Lady Shirley Williams, one of the original ‘Gang of Four’ Labour Party rebels to found the Social Democratic Party has died aged 90.
In a varied and eventful career in politics, Baroness Williams was a Labour cabinet minister before leaving to form the new party the SDP.
She won a historic by-election in Crosby in 1981 to become the first ever SDP Member of Parliament.
She would go on to serve as leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords between 2001 and 2004 – after the SDP merged with the Liberal Party to form the new party.
Baroness Williams of Crosby held a number of key posts during her long, cross-party career.
She had been a cabinet minister under Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan, before leaving the party in protest at Michael Foot’s leadership.
She and three other centrist Labour figures formed the SDP and she made history with the 1981 by-election win in Crosby.
Although she lost that seat in 1983, she would go on to be president of the SDP from 1982 to 1987 and supported the formation of the new Liberal Democrat Party.
Paying tribute today, Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said: “This is heartbreaking for me and for our whole Liberal Democrat family.
“Shirley has been an inspiration to millions, a Liberal lion and a true trailblazer. I feel privileged to have known her, listened to her and worked with her. Like so many others, I will miss her terribly.
“Political life will be poorer without her intellect, her wisdom and her generosity. Shirley had a limitless empathy only too rare in politics today; she connected with people, cared about their lives and saw politics as a crucial tool to change lives for the better.
“As a young Liberal, Shirley Williams had a profound impact on me, as she did on countless others across the political spectrum. Her vision and bravery, not least in founding the SDP, continues to inspire Liberal Democrats today.
“Rest in peace, Shirley. My thoughts and prayers are with your family and your friends.”
Lady Williams worked as a journalist with the Daily Mirror in her youth, before moving into politics.
She was first elected to the House of Commons to represent the Hitchin constituency in 1964.
She served as Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection in Harold Wilson’s cabinet and when Wilson was succeeded by James Callaghan she was made Secretary of State for Education and Science.
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Despite these high profile roles, it is perhaps her breakaway from the Labour Party and by-election win in Crosby in 1981 that would go on to define her career.
Speaking to the ECHO in 2009 about that campaign she said: ““We played the theme tune from Chariots of Fire very loudly and everyone in the small villages heard us coming through three or four times a day, so they couldn’t pretend that nothing was happening. We’d get off at places like schools and old peoples’ homes and say ‘do you know who we are?’ It was exhausting but there was huge support for us and it was fun from beginning to end.
“There was a great range of people who were probably undecided how to vote. When I found out we had won I couldn’t believe it.
“All the supporters carried me out to the square at the town hall and it was full of people. It was great fun.
“I still come back to Crosby, I’ve got great friends there.”