In 1979, the Liberals faced a general election that wasn’t going to be good news for the ruling Labour government. And that mattered because the Liberals under leader David Steel had been in a semi-official coalition with Labour since 1978 – the so-called Lib-Lab Pact.
Prime Minister James Callaghan had been expected to go for an election in late 1978 but changed his mind, deciding to hold out till the following year. Bad mistake. That winter saw major industrial unrest – the “winter of discontent” – and Labour’s hopes of winning another general election began to sink.
The Liberals struggled to distance themselves from the horse trading with the Labour leadership. They’d also been dogged in the late 70s by the Jeremy Thorpe affair. Their former leader, Thorpe, had been accused in court of being gay and plotting to kill his secret male lover. In 70s Britain, a far less tolerant place, this was toxic stuff. It still hung over the Liberals in 79.
Within the Liberal Party, their youth wing positioned themselves as a radical libertarian movement – even influenced by anarchist philosophy. Meanwhile, the Tories youth wing was veering rightwards while the Labour Party Young Socialists was under the control of the Marxist Militant Tendency. The Young Liberals published a magazine called Liberator pictured in this blog post.
Anyway, the election happened and the Liberals took a pounding helping Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party surge to power. Steel campaigned on rejecting the “Punch and Judy” politics of Labour and Tories saying the public was tired of swings leftwards and rightwards at every election. But the public decided otherwise – voting in the most right-wing Conservative government of the post-war era.
In the years that followed, the Liberals formed a new party – the Lib Dems – by allying with right of centre Labour politicians who deserted their party to form the Social Democrats.