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The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was perhaps the nearest thing to a 'flash' party seen in British politics in modern times. It was formed in March 1981, largely on the initiative of four leading figures in the Labour party (Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and William Rogers), following the apparent success of the left in dominating the party, and initially it had a sensational impact on British politics. It had thirty MPs by March 1982 (mostly as a result of defections by Labour MPs); in alliance with the Liberals it immediately went to first place in the opinion polls and stayed in that position until May 1982. The Alliance won four by-elections between 1981 and 1983, and in the 1983 general election, with 25.4 per cent of the vote, came within two points of ousting Labour from its second place. For the next four years the Alliance held its position and in the 1987 election its vote fell only slightly to 22.6 per cent.
Immediately following the 1987 election, however, things started to go wrong for the SDP. The party decided to enter full merger negotiations with the Liberals but a group of die-hards, led by the party leader David Owen, vigorously opposed any merger. After tortuous negotiations, SDP members voted by 65 per cent to 35 per cent in favour of merger in February 1988, and the party submerged its separate identity in a new Liberal Democratic party (as it was eventually named). Opponents of merger re-established a separate 'continuing' SDP, but it performed lamentably in local elections and by-elections. In June 1990 the continuing party was formally closed down. David Owen did not seek re-election to the House of Commons in 1992 and the two remaining SDP MPs lost their seats.(1)
Flash parties experience rapid rises in support followed by rapid declines. Public opinion, wrote Duverger, 'seems to display a sudden flash of temper, a gust of passion'.(2) It is true that the SDP did not simply collapse. Rather, the majority of members voluntarily transferred themselves to a new party. None the less, the sudden rise and subsequent disappearance of the party is close to what would be expected of a flash party and, as such, it was a unique phenomenon in modern British politics.
Voting support for the SDP and Alliance has been extensively analysed,(3) and detailed accounts of the course of SDP and Alliance politics at leadership level have been given by some leading figures.(4) Little is known, however, about members of the SDP. Within eight weeks of its formation the party had 52,000 members. Membership peaked at 78,000 in 1982 and eventually stabilized at 50,000 to 60.000.(5) The sudden rise and fall of the party raises a number of questions about people who joined the party. What kind of people were they? Why did they join the party? What happened to them when the main body merged with the Liberals and the continuing SDP collapsed?
We seek to answer these and other questions in this Note. Our discussion is based upon a postal survey of former members of the SDP, which we undertook in late 1991 and early 1992. From a list of the names and addresses of 50,841 people who had been SDP members in June 1987 we were able to obtain a random sample of 3,911 (one in fourteen).(6) A total of 2,073 questionnaires were returned -- a response rate of 53.0 per cent, which is remarkably high given that almost five years had elapsed between the last revision of the list of members and our survey.(7)
WHO WERE SDP MEMBERS?
Social and Political Characteristics
Table 1 shows some of the social characteristics of SDP members and for comparison also shows the characteristics of members of the Labour party in 1988-89, as reported by Seyd and Whiteley.(8) The variables on the left-hand side of the table show that differences in terms of sex, age and religion were not marked. The age profile of the parties is slightly different, with the largest proportion of SDP members being in later middle age while Labour members tend to be younger. SDP members were also more inclined than Labour to ascribe themselves a religious affiliation, and were more likely to be nonconformists and less likely to be Catholics than Labour members.
The major differences between the parties are class-related, however. As the right-hand side of the table shows, just under half of the members of both parties could be described as belonging to 'the salariat' -- professional and managerial employees. What is clearly absent among SDP respondents, however, is a significant working-class presence. This is reflected in the other variables. SDP members were more likely to be owner occupiers, and much more likely to be graduates and read the 'quality' press (although, interestingly, while The Guardian is the most popular paper for Labour members, The Independent is most popular with the SDP).
TABLE 1 The Social Characteristics of SDP and Labour Party Members (Percentages) SDP Labour SDP Labour Sex Social class Male 63 61 Salariat 47 49 Female 37 39 Rout. non-man 31 16 100 100 Petty Bourgeois 19 4 Working class 3 31 100 100 Age 25 and under 3 5 26-45 36 43 Housing 46-65 44 33 Owner occupiers 92 71 Over 65 17 19 Council tenants 3 17 100 100 Other 5 12 100 100 Religion None 34 41 Education C of E/Anglican 37 26 With degree 61 29 C of Scot/Presbyterian 3 3 Nonconformist 11 8 Roman Catholic 8 11 Newspaper …