle of Wight and hold balance of power on eight county councils. The small number of independent social democrat candidates makes little impression.
16 June Publication of A Fresh Start for Britain, a joint Liberal-SDP policy statement, along with photo opportunity of Steel and Williams sitting on the lawn of Dean’s Yard.
16 July Warrington by-election. Labour’s majority cut from 10,274 to 1,759. Jenkins stands and comments, “This is my first defeat in thirty years of politics and it is by far the greatest victory that I have ever participated in.”
September Liberal Assembly at Llandudno. Jenkins and Williams address fringe meeting. Motion calling for an electoral pact overwhelmingly carried. Steel’s speech calls for people to, “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government.” SDP rolling conference. Travels by train between Perth, Bradford and London. Alliance launched.
22 October Croydon Northwest by election won by Liberal, Bill Pitt.
October Healey defeats Benn’s challenge for the Labour deputy leadership by just 0.426%.
26 November Crosby by-election won by Shirley Williams.
December Gallup poll shows 51% would vote Liberal/SDP.


3 January Rodgers breaks off negotiations with Liberals over seat allocation for forthcoming general election.
25 March Jenkins wins Glasgow Hillhead by election.
1 April Liberal/SDP negotiations over division of seats for general election concluded.
2 April Argentina invades Falklands.
23 April Ballot of all SDP members backs one member, one vote for electing party leader.
6 May Local elections. Liberals win five times as many seats as SDP, which suffers a net loss.
3 June Tories gain Mitcham and Morden in by-election caused by Bruce Douglas-Mann resigning his seat on defecting to the SDP in order stand again under his new party’s colours.
14 June End of Falklands war.
2 July Jenkins defeats Owen to be SDP leader.
September Williams elected SDP President.


24 February Simon Hughes wins Bermondsey by election.
24 March Darlington by election: SDP candidate slumps to a poor third. Labour’s victory saves Michael Foot’s leadership.
5 May Local elections. Labour wins control of Liverpool (from a minority Liberal administration) as Alliance’s national vote slips, though number of seats increases.
29 May Ettrick Bridge meeting, where Steel attempts to remove “Prime Minister designate” title from Jenkins.
9 June Mrs. Thatcher wins general election, and Alliance (25.4%) just fails to win more votes than Labour (27.6%). Liberals move from 13 to 17 MPs, SDP slump from 29 to 6 MPs. Rodgers and Williams defeated.
12 June Foot announces he will not re-stand as Labour leader.
13 June Jenkins resigns as SDP leader.
22 June Owen becomes SDP leader.
7 July David Steel starts three months sabbatical.
28 July Liberals fail to win Penrith and Borders by just 553 votes.
September SDP conference at Salford rejects proposals for joint-selections (with Liberals) of Euro and Westminster candidates and any chance of merger before next election. After Harrogate Liberal Assembly Cyril Smith announces his departure into self-imposed exile.


3 May Local elections. Alliance makes net gains of 160 seats, but SDP vote continues to slip.
14 June European elections. Alliance wins 19.1% and no seats but SDP gains Portsmouth South in a Parliamentary by-election on the same day.
20 September Steel defeated at Liberal Assembly by calls to withdraw Cruise missiles from Britain.


2 May Local elections. Alliance gains over 200 seats and 24 out of 39 English county councils end up under no overall control, with an Alliance minority administration formed in six. SDP wins a larger increase in its vote than the Liberals.
4 July Liberals win Brecon & Radnor by election. During July (and again in September) Alliance briefly tops opinion polls.
September Successful SDP conference in Torquay marks high-point of party’s strength and self-confidence.
3 December Over 15 million watch John Cleese present a party political broadcast on PR for the SDP. This is probably the largest ever audience for a PPB.


8 May Liberals win Ryedale by-election and just miss out in West Derbyshire. Alliance gains control of Adur and Tower Hamlets and make a net gain of around 380 seats.
5 June Alliance Defence Commission reports, avoiding decision on Polaris. It is criticised by Owen. Owen and Steel subsequently explore options for Anglo-French cooperation over nuclear deterrence (the ‘Euro-bomb’).
18 July Liberals narrowly fail to win Newcastle-under-Lyme by-election after hard-hitting campaign which draws criticism from David Steel.
23 September Liberal Assembly defeats leadership over Alliance’s defence policy. Cyril Smith publicly makes his peace with Steel at the Assembly.
22 December David Penhaligon dies in road accident.


26 January Re-launch of Alliance at Barbican rally. Joint Alliance Parliamentary spokespeople announced.
26 February SDP wins Greenwich by-election.
12 March Liberals hold Truro in by-election caused by David Penhaligon’s death.
7 May Local elections. Alliance gains over 450 seats. Labour again regains control of Liverpool, but overall Labour loses and Conservative gains lead to Mrs Thatcher calling general election.
11 June Mrs. Thatcher wins general election. Alliance’s vote drops by 2.9%. SDP falls from 8 to 5 seats. Alliance wins 22 seats. Jenkins defeated at Hillhead.
13 June Owen gives press conference where he appears to reject any attempts at merger.
14 June Steel announces to media his support for merger. Owen fails to receive his message before being contacted by the press and accuses Steel of trying to bounce merger on him.
June SDP National Committee decides to hold a ballot on whether to negotiate over merger with Liberals.
2 July “Yes to Unity” campaign launched by SDP members to support merger negotiations in the ballot.
5 August Result of SDP ballot: 57%-43% (25,897 – 19,228) in favour of merger negotiations.
6 August Owen resigns as SDP leader.
29 August Maclennan becomes SDP leader.
17 September Liberal Assembly votes for merger with SDP negotiations (998-21).
September Merger negotiations begin.
10 December Merger negotiators agree on “New Liberal Social Democratic Party” (or “Alliance” for short) as the new party’s name but forced to rethink after Liberal Party Council protests.


13 January In the early hours of the morning, merger negotiators agree on “Social and Liberal Democrats” as the name, with no official short name. “Dead Parrot” policy document (Voices and Choices for All) issued and then withdrawn.
23 January Special Liberal Assembly in Blackpool approves merger (2,099-385), subject to a ballot of members.
31 January SDP conference in Sheffield approves merger (273-28), subject to a ballot of members. Owenites largely abstain or are absent.
2 March Results of ballots of Liberal and SDP members on merger announced. Liberals voted for merger by 46,376 – 6,365 and SDP by 18,872 – 9,929.
3 March Press launch of Social and Liberal Democrats.
7 March Constitution of new party comes into force at midnight.
8 March Continuing SDP launched with backing of three MPs (Owen, Barnes and Cartwright).
10 March Public launch of Social and Liberal Democrats.
5 May Local elections. Despite significant seat loses, the Social & Liberal Democrats still win 385 seats compared with the SDP’s 6.
28 July Paddy Ashdown elected leader of Social & Liberal Democrats, beating Alan Beith by 41,401 to 16,202.
26 September Social & Liberal Democrats agree to use “Democrats” as party’s official short name.
15 December Epping Forrest by-election – split of votes between Democrats and Continuing SDP gives Conservatives easy victory.


23 February Richmond (Yorkshire) by-election – Continuing SDP just falls short of victory as split of centre party votes hands victory to William Hague, the future Conservative leader.
March Continuing Liberal Party launched, headed by Michael Meadowcroft.
4 May Local elections – Continuing SDP loses 22 of the 34 seats it was defending.
13 May David Owen admits publicly that Continuing SDP can no longer function as a national party.
September Last SDP conference – held in Scarborough.
16 October Social & Liberal Democrats changes name to Liberal Democrats following ballot of party members.


24 May Bootle by-election: Monster Raving Loony Party candidate, Lord Sutch, secures his most notable election result – out-polling the Continuing SDP candidate.
3 June Continuing SDP’s National Executive votes to suspend constitution, close HQ and place remaining affairs in the hands of its trustees.

And if all that has got you interested in knowing more, take a look at Peace, Reform and Liberation.

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