Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Gang of Four’

Remembering the Lib-Lab Pact

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 14th July, 2008

The Lib-Lab Pact of 1977-1978 got an almost uniformly bad press at the time and the short-term electoral consequences for the Liberal Party were pretty dire. During the 18 months or so of the pact’s existence, the Liberal vote plummeted in local elections and parliamentary by-elections, as if in protest at David Steel’s baker’s dozen of MPs keeping Jim Callaghan’s government in power. Coalition politics might have been the norm on the continent for a long time, but the British public, it would appear, weren’t ready for it. Some Liberal Party members were pretty peeved too, not least because David failed to win in return the concession from the government to have a PR system for elections to the first directly-elected European Parliament in 1979. Had Jim Callaghan not wobbled, and gone for an election in the autumn of 1978, then things might have been different, of course. But he played cautious and the following May Mrs Thatcher swept into power. The rest, as they say, is history.

Earlier this evening, at a meeting of the Liberal Democrat History Group in the National Liberal Club, the now ennobled David Steel and his colleagues in the House of Lords, Tom McNally (30 years ago, the Head of Callaghan’s Political Office in 10 Downing Street, but now Leader of the LibDems in the House of Lords) and Geoff Tordoff (Chairman of the Liberal Party at the time) joined psephologist (and the other day winner of a council by-election in Canterbury) Michael Steed recalling the Lib-Lab Agreement (as it was more properly termed). With hindsight, the episode can maybe be viewed more sympathetically and it was probably a step in the direction of the ‘reliagnment of British politics’ that David Steel would try a few years later with the SDP’s Gang of Four, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers. They did not break the mould of British politics then, as they had hoped (partly because of the Falklands War). But the two-party political system that dominated so much of the 20th century was over-turned.

Link: www.liberalhistory.org.uk

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