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Liberal Democrats (UK)

The Liberal Democrats, often shortened to LibDems, are a liberal political party based in the United Kingdom. The party was formed in 1988 by the merger of the Liberal Party and the short lived Social Democratic Party (the two parties had already been in an alliance for some years).

The party is led by Charles Kennedy. It is currently the third-largest party in the UK Parliament, behind Labour and the Conservatives, and currently has 55 members of Parliament, the most a third party has had since the 1930s.

In the Scottish Parliament it forms a coalition Scottish Executive with Labour, where it supplies Deputy First Minister, Jim Wallace.



The Liberal Democrats do not easily fit into the "left-right" political spectrum. Generally promoting politically and socially liberal policies, the Liberal Democrats describe themselves as being concerned with the use of power in British and international society. They also are wary of the powers of the state over individuals, and as a principle seek to minimise state intervention in personal affairs.

Economically, it is not a party founded on economic class interest, nor on explicit economic liberal doctrine (unlike some "Liberal Parties" in other countries); instead the party has historically combined a strong commitment to social justice, social provision and the welfare state with a strong belief in economic freedom and competitive markets wherever possible. The Liberal Democrats' opponents describe them as being all things to all people, having so many policies that they would find it impossible to implement them consistently were they to find themselves in Government; while supporters say that this reflects a misunderstanding of the federal and decentralised nature of the party.

Charles Kennedy, Lib Dem leader
Charles Kennedy, Lib Dem leader

History of the Liberal Democrats


The Liberal Democrats are descended from the Liberal Party which dominated British politics for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Having declined to third party status after the rise of the Labour Party in 1922, the Liberals found themselves challenged for their place as the centrist party of British politics in the 1980s, when in 1981, with the Labour Party moving to the left, a group of moderate Labour MPs broke away and established the Social Democratic Party (SDP), claiming to preserve previous Labour Party traditions. The SDP and the Liberals soon realised that there was no place for two centrist political parties, and entered into an alliance so that they would not stand against each other in elections. The two parties drew up their own policies and had different emphases, but produced a joint manifesto for the 1983 and 1987 General Elections. Initially the Alliance was led by David Steel (Liberal) and Roy Jenkins (SDP), and later by David Steel (Liberal) and David Owen (SDP).

In 1987, following disappointing results in that year's general election, Steel proposed a merger of the two parties. Although opposed by David Owen it was supported by a majority of members of each and the two parties formally merged in 1988, with David Steel and Robert Maclennan (who had become SDP leader in August 1987) as interim joint leaders. At the time of the merger, in 1988, the party took the name Social and Liberal Democrats (SLD). After briefly shortening its name to The Democrats, it changed to the current name of Liberal Democrats in October 1989, which is now frequently shortened to "LibDems".

The minority of the SDP who rejected the merger remained under David Owen's leadership. Some Liberals disliked the direction the party was going in with Paddy Ashdown's election and created a new party which revived the name "Liberal Party".

Post-1988 history

The former Liberal Ashdown became leader of the party in 1988, and under his leadership the party's support grew steadily. Although the Lib Dems did not manage to repeat the 20%+ shares of national vote which had been achieved in the 1980s, the Lib Dems managed to more than double their number of seats in parliament at the 1997 general election to 46, and become a major force in local government throughout the decade.

Tony Blair's re-positioning of the Labour Party into the centre ground of politics in the 1990s left the LibDems with a dilemma of how to respond, since the centre ground was traditionally their territory.

A debate ensued as to whether the Lib Dems should try to distance themselves from Labour by moving to the Right or Left, or whether they should co-operate with Labour.

Ashdown controversially pursued the latter course, following Labour's election victory in 1997. However this Lib-Lab Pact failed when it became apparent to the Liberal Democrats that Labour would not introduce proportional representation and other key Liberal Democrat demands. Labour's massive majority meant they lost interest in pursuing the issue.

Ashdown resigned as leader in 1999 and was replaced by Charles Kennedy, originally the only SDP MP fully supporting the merger. The party improved on their 1997 results at the 2001 general election, winning more seats and improving on their vote percentage.

In recent times the Liberal Democrats have won support due to their opposition to the war on Iraq, and Charles Kennedy has expressed his intention for his party to replace the Conservatives as the main opposition. The party won seats from the Labour Party in by-elections in Brent East (2003) and Leicester South in 2004, and narrowly missed taking another in Birmingham Hodge Hill.

However the Lib Dems face a dilemma on their future national direction. The party has benefitted from former Labour Party supporters switching their vote to the Lib Dems as well as former Conservative MPs and supporters switching from the opposite direction. However most of the Lib Dems' target seats are held by Conservatives. The challenge the party faces is how to appeal to both Conservative and disaffected Labour voters at the same time.

Electoral results

In recent United Kingdom general elections they have emerged the third most popular party behind Labour and the Conservatives. In most elections, the Liberal Democrats (or their precursor Alliance) have gained between 15% and 25% of the national vote.

Election Name Share of Votes Seats
UK general election, 1983 SDP-Liberal Alliance 25.4% 23
UK general election, 1987 SDP-Liberal Alliance 22.6% 22
UK general election, 1992 Liberal Democrats 17.8% 20
UK general election, 1997 Liberal Democrats 16.8% 46
UK general election, 2001 Liberal Democrats 18.3% 52

The British first past the post electoral system does not reward parties whose vote is evenly divided across the nation with many seats in Parliament, and the Liberal Democrats and their forerunners have suffered in particular. This was especially true in 1983 and 1987 when their popular electoral support was greatest; their increase in the number of seats in 1997 and 2001 was largely due to the weakness of the Conservative Party in the later elections.

The Liberal Democrats have generally performed better in local elections, and are a more significant force in local government, with 27 councils under Liberal Democrat majority control, and Lib Dems in joint control of many others. They have generally performed weaker in elections to the European Parliament: for example in elections on 10 June 2004, the LibDem national share of the vote was 29% (giving them second place, ahead of Labour) in the local elections that day but only 15% in the simultaneous European elections (putting them in fourth place behind the United Kingdom Independence Party).

They have been coalition partners with Labour in the Scottish Parliament since its re-establishment in 1999, and were also in coalition with Labour in the National Assembly for Wales from 1999 to 2003.


The Liberal Democrats claim that their ideology is about giving "power to the people"

The Liberal Democrats state they are fundamentally against the undemocratic concentration of power in unaccountable bodies. They propose radical decentralisation of power, out of Westminster and into the hands of the people. They would also create a system of tiered government structures to make decisions at what they see as the appropriate level, including regional assemblies, the European Union, and international organisations.

In keeping with the principle of decentralisation of power, the Liberal Democrats are keen protectors of civil liberties and oppose all intervention of the state in personal affairs. For this reason, the Liberal Democrats are very popular amongst gay rights campaigners and campaigners for the decriminalisation of recreational drugs.

Their opponents point to their support for the European Convention on Human Rights, even when its theories on separation of powers leads to more power being given to judges and regulatory bodies rather than elected politicians. They point to the Lib Dem desire for local decision making, and their complaints that different decisions in different locations can lead to a "postcode lottery" in the provision of public services. They also express surprise that the Lib Dems are so supportive of the European Union, even when that results in decisions being taken at a higher rather than a lower level.

Left wing or right wing?

The Liberal Democrats (and the precursor Liberal party) have traditionally been seen as the centrist party of British politics. However, with Tony Blair's repositioning of Labour towards the right, some now view the Lib Dems as being the most left-wing of Britain's mainstream parties and many classify the Lib Dems as centre left. Lib Dems opposed the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, although they were the strongest advocates of the Kosovo War and before that, intervention in Bosnia. They favour a higher top rate of tax, but have also flirted with 'right-wing' policies such as post office privatization and banning strikes in emergency services.

Some claim that attempting to place the Liberal Democrats within the 'left wing'-'right wing' model does not accurately represent their ideology. For example, when Lib Dems oppose the power of the trade unions, they are seen as right wing. When they oppose the power of the corporations, they are seen as left wing.


The Liberal Democrats' constitution speaks of "a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals". To this end:

  • They support greater civil liberties and more open government, including substantial reforms to increase parliamentary oversight of the executive.
  • They are federalists and support the decentralisation of power to the lowest possible level
  • They support "free education for all" and propose to abolish university tuition fees and set up a system of government grants for university students
  • They propose a substantial non-means tested increase in pensions
  • They are in favour of a new 50% rate of tax on incomes over £100,000 per year, the revenue from which would be used to abolish tuition fees, restore student maintenance grants and provide free personal care throughout the UK; the balance would be used to keep the rate of local taxation down
  • They are in favour of full UK participation in the European Union and an early referendum on joining the euro, which they support.
  • They are in favour of proportional representation for elections to both the House of Commons and a second chamber to replace the House of Lords, preferably by the STV system.

The most well-known Liberal Democrat policy for most of the 1990s was to increase the basic rate of income tax by 1 percentage point to fund key public services (especially education). This proposal was recently abandoned after Tony Blair's Labour government increased national insurance contributions, a policy with much the same effect. Their current fiscal policies aim at increasing the top rate of income tax by 10 percentage points to 50% for those earning over £100,000 to fund their increased public spending plans, and to replace local property taxes with local income taxes. In 2003 the Liberal Democrats started to make their long-held pledge to abolish Council Tax a centrepiece of their campaign.

In relation to the 2003 Iraq war, the Liberal Democrats opposed UK participation prior to the conflict, but stated that they would support UK forces that had been ordered to fight while it was taking place. After the initial military action was completed, they renewed their political opposition.

The period after 2001 saw an internal discussion about the right policies for the party on economics and public spending, with some party members advocating that the party position itself as a defender of the traditional welfare state in order to gain support from those who had previously voted Labour. Others, most notably Mark Oaten, advocated a stance in favour of smaller government and laissez-faire (the "Orange Book" published in 2004 was an example of this wing of the Liberal discussion). The party announced its policy of aolishing the Department for Trade and Industry in 2004.

Current party policies can be found on the party website:

The Liberal Democrats are a member party of the Liberal International and the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party and their 12 MEPs form part of the ALDE group in the European Parliament.

Green liberalism

Green Liberalism is a term used to refer to liberals who have incorporated green concerns into their ideology.

Green Liberalism values the planet very highly; it is considered very important that the planet be passed down to the next generation unharmed. Green Liberalism accepts that the natural world is a system in a state of flux, and does not seek to conserve the natural world as it is. However, it does seek to minimise the damage done by the human species on the natural world, and to aid the regeneration of damaged areas.

In economic issues, Green Liberals take a position somewhere between classical liberalism and new liberalism: They favor slightly less government involvement than the new liberals, but far more than the classical liberals.

Historian Conrad Russell, a British Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, dedicated a chapter of his book "The intelligent person's guide to liberalism" to the subject of Green Liberalism.


The Liberal Democrats are a federal party comprising the state parties of Wales, Scotland and England. Scotland and England are further split into regional parties. There are a number of Specified Associated Organisations (SAOs), representing particular groupings such as Ethnic Minorities (EMLD), Women (WLD), LGBT people (Delga), Youth & Student (LDYS), Trade Unionists (ALDTU), Parliamentary Candidates (PCA) and Local Councillors (ALDC) which formally review and input to party policy. Other groups can become Associated Organisations (AOs) as pressure groups within the party.

The Liberal Democrats, like the Conservatives, organise in Northern Ireland. However, unlike the Conservatives, the Lib Dems have chosen not to contest elections in the province. Instead, they have opted to work with the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, with the de facto agreement that the Liberal Democrats will support the Alliance Party in elections. Indeed, many individuals, including several notable parliamentarians, hold membership of both parties. Alliance members of the House of Lords take the Liberal Democrat whip on non-Northern Ireland issues, and the Alliance Party always maintains a stall set out at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference .

See also

Leaders of the Liberal Democrats, 1988-Present

Frontbench: "Shadow cabinet"

The Liberal Democrat frontbench team used to be just called that. Under Charles Kennedy's leadership, and the increase of Lib Dem MPs, they now claim to be the "effective opposition". They therefore style themselves as a Shadow Cabinet, though this was previously the title used to describe the group of leading spokesmen and women associated with the official Leader of the Opposition, i.e. currently the Conservatives. Those who deride the Lib Dems point to David Steel's erroneous call to the Alliance in the early 1980s to "go back to your constituencies and prepare for government". Nonetheless, despite a lower percentage of the poll in recent elections to those during the Alliance years, the Lib Dems' strategy of targetting and PIG has taken them closer to that prediction than ever before, the Liberal Democrats having held positions in government in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, unlike, as they boast, the Conservatives.

(As of 21 December 2004) [1]

External links

Last updated: 06-01-2005 20:47:07
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