Letter: SDP gave a choice to the electorate

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Sir: Polly Toynbee's nostalgic and wishful piece on New Labour being the Son of SDP ("We lost but the son of SDP will win", 21 June) ignored two important features of progressive politics.

First, Ms Toynbee fails to recognise the fact that a big majority of former members and supporters of the SDP and the Alliance neither had, nor had ever had, any particular interest in the Labour Party or what happened to it. They joined the SDP because they saw it as a vehicle to promote, alongside the Liberals, a realistic third option for the British electorate, quite different from anything the Labour Party could ever represent, however much it might be reformed.

Second, Ms Toynbee has failed, in line with the majority of other political commentators, to recognise the long-term, continuing and (now it most be expected) unstoppable growth in the strength of that third force. This growth started with the Liberals back in the late Seventies, before the birth of the SDP, continued throughout the period of the SDP and the Alliance, dipped only marginally during the merger of the two parties and has gathered even more strength in the Nineties.

Of course, the credibility gap for a party that is seen as the smallest of the three means that national electoral success cannot be expected until local electoral success has been established, and that European electoral success cannot be expected until national electoral success has been established. But the fact that Liberal Democrat Westminster gains have almost all followed local election successes, and that the two European gains followed national election successes, shows that lower level success is indeed an excellent predictor of higher level success. In 1992, the Liberal Democrats controlled 26 councils. In 1995, that has already risen to 54, with another 54 in which we are the largest party. (See accompanying charts.)

The real importance of the SDP was to play a part in the inexorable rise of the third force in British politics.

Yours sincerely,

David Rendel

MP for Newbury (Lib Dem)

House of Commons

London, SW1

22 June