Realignment of the left

The end of Jo Grimond's leadership in 1967 heralded a bleak period for the Liberal Party. His successor, Jeremy Thorpe, was never assured of the complete confidence of his parliamentary colleagues. Unlike Grimond, he displayed little interest in ideas, though he was an accomplished organiser, fund-raiser and speaker.

He also inherited a difficult situation. During the years of the Macmillan Government, disaffected Conservative voters had happily defected to the Liberals, if only on a temporary basis. During the 1964-70 Labour governments, however, support for the Conservatives was shored up and the Liberals found it difficult to attract the votes of temporarily disaffected Labour supporters. In the 1970 election the squeeze on third parties exerted by the electoral system took its toll, and the party lost half its seats; Thorpe himself was nearly defeated in North Devon.

Community politics and revival

Nevertheless, the party was stronger than it had been a decade earlier: its grassroots were much more healthy and self-confident – and also more independent of the leadership. New ideas, on policy and on campaigning, stemmed particularly from the Young Liberals and the new breed of community politicians. Unlike many of the recruits of the early 1960s revival, they endured the disappointment of 1970, and stayed on to form the backbone of the next revival. Many of them organised as a separate entity within the party, standing candidates for key posts, organising seminars and publishing their own journals. Throughout the early 1970s the Young Liberals constituted the largest single voting block in the assembly, numbering on average one in four delegates. Their left wing, the so-called ‘Red Guards’, enthusiastically embraced the late 1960s counter-culture and tested the party’s tolerance of radical ideas to the limit, in particular through campaigns of direct action against the apartheid regime in South Africa.

In the wake of the 1970 defeat, the party formally adopted the community politics approach. ‘Our role as political activists’, resolved the 1970 assembly, ‘is to help and organise people in communities to take and use power; to use our political skills to redress grievances; and to represent people at all levels of the political structure’. The concept was based on empowering local communities to achieve their own aims and objectives, putting the emphasis on local elections and more aggressive local campaigning using regular newsletters (frequently entitled ‘Focus’), featuring largely local, non-partisan issues. Pavement politics, as it came to be called, was not an innovation, having grown up in many places since the 1950s. Still, the party leadership, most of whom had no experience of local government, were sceptical about the link between success in local and national politics, and the decision to concentrate on community politics in 1970 was a significant landmark in the development of the party.

The widening commitment to local campaigning spurred the beginnings of revival. Local election gains started in 1971, and rapidly accelerated; Liberal councillors reappeared in areas where they had been absent for decades – particularly in Liverpool, where the Liberals briefly took control of the city council in 1973. A series of no less than five parliamentary by-election victories between October 1972 and November 1973, particularly at Sutton & Cheam in December 1972, owed much to vigorous and innovative campaigning. It helped too that the Liberals were facing an unpopular Conservative government again at national level. Just as it had ten years before, talk of a Liberal breakthrough seemed plausible, particularly when Edward Heath called a surprise election in February 1974, following deeply divisive miners’ and power workers’ strikes.

The Liberals put up candidates in 517 seats in Great Britain, more than ever before, and portrayed themselves as the fresh alternative to the tired old parties of left and right. Under Thorpe’s energetic leadership six million votes were cast for the party, a record. Nevertheless, only fourteen Liberal MPs were returned to Westminster. The bias of the electoral system towards the main parties, whose support was concentrated in particular areas rather than being spread widely across the country, was again apparent.

The 1974 Parliament was finely balanced, with 301 Labour, 297 Conservatives, and 37 others, including the Liberals. For a few days Heath clung to power, keen to strike a deal with the Liberals. Most Liberal MPs were opposed to returning to power a government that had just lost an election, and in any case Heath would not concede Thorpe’s condition of electoral reform, so the Tories were turned out. Another election was inevitably close, but the October 1974 contest was a bitter disappointment to the Liberal Party. Its vote share and tally of MPs both fell slightly, and a period of Labour government, never kind to Liberal interests, ensued.

The party’s performance in by-elections and local elections declined, and Thorpe’s leadership was increasingly beset by rumours of a homosexual affair with Norman Scott, a former groom whom Thorpe had befriended in 1961. In January 1976 Scott alleged that Thorpe had tried to silence him by threatening him with murder. When, in May, former Liberal MP Peter Bessell revealed that he had been responsible for handing over sums of money to Scott, Thorpe resigned as leader. In 1978, he was charged with conspiracy to murder, and as a result of the ensuing publicity lost his seat in the election of 1979. In the trial that followed shortly afterwards, he was acquitted of all charges.

Steel and the Lib-Lab Pact

After a leadership election in which all party members were able to vote – the first of its kind in British politics – David Steel beat John Pardoe for the leadership of the party in July 1976. As a leader, he shared some characteristics with Thorpe. He was an able communicator, at least to the outside world, but was less effective in internal party management, generating activists’ respect but not much real affection. Like Grimond, however, he was not particularly interested in the fine details of policy, concentrating instead on broad strategy, where his main aim was to show that Liberals could exercise power by working with politicians of other parties (the EEC referendum of June 1975 being an important example of this approach) – which he saw in any case as a logical outcome of the party’s objective of electoral reform. Thus Grimond’s strategy of realignment came to be pursued in a different form.

In March 1977, accordingly, Steel took the party into the Lib-Lab Pact with the Callaghan government, now in a minority in the Commons following by-election losses. The pact saw the front-bench team collaborate with Labour ministers across a range of policy areas. It restored a temporary degree of stability to politics and contributed to improvements in the economic situation, but it was never popular with either of the parties involved, particularly with the Liberals, who felt that Steel had failed to extract significant concessions from the government, particularly over electoral reform. Furthermore, Labour’s unpopularity rubbed off on the Liberals, with appalling local election and by-election results, and the pact was terminated in August 1978. In hindsight, however, it can be argued that the Pact did help to boost the credibility of the Liberal Party and showed how it could engage with the realities of high politics as well as community campaigning and abstract theorising.

Associated with the Labour government, which suffered disastrously from a period of industrial disputes in the winter of discontent of 1978-79, and still dogged by the Thorpe scandal, the Liberal Party did not entertain high hopes of making substantial progress in the 1979 election. After a difficult campaign, the party could thank its community politics base, and skilful leadership by Steel, for fourteen per cent of the vote and a loss of only three seats – a set-back, but not a collapse.

SDP and Alliance

Following Labour’s defeat in 1979, the internecine strife and growing success of the left within the Labour Party increasingly alienated many of its MPs and members. Moderate Labour leaders such as Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers (soon to be known as the Gang of Four) had worked with Liberals during the European referendum and the Lib-Lab Pact. Jenkins, after serving as President of the European Commission, had even supposedly considered joining the Liberal Party but was advised by David Steel that the formation of a wholly new party might have a greater impact on politics.

On 26 March 1981 the Gang of Four broke away from Labour to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP), to be joined by a significant number of moderate Labour MPs, and one Conservative. In addition, the new party attracted ordinary members of both the other parties and brought many people into party politics for the first time. The Liberal Party and SDP formed an alliance later the same year, agreeing to fight elections on a common platform with joint candidates. This decision was not inevitable – there were doubters on both sides – but similar approaches to policy on matters such as Europe and electoral reform, and the exigencies of the electoral system, encouraged close cooperation from the outset. After a period of collective leadership, Roy Jenkins was elected as SDP leader in July 1982.

The Alliance’s political impact was immediate. Both the SDP and Liberals won a string of by-election victories and the Alliance topped the opinion polls for months. The early momentum proved hard to maintain, however, after the opening of the war to recover the Falkland Islands from Argentinean invasion. The Alliance’s broad approach was clearly centrist, stressing the need to avoid extremism and confrontation politics and to promote partnership and national unity, but it still suffered from the long-running Liberal problem that it defined the party not as what it was but as what it was not – not the right-wing Conservatives, and not the left-wing socialists. Nevertheless, the two parties together won 25.4 per cent of the vote in the 1983 general election, the best performance by a third force since 1929. Labour won just 27.6 per cent of the vote, but 209 MPs, compared to just 23 for the Alliance (17 of whom were Liberals) – suffering from the familiar problem of a too-even spread of votes. Jenkins resigned as leader of the SDP, to be replaced by David Owen.

The period from 1983 to 1987 was one of growing co-operation at the grassroots of the Alliance and growing tension at its centre. In most areas, campaigners found they could work together effectively and without serious dispute; several seats opted for the practice of joint selection of parliamentary candidates. Yet the new SDP leader was determined not to let the two parties drift together. Originally viewed as the most left-wing of the SDPs founding Gang of Four, Owen rapidly accommodated himself to Thatcherism, and indeed came increasingly to believe that strong leadership was what the Alliance needed – whereas for Steel and most Liberals, Thatcherite Conservatism was the opposite of everything they stood for. Owen had few firm policy principles, using policy positions – including his much-trumpeted but largely meaningless social market economy – purely as weapons with which to hammer the opposition, whether that happened to be the Conservatives or Labour, or in due course the Jenkinsites within his own party, and the Liberals. Thus he took the SDP further to the right on issues such as the application of markets to public services. He opposed joint policy-making with the Liberals until it became clear that it was the only way to resolve the problems over defence policy . This shift to the right, together with his apparent dominance over Steel – mercilessly lampooned by the satirical television programme Spitting Image – contributed to increasing unhappiness amongst the Liberal grassroots and the Jenkinsites within the SDP.

The tension came to a head in the high-profile split over nuclear defence policy in 1986, when the two leaders’ proposal for a Euro-bomb – a poorly worked out response to Owen’s over-hasty reaction to an inaccurate leak of the findings of the joint Alliance commission on defence – was rejected by the Liberal Assembly. Although the Alliance gained by-election victories throughout the 1983-87 Parliament, both before and after the divisions over defence, it entered the 1987 election in a weaker position than in 1983, and slipped further in the face of a rejuvenated Labour Party under Neil Kinnock. The end result was a fall in vote share to 22.6 per cent, eight points behind Labour, and 22 MPs, a net loss of one.

A new party

For most Alliance activists, it had become clear that the existence of two parties, initially seen as an appealing novelty, was now a handicap. The genuine policy disagreements between the two parties were always very limited in number, but the Alliance had no way of resolving them except through weeks of time-consuming and demoralising negotiations and high-profile dissension at conferences – and even once agreement had been achieved, the existence of the dual leadership led to every minor difference in tone and nuance being seized upon as evidence of divisions by media and political opponents alike.

Just days after the election, David Steel proposed the fusion of the two parties. He had hoped for a quick merger, but the procedure became a long-drawn-out negotiating marathon, as the new party’s constitution, policy stance and even its name became the subjects of intense discussion. The process finished both leaders. Owen’s final miscalculation was to assume that he could use the internal SDP referendum on opening negotiations to drive out his opponents within the party; when he lost the vote, in August 1987, by a margin of almost three to two, he resigned and was replaced by Robert Maclennan. Steel’s undoing was his habitual disregard for policy detail, leading to the disastrous farce of the ‘dead parrot’ draft of the founding policy statement of the merged party, a poorly thought-through sub-Thatcherite document which he should have known would have been unacceptable to the Liberals, and indeed to many Social Democrats. Although the document was scrapped and a new one prepared, Steel’s position was fatally undermined, and he could not have hoped (and in any case probably did not want) to become the leader of the new party when merger was eventually approved by a majority vote of both parties in January 1988.

The new party, formally called the Social & Liberal Democrats, but with a short name of Democrats – soon replaced by Liberal Democrats – came into being on 3 March 1988. Not everyone could bring themselves to accept merger. David Owen led a significant faction of Social Democrats – the continuing SDP – into the political wilderness; the party wound itself up in 1990 after being beaten by the Monster Raving Loony Party in the Bootle by-election. The former Liberal MP Michael Meadowcroft took a smaller number of Liberals with him into the independent Liberal Party, but failed equally to attract serious electoral support. In July 1988 Paddy Ashdown was elected leader of the new party and began the long process of repairing the damage which the merger process had wrought.


Duncan Brack is a freelance writer and a researcher. He is the Editor of the Journal of Liberal History, and has also co-produced the Dictionary of Liberal Biography and Great Liberal Speeches.