London — The dissension-ridden British Labour Party split wide open Monday in its biggest rift in 50 years with an announcement by 12 right-wing Labourite lawmakers that they are quitting the party and forming their own Social Democratic group in Parliament. They said they will call themselves the Parliamentary Committee for Social Democracy and will sit as a separate group in the House of Commons.
The new breakaway group was headed by former Foreign Secretary David Owen and former Transport Minister William Rodgers. They were joined by two other one-time Labour Cabinet ministers -- former Education Secretary Shirley Williams and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Roy Jenkins -- neither of whom has a seat in Parliament at the moment.
The group was formed to protest growing domination of the party and its policies by the extreme left, highlighted by plans to nationalize virtually all industry still in private ownership as well as banks and insurance companies, to abolish the upper house of Parliament, the House of Lords, and to transfer the right to elect the party leader from Labourite members of Parliament to an electoral college dominated by trade unions.
The announcement opens the most serious rift in the party since 1931 when Ramsay MacDonald, Britain's first labour prime minister, broke with Labour to take the leadership of a coalition government with the Conservatives and Liberals during the great economic cri sis of the era.