1982: The SDP’s short-lived bid to depose Labour and run Fife Council

Fife Free Press coverage of 1982 regional elections
Fife Free Press coverage of 1982 regional elections

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The political landscape was given a shake up in 1982 with the creation of the SDP/Liberal Alliance.

Fife Free Press coverage of 1982 regional elections

Fife Free Press coverage of 1982 regional elections

The Tory Government was mired in unemployment and a Falkland War, and Labour had slid to the left following the election of Michael Foot as leader, opening up the centre ground for the new party.

Roy Jenkins, one of the original ‘Gang of Four’ who quit Labour to launch the party, stormed to Westminster after winning the 1982 by-election for the Glasgow Hillhead seat.

And then came the regional council elections.

Fife was still a Labour stronghold with their vote weighed rather than counted, but the first signs of change were appearing with the SDP a new, and unknown, quantity.

Labour dominated the field with the largest number of candidates across the 45 seats, but it went into the campaign shaken by defections to the new party.

The biggest departure was that of Councillor David Stewart, who was their finance committee chairman – one of the key people at the top of the table.

In terms of policy there was actually little to tell the SDP apart from Labour, but it did point to a different ethos.

The new party built its campaign on realism, honesty and public involvement, and an end to the ‘’secretive and complacent’’ attitudes which, it said, dominated the Labour corridors of power.

That was a direct challenge to Labour’s hugely controversial policy of the time which excluded opposition parties from key committees, and denied them proportional representation on others.

It had been in place for two years and was the subject of fierce debate, nowhere more so than on Kirkcaldy District Council.

The SDP said Fife was witnessing ”a concentration of power going to fewer and fewer people. Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas – you have to make use of all the talents from all parties.’’

Mr Stewart’s eve-of-poll speech appealed “ over the heads of party members’’ to all who supported a third force in British politics, adding: “Now is the time for them to come and help us change the whole face of things.’’

The party wanted to win control of the regional council and said its sample canvassing suggested a substantial lead for the SDP over Labour with the Tories trailing well behind. The election saw the SNP with almost nothing to lose – the party held just one seat back then– while the ballot papers contained a sprinkling of weel-kent names from the world of Fife politics.

They included future MPs Henry McLeish and John MacDougall, Council convener, the late Bert Gough, and Douglas Mason, founding father of the Poll Tax.

In the end, nothing changed.

Labour romped home with a bigger majority, leaving the SDP/Liberal Alliance to reflect on where it all went wrong.

The Alliance took just four seats, three at the expense of the Tories, and Labour got its number one scalp, defeating Mr Stewart in Dunearn and Torbain, albeit by the narrowest of margins.

Bill Brand took the seat by just 246 votes, to leave Mr Stewart reflecting: “‘You have to take the tough with the smooth’’ he reflected.

’’For the SDP to have come out and get 1000 votes the first time round was tremendous.’’

But change did come.

Just weeks before the election, Labour hinted it might review its committee structure.

It came on the back of a motion by Tom Gray, the wily SNP councillor from Glenrothes who branded the council the most undemocratic in Scotland.

His motion that the committee structure reflect the political balance of the council struck a chord, and the U-turn was completed in stunned silence in the chamber when Labour councillor, William Rodgers from Methil, said his party would accept it in spirit.

Two months later, a deal to hand 20 places to councillors outwith Labour passed unopposed.

The SDP enjoyed success with 23 MPs in 1983, but it failed to keep its momentum going at the 1987 poll. One year later it merged with the Liberals to become the Liberal Democrats.