A new party

The Alliance parties spent the following eight months in lengthy negotiations over the merger; the new party’s constitution and even its name both proved to be subjects of sometimes bitter controversy. The Social & Liberal Democrats were born on 3 March 1988, with Paddy Ashdown elected as the party’s first leader in July. Owen led a significant faction of Social Democrats opposed to the merger, but after a couple of encouraging by-election results, the ‘continuing SDP’ declined into irrelevance and wound itself up in 1990.

After a difficult birth, the new party suffered troubled infancy. Membership, morale and finances all suffered from the in-fighting over merger; the nadir was reached in the 1989 European elections, when the party secured just 6 per cent of the vote, being beaten decisively into fourth place by the Green Party. The merger did allow the resolution of the policy differences highlighted by the Alliance, however, an agreement was finally reached on ‘Liberal Democrats’ as the party name.


Under Ashdown’s leadership, slowly the party recovered. In 1990 the Liberal Democrats re-established themselves on the political scene by winning the Eastbourne by-election, and local election advances resumed in 1991. In the 1992 general election, the party won 18 per cent of the vote and 20 seats. Paddy Ashdown was consistently described in opinion polls as the most popular party leader, and the party’s policies, especially its pledge to raise income tax to invest extra resources in education, and its clear commitment to environmentalism, were widely praised.

Five years of the weak and unpopular Conservative government after 1992 paved the way for further advances. In 1995, the Liberal Democrats became the second party of local government, and in many urban areas became the main opposition to Labour. The party won its first-ever seats in the European Parliament in 1994, and by-election successes continued, even after Tony Blair’s election as Labour leader, which had seen many political commentators predicting that New Labour would destroy the Liberal Democrats. In the 1997 election, the party won 46 seats, the highest number won by a third party since 1929. Whilst its overall share of the vote fell slightly, to 17 per cent, ruthless targeting of resources on winnable constituencies showed how the detrimental effects of the first-past-the-post electoral system could be countered.

Ashdown saved the party from oblivion; but the more controversial part of his legacy was ‘the project’, his attempt to work with Labour to defeat the Conservatives’ seemingly endless political hegemony. Ashdown and Blair even discussed a formal coalition between their parties, but the scale of Labour’s triumph in 1997 made such an arrangement impossible. Nevertheless, a pre-election agreement on constitutional reform helped ensure that the Blair government introduced devolution for Scotland and Wales, started to reform the House of Lords and brought in proportional representation for European elections. Blair’s refusal to stick to his commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform for Westminster, however, helped convince Ashdown that the project was finished, and he stood down as leader in August 1999 – after seeing the party’s representation in the European Parliament rise from two to ten MEPs (the largest national contingent in the European Liberal group), and a Labour – Liberal Democrat coalition established in the new Scottish Parliament (followed by a similar coalition in the Welsh Assembly in 2000).