The British Social Democratic Party and its effects on Labour

The separation of social democracy from democratic socialism

Term Paper, 2010

9 Pages, Grade: 18/20



The very idea of the British Labour party and other movements referring to democratic socialism as their ideal is to "pursue a socialist agenda through democratic institutions, such as free elections and parliament"1. Especially in strongly majority based electoral systems such as in the United Kingdom it is difficult to win an election if one political current is represented by more than one party, thus incoherently. The incoherence within such a movement is then perceived as being a threat to the movement itself. As former Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1883-1967) put it "What is quite intolerable is the existence of a party within a party, with separate leadership, separate meetings, supported by its own press. It is inimical to effective action in the House. It breads suspicion and uneasiness throughout the movement."2 Of course he was referring to Nye Bevan and his extreme left-wing attitude, which even led to a number of Labour members of parliament opposing their own party, after the 1951 general election, which saw the Conservative Party and Winston Churchill return to power despite the fact that Labour had received a greater number of votes cast.3

Similar reproaches were made when in 1981 a group of former Labour politicians formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of the United Kingdom. Many democratic socialists or social democrats feared a division of the nation's political left. It can be argued that such a division indeed occurred and led to Labour's lowest election score in 1983 with 27.6% of votes cast, only 2.2% more than the Social Democratic Party with its liberal ally.4 By 1988 Labour had adapted a more moderate political outline and after a number of election defeats the majority of SDP members and MPs merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democratic Party.

In the following dissertation I shall describe in detail the short but eventful history of the Social Democratic Party of the United Kingdom. In doing this I shall try to work out the main differences between the terms social democracy and democratic socialism. How did the success of the former change the outcome of the latter? How and why did the Social Democratic Party influence the changes leading towards the political movement nowadays often referred to as "New Labour"?

I) the political conditions in the United Kingdom facilitating the founding of the SDP

A) Competing governments and contradicting policies 1964-1979

The success of the Social Democratic Party in alliance with the Liberal Party in the early eighties has many reasons, some of which date from as early as the sixties. As any party the SDP was a product of its time. From 1964 until at least 1979 the United Kingdom was struck by multiple political and economic crises. Successive Labour and Conservative governments started their reign with great confidence but regularly ended in disappointment for their electorate and even governmental failure.5 The Labour government of Harold Wilson came to power in 1964 with a slim majority which it improved in 1966.6 Despite major achievements in the social sector such as the construction of about 350.000 new houses each year and a number of liberal acts concerning racial equality or abortion it never really improved the nation's economy, a major point it had been voted into office for.7 In fact until 1970 inflation doubled to 6.4%, unemployment rose by about one point of percentage and economic growth fell from 5.4% in 1964 to 1.8%.8

The subsequent Conservative government of Edward Heath was no more successful in solving the countries problems. It was finally brought down by the oil crisis of 1974 and an open confrontation with mining unions.9 This brought Wilson back to power heading a minority government including Labour leftist Tony Benn responsible for trade and industry.10 Under yet another Labour government headed by James Callaghan, inflation rose to double digit figures and help from the IMF was needed,11 the number of unemployed reached one-and-a-half million by 1977.12 Against this background Margaret Thatcher's government was finally elected in 1979 with great expectations but leaving a large part of the left and centrist spectrum of the electorate disappointed after fifteen years of governmental decline. These times are best described by Ivor Crewe and Anthony King. "Three different governments had thus attempted since 1964 to govern Britain successfully and to restore its economic fortunes. All three had failed, and all three had been rebuffed at the polls. It had been a depressing period."13


1 BillJONES, p. 67

2 According to Patricia HOLLIS, p. 186

3 According to

4 According to

5 Ivor CREWE and Anthony KING, p. 3

6 (for 1964) and (for 1966)

7 Kenneth O. MORGAN, p. 242

8 Ivor CREWE and Anthony KING, p. 4

9 Kenneth O. MORGAN, p. 317

10 Kenneth O. MORGAN, p. 358

11 Hugh BERRINGTON, p.225

12 Kenneth O. MORGAN, p. 397

13 Ivor CREWE and Anthony KING, p. 7

Excerpt out of 9 pages


The British Social Democratic Party and its effects on Labour
The separation of social democracy from democratic socialism
Sciences Po Paris, Dijon, Nancy, Poitier, Menton, Havre  (Campus Franco-Allemand de Nancy)
The UK from Thatcher to Blair
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
404 KB
Analyzes the failure and the effect on British politics of the Social Democratic Party. Is extremely knowledgeable, with rich bibliography and plenty of references. Argues with admirable clarity and lucidity, and elegantly expressed. The conclusion is both coherent and convincing. A truly excellent piece of work. Dr. Jeremy Stubbs (Dozent)
Vereinigtes Königreich, SDP, Sozialdemokratie, demokratischer Sozialismus, Labour, Thatcher, Blair, Politik
Quote paper
Julian Fitz (Author), 2010, The British Social Democratic Party and its effects on Labour, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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