Thursday 9 July 2015

Continuing the series ‘From the vaults’: The Social and Liberal Democrats

The merger debates in early 1988 at Blackpool and Sheffield delivered massive votes in favour of establishing one party. Liberal members at Blackpool voted in favour by 88 per cent to 12 per cent, and SDP members at Sheffield in favour by 65 percent to 35 percent.  But the positive outcome did have a downside with both parties losing some good people. On the Liberal side, there was the loss of the highly respected Michael Meadowcroft. As for the SDP, the debate was far more bruising—David Owen and three other former MPs refused to join the merged party and carried on under the SDP banner for a few more years. A point of fact, the old Liberal Party still exists and there are still a few SDP councillors about—notably in Port Talbot.

I will not go into the endless meetings that took place over several months in order to achieve an agreed new constitution for the UK party, Wales, Scotland and, of course, local constituencies.  But I should state that the new party began with 19 MPs, 3,500 Councillors and 100,000 members. I always recall Margaret Clay, who headed the Association of Liberal Councillors, remarking ‘it is sheer hard work which led to the number of Liberal and SDP Councillors increasing from 1,500 in 1981 to over 3,500 by early 1988’.

Very true! It is little wonder that I remain annoyed over what has happened to the party over the past five years—it is easy to be more relaxed and reflective from the red benches of Westminster, but I only have to think back on the 35 years of hard graft and toil by tens of thousands of good people who have been let down in one way or another.

The process of getting to March 1988 was not an easy path and for some people, at the time, the name of the political party was more important than what it stood for—should ‘Liberal‘ or ‘Social‘  appear first ...  mind bogglingly, this issue has raised its head again after the 2015 election...

Anyway, March 1988 saw the launch rally of the party at Central Hall, Westminster at which I was fortunate to be a speaker. It was a truly memorable day with some 1,500 people present.  At the rally, Shirley Williams succinctly stated what we stood for, that is—‘a party that stands for the rights and freedoms of the individual, for a society which offers real opportunity to every citizen in housing, in health and employment.  We stand for a society in which every citizen can feel secure in their home and safe on the streets.  We stand for progress, peace and co-operation in the world.’ 

David Steel made a rousing, passionate speech for which he got a standing ovation. These words still resonate within me—‘we’re an unstoppable force of conscience and reform’.

David Steel and Robert Maclennan, who had been SDP leader since the summer of 1987, were now joint leaders and were steering the party through the transition period until elections could be held for a new leader and president—as well as membership of the Federal and Policy committees.  In Wales, we had an Interim Executive that I Chaired and, at this point, I must name people such as Gwyn Griffiths, Peter Sain ley Berry, Frank Leavers and Ieuan Evans (who much to my sadness passed away a year ago) for their efforts in moulding the Welsh party under the leadership of Tom Ellis, Geraint Howells and Richard Livsey.  Richard in fact was elected Welsh leader at the end of March 1988.

Over the summer there were the elections for leader and president. Paddy became leader and he turned out to be inspirational. Ian Wrigglesworth was elected as president.

I had actually stood for the presidency and got some 8,000 votes. It was a most enjoyable campaign and I was the outsider with, as you would expect, a radical agenda for change. There were hustings all over the UK. The meeting I most recall was at Farnborough Recreation Centre where the candidates for leader and president were in attendance along with some 3,000 party members! It was not a bad line-up of speakers with Paddy and Alan Beith for leader and Ian Wrigglesworth, Des Wilson and myself for president.  At the subsequent Federal Executive and Policy Committee elections that followed in the autumn, Charles Kennedy topped the poll for selection to the two committees and I was elected onto both also—coming fourth out of about forty candidates.   

Although we were holding our own, the truth is that 1988 had been a difficult year. The Owenite SDP was quite active and a process of healing divisions was necessary. Former party allegiances, at times, got in the way and held back momentum. Nevertheless what kept us going was the continuing success at local government elections where we continued to do well throughout the year and confound the opinion polls.

So for the archive and old times sake ...
AUDIO: Cassette recording of Gwynoro’s Westminster Hall rally speech in March 1988

Next time the first UK and Wales Conferences of the newly merged party, the change of name to Liberal Democrats and onto the 1992 General Election.