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25 January  
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1981: Dissident Labour MPs plan new party
Four former Labour cabinet ministers have signalled their intention to breakaway from the opposition and set up their own political party.

MPs Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, William Rodgers and David Owen called a news conference today at Dr Owen's home in Limehouse, east London, to unveil plans for setting up of a "council for social democracy".

The proposals, published in a document called the Limehouse Declaration, also call for a realignment in British politics and acknowledge that painful choices lie ahead for lifelong Labour supporters.

The "gang of four" made their move after the left-wing victory at Saturday's special Labour party conference - which gave the trade union block vote the largest say in future elections of the party leader.

Labour dissidents are worried about the amount of power this gives to the unions and the level of influence they would exert over any Labour prime minister.

If the Labour party goes back to reasserting its socialist and democratic beliefs, that's where I belong
Shirley Williams
After the news conference, four Labour MPs called at Dr Owen's home to express their support for the Council for Social Democracy. They were Ian Wrigglesworth, John Roper, Mike Thomas and Robert MacLennan. More Labour MPs are expected to come out in support in the next few days.

In an interview on the BBC's Panorama programme, Mrs Williams said she had become increasingly disillusioned with Labour. She had fought from within to "save" the party for several years - but felt she was fighting a losing battle.

Mrs Williams said: "We have to say now we think the character of the party has changed so far it will take something very exceptional, something really out of the ordinary line to make us be convinced there's a chance of winning back the party.

"We would like to do so. We would like to think there could be a miracle of that sort but I have to say that we are very pessimistic at the present time."

She accused left-wingers like Tony Benn and Eric Heffer of undermining the concept of parliamentary democracy.

Mrs Williams said the gang of four would all prefer to stay within the Labour party - but if they were thrown out, then they would seek to establish their own party.

She added: "If the Labour party goes back to reasserting its socialist and democratic beliefs, that's where I belong."

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Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams
The SDP threatened to break the mould of British politics


In Context
Two months after the Limehouse Declaration, the Social Democratic Party was formed under the leadership of Roy Jenkins.

By the autumn of 1981, the SDP had formed an electoral alliance with the Liberal party, then headed by David Steel.

The Liberal-SDP alliance could boast 30 MPs by the middle of 1982. Most were former Labour MPs - only one Conservative crossed the floor - but the alliance did win a handful of by-elections.

After the 1987 election, when the alliance won 22 seats, the SDP formally merged with the Liberals.

David Owen, who had opposed the merger, continued to lead a rump SDP until, in 1990, his party trailed in behind the Monster Raving Loony party in a Bootle by-election and he decided to wind it up.

Stories From 25 Jan


 
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