Polling day in the 1983 election

Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives are re-elected with an increased majority. The Liberal/SDP Alliance fighting its first joint election performed reasonably well. Roy Jenkins, the SDP leader, was appointed ‘Prime Minister designate’ but concern at Jenkins’ lack of impact led to a refocusing of the campaign with the more popular Liberal leader David Steel being given a more prominent role. Alliance fortunes improved as the election went on to the extent that the Alliance was only 600,000 votes behind Labour in second place. This was not reflected in the number of MPs elected with only 23 successful candidates (17 Liberal/6 SDP). Among the new Liberal and SDP MPs elected were Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds West) and two future leaders – Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil) and Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty & Skye).

David Owen is elected leader of the SDP

Following the disappointment of the 1983 election, Owen made it clear that he would challenge the then leader Roy Jenkins, prompting Jenkins to resign. With Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers both out of Parliament, Owen was the only credible candidate and he was elected unopposed. Owen brought style and professionalism to the leadership but his ‘tough and tender’ social market approach led to tensions with his predecessor. His relationship with David Steel and the Liberals was also difficult, culminating in a major row over defence policy. The public saw Owen as the dominant figure in the Alliance, typified by the Spitting Image puppets with Steel residing in the top pocket of Owen’s suit. Steel had the last laugh after the 1987 election with a rapid call for merger which precipitated Owen’s resignation as SDP leader.

Richard Livsey wins the Brecon and Radnor by-election for the Liberal SDP Alliance

The by-election was caused by the death of the sitting Conservative MP Tom Hooson (a cousin of the former Liberal MP for Montgomery Emlyn Hooson). The Conservatives held the seat with a majority of over 10,000, however the government encountered problems and the election developed into a three way contest with Labour, which had held the seat before 1979, fighting hard to win it back. When the result was declared after a recount, Livsey emerged as the victor by 559 votes over Labour with the Tories slipping to third place. Livsey remained an MP (apart from 1992-97 when the Tories recaptured the seat) until he retired in 2001.

Elizabeth Shields wins the Ryedale by-election for the Liberal-SDP Alliance

The by-election was caused by the death of the sitting Conservative MP John Spence. Shields, a local teacher, had been the candidate in the general election of 1983, coming second but over 16,000 votes behind. During the election the Alliance was able to exploit Conservative unpopularity and Shields was elected with a majority of 4,940 on a swing of 19%. Shields’ time as an MP was a short one as the Conservatives recaptured the seat in the general election the following year.

Death in a car crash of David Penhaligon, Liberal MP for Truro

Death of David Penhaligon (1944-1986). Penhaligon tried unsuccessfully to get into parliament twice before being elected MP for Truro in October 1974. He was one of the Liberal Party’s most popular figures both inside the party, being the first sitting MP to be elected as party president and with the general public as was seen after his tragic death in a car crash on his way to a constituency engagement. Well known for his community politics, Penhaligon’s famous dictum that if you had something to say to the electorate ‘stick it on a piece of paper and stuff it through their letterbox’ inspired hundreds of Liberal activists to do just that with great success.

Rosie Barnes wins the Greenwich by-election for the SDP/Liberal Alliance

The by-election was caused by the death of the sitting Labour MP Guy Barnett. Labour had held the constituency since 1945, although their majorities had been declining and at the previous general election in 1983 Barnett had only been 1,211 votes ahead of the Conservatives. Rosie Barnes, the SDP candidate, had strong links with the local area and her husband was a local councillor who was also her election agent. The Alliance targeted the Tory vote which collapsed and Barnes was elected with a majority of 6,611. She held the seat at the general election four months later but lost it to Labour in 1992.

Matthew Taylor retains Truro for the Liberal/SDP Alliance

The by-election was caused by the tragic death of David Penhaligon in a car crash just before Christmas the previous year. Taylor who was one of Penhaligon’s researchers, easily held the seat, capturing over 60% of the vote. Taylor held the seat until 2010 when he retired from the House of Commons and now sits in the House of Lords.

Polling day in the 1987 general election

Margaret Thatcher wins her third consecutive election for the Conservatives with a majority of 102. The Liberal/SDP Alliance returns 22 MPs on 22.6% of the vote. The election was a major disappointment for both Alliance parties. The joint leadership of David Owen and David Steel was not effective and the Alliance was parodied by the Tories as a clapped out car being driven by two people one trying to turn right and one left. Both parties lost a number of senior figures including Roy Jenkins, Clement Freud and Ian Wrigglesworth. Two Liberal MPs stood down – Richard Wainwright (Colne Valley) and Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight) and the party failed to hold both seats. The losses were mitigated by three Liberal gains from the Conservatives – Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute), Menzies Campbell (NE Fife) and Ronnie Fearn (Southport).

Robert Maclennan is elected last leader of the SDP

Earlier in the month the SDP had voted in favour of merger with the Liberals by 57% to 43%. SDP leader David Owen describing the vote as a folly and a great tragedy resigned the leadership leaving Maclennan as the only candidate nominated to succeed him. Maclennan led the SDP in the negotiations with the Liberals and continued to lead the party until the two parties merged to form the Social and Liberal Democrats in March 1988.

The SDP votes in favour of merging with the Liberals

At their conference in Portsmouth the SDP confirm their support for merger with the Liberal Party by voting on a motion proposed by Shirley Williams and amended by Charles Kennedy in favour of merger. The debate is a bitter one with several SDP members storming the stage in a rage when the vote is announced.

The Liberal Party conference votes to begin merger negotiations with the SDP

Following a disappointing result in the 1987 General Election, the Liberal Party conference meeting in Harrogate votes by 998 votes to 21 in favour of merger with Social Democratic Party and elects a 17 person team to begin negotations with the SDP. After long and tortuous negotiations, the Party at a special meeting in Blackpool on 23 January 1988 votes to approve the merger.

Official launch of the Social and Liberal Democrats

The new party came into being as a result of the merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party. The new party’s birth was protracted and difficult. The merger negotiations were often acrimonious, culminating in a policy document which was roundly condemned by many Liberals and had to be hastily withdrawn. The merger was endorsed by the two parties at meetings in January followed by a postal ballot of all members; however, some members of the Liberal Party led by Michael Meadowcroft and the SDP led by David Owen refused to accept the merger and began to make plans to keep the two parties going. The new party’s name was officially shortened to Democrats though some, less well disposed to the party, abbreviated it to Salads. In either case it proved unpopular and was changed to Liberal Democrats in 1989. The outgoing leaders – David Steel (Liberal) and Robert Maclennan (SDP) acted as interim leaders until a postal ballot could be held to elect a new leader. Poor results in the local elections and a financial crisis saw the party endure a difficult first year but gradually under the the new leader, Paddy Ashdown, the party turned its fortunes around and established itself on a firmer footing.

Launch of the continuing SDP

The party was formed by a group of former members who disagreed with the SDP/Liberal merger and was led by the former leader of the SDP, David Owen. Supporting Owen were two other MPs, John Cartwright and Rosie Barnes and 17 members of the House of Lords. The party retained one major financial backer in Lord Sainsbury. At first the continuing SDP had some success, benefitting from the early problems encountered by the Social and Liberal Democrats. In February 1989 the SDP came second in the Richmond by-election coming within 3,000 votes of the Tory victor William Hague. However, a lack of active membership began to take its toll. A wilful decision to contest the Upper Bann by-election in early 1990 ended with the SDP bottom of the poll and this was followed in May by the party’s disastrous showing at the Bootle by-election when the SDP candidate finished behind the Monster Raving Loony candidate. The following week David Owen announced that the party had been wound up.

Paddy Ashdown is elected first leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats

The election was to provide a single leader for the new party to replace the joint interim leaders David Steel and Robert Maclennan. The contest came after the troubled period between the 1987 general election disappointment for the Alliance and the bitter tussle inside the SDP over whether the party should keep its independence or merge with the Liberals. After merger David Owen led a ‘continuing’ SDP which contested elections against the Lib Dems and many independent Liberals continued to reject the merged party. Ashdown secured victory with 72% of the votes cast over the only other candidate Berwick upon Tweed MP, Alan Beith.

Paddy Ashdown delivers his first leader's speech

Given the difficulty of the first months of its existence a lot was riding on the conference at Blackpool and on the leader’s speech. The speech was well received by a packed hall at the Winter Gardens much to Ashdown’s relief as he recorded in his diary. ‘I was surprised at how well the speech [very strong on environmentalism] was received. A five and a half minute standing ovation then a myriad of interviews. Morale has been lifted and I hear that a number of people who were intending to leave will now stay on…the interviews over, I joined the Glee Club, where spirits were very high. Altogether it’s been a successful Conference’.

Death of Donald Wade, Liberal MP for Huddersfield West 1950-64

Wade’s election to parliament came about as a result of a local pact with the Conservatives, the parties each giving the other a clear run in one of the two Huddersfield seats. In parliament Wade served as Chief Whip 1956-62 and Deputy Leader 1962-64. Donald Wade was an effective and popular MP and, although he lost his seat after the end of the local pact with the Tories, he came within 1,300 votes of winning. He was appointed one of the first Liberal life peers – a result of legislation that Wade had sponsored. He was an active member of the House of Lords and in the 1970s was involved in the campaign to incorporate the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law. Donald Wade served as President of the Liberal Party 1967-68.

David Belotti gains Eastbourne from the Conservatives

David Bellotti wins Eastbourne for the Liberal Democrats in a by-election caused by the murder of sitting Conservative MP Ian Gow by the IRA. Bellotti gained the seat with a majority of 4,550, on 50.8% of the vote. Liberal Democrat Leader Paddy Ashdown celebrated, describing the win as his best day as Leader of the Liberal Democrats. Just a week before, at the Conservative Party conference, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had used Monty Python’s ‘dead parrot’ sketch to mock the Liberal Democrats’ newly designed bird of liberty logo. After the by-election, Conservative Party Chairman Kenneth Baker commented that, ‘the parrot twitched’. Six weeks later Conservative MPs removed Mrs. Thatcher as their leader.

Michael Carr wins the Ribble Valley by-election

The by-election was caused by the elevation of the sitting Conservative MP David Waddington to the House of Lords following his appointment as Lord Privy Seal. Carr who had strong local roots in the area, having been the SDP Alliance candidate in 1983 and 1987, exploited public dissatisfaction with the poll tax which the new Prime Minister John Major was reviewing but had yet to announce a replacement scheme. Carr defeated Conservative candidate Nigel Evans by 4,601 votes, seeing a rise of 27% in the Liberal Democrat vote. Carr faced a tough fight at the general election the following year and Evans had his revenge and has held the seat ever since.

Nicol Stephen wins the Kincardine & Deeside by-election for the Liberal Democrats

The by-election had been caused by the death of the sitting Conservative MP Alick Buchanan-Smith. Stephen recorded a swing of 11.4% to win with a majority of 7,824 over the Conservatives with the SNP third and Labour fourth. Stephen did not have long to enjoy his triumph, losing the seat at the general election in April the following year when the Conservatives regained the seat.

Death of John Arlott, writer, cricket commentator and Liberal candidate

From the 1950s to the 1980s John Arlott was, for many people, the voice of cricket through his eloquent Test Match Special commentaries delivered in his rich Hampshire burr. Less well known was Arlott’s deeply held political convictions and his strong support for the Liberal Party. He stood for the Liberals in Epping in the 1955 and 1959 general elections, contributed to a number of Liberal party political broadcasts and was a regular contributor on Any Questions. Arlott was a key figure in the D’Oliveria affair and the boycott of South African cricket during the Apartheid era, supporting campaigns opposing cricketing ties with the regime and refusing to broadcast any test matches involving South Africa. Arlott retired in the Summer of 1980 and moved to Alderney where he lived until his death.