Liberal Democrats

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Liberal Democrats
Lib Dem "Bird of Freedom" logo
Leader Sir Menzies Campbell
Founded 1988
Headquarters 4 Cowley Street
London, SW1P 3NB
Political Ideology Social liberalism
Political Position Centre Left
International Affiliation Liberal International
European Affiliation European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party
European Parliament Group Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
Colours Gold
See also Politics of the UK

Political parties

The Liberal Democrats, often shortened to Lib Dems, are a liberal political party 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 prior to this.

The Lib Dems are the third-largest party in the UK Parliament, behind Labour and the Conservatives, with 63 Members of Parliament (MPs) - 62 elected at the general election of 2005, they held Cheadle in the Cheadle by-election (July 2005) and gained one at the Dunfermline and West Fife by-elections. In the Scottish Parliament, they form a coalition ( Scottish Executive) with Labour, where the Lib Dems supply the Deputy First Minister, currently Nicol Stephen. The party's leader is Sir Menzies Campbell, elected in March 2006 (see Liberal Democrats leadership election, 2006). Campbell was acting leader prior to his election.

Generally promoting political and social liberalism, the Liberal Democrats describe themselves as being concerned with the use of power in British and international society. They are wary of the power of the state over individuals, and as a principle seek to minimise state intervention in personal affairs, with many Lib Dem MPs criticising such intervention as symptomatic of a " nanny state". The party is traditionally supportive of a multilateral foreign policy, and opposed British participation in the War in Iraq (although backed later increases in troop deployment as a way of making the best of a bad job). They are considered the most pro-European party in British politics. Recently the party has adopted a strong sense of environmentalist values - favouring taxing high polluters more so than at the moment. Additionally, (following the 2006 Conference) the party favours cutting general income tax by 'two pence in the pound' - hereby branding them a 'low tax party'. This is a significant reversal on their previous public image of a 'high tax' party. However these tax proposals are "revenue neutral" with the money from income tax cuts being found in extra taxes on the very weathy.

Unlike some liberal parties in other countries, the Liberal Democrats were not founded on an explicit doctrine of economic liberalism. Instead the party has historically combined a commitment to " social justice" and the welfare state with a belief in economic freedom and competitive markets wherever possible.

Although the Liberal Democrats claim they do not easily fit into the "left-right" political spectrum, some political observers believe that the party is to the left of "New Labour": the party has supported some "Old Labour" positions such as higher taxes on high earners, higher levels of government spending, and opposition to the Iraq War. Others note that the increases in public spending proposed by the Liberal Democrats (e.g. the abolition of student tuition fees and long-term care charges) would mostly benefit the middle classes rather than the poor, and that New Labour policies are more broadly redistributive. It was in response to this criticism that the new tax proposals were drafted, to divert savings from those on middle incomes to those on the lowest incomes.

The party's Presidential Book of Office, passed between outgoing and incoming Presidents, is John Stuart Mill's On Liberty.

According to accounts filed with the Electoral Commission for the year ending 31 December 2004, the party had 72,721 members, and had a budget of about £3,700,000. 4,300 of these members are from Scotland

History of the Liberal Democrats


The Liberal Democrats were formed in 1988 as a result of the merger of most of the Liberal Party, one of the two major British political parties of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries along with a sizeable proportion of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) who had been formed as a breakaway from Labour in 1980, as such the party has the legacy of both the Labour Party and Liberal Party; the Liberal were themselves descended from the British Whig Party, and the term " Whig" is still occasionally used as a nickname for the modern Lib Dems.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 adopting hardline Socialist policies, a group of moderate Labour MPs broke away and established the Social Democratic Party (SDP), claiming as their goal 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 Steel 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 "Lib Dems".

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 after Paddy Ashdown's election as leader and created a new party which revived the name " Liberal Party".

Electoral results

In United Kingdom general elections from 1992 on the Liberal Democrats have succeeded the Liberal-SDP Alliance and Liberal Party as the third most popular grouping or party behind Labour and the Conservatives and have continued the better performances of the Alliance as compared to the Liberal Party before its alliance with the SDP although so far in percentage of the vote terms they are still below Alliance performances and in terms of those eligible to vote the total numbers are way below what the Alliance achieved. In recent elections, the Liberal Democrats (or their precursor Alliance) have gained between 15% and 25% of the national vote.

Election Name Share of votes Seats
1983 SDP-Liberal Alliance 25.4% 23
1987 SDP-Liberal Alliance 22.6% 22
1992 Liberal Democrats 17.8% 20
1997 Liberal Democrats 16.8% 46
2001 Liberal Democrats 18.3% 52
2005 Liberal Democrats 22.0% 62

The British first past the post electoral system penalises parties whose vote is evenly divided across the nation where their vote is less than a third of the vote resulting in them achieving a lower proportion of seats in the House of Commons than their proportion of the popular vote, 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 those elections although there has also been a trend of Liberal Democrat support strengthening on a regional basis in Scotland and in the South West of England, and in fact in 2005 a problem the Liberal Democrats faced in 2005 was a firming up of Conservative support in the South of England.

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 more poorly 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 establishment in 1999, and were also in coalition with Labour in the National Assembly for Wales from 1999 to 2003.

In the 2006 local elections across England, the Lib Dems beat Labour into second place on the national share of the vote gained when they won 27% of the vote. However, this only resulted in a net gain of two Councillors. The Liberal Democrats continued to make gains from Labour in many northern cities.


The Liberal Democrats describe their ideology as giving "power to the people". They state they are against the undemocratic concentration of power in unaccountable bodies. They propose decentralisation of power out of Westminster. They would also create a system of tiered government structures to make decisions at what they see as the right 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 intervention of the state in personal affairs. For this reason, they have been popular amongst gay rights campaigners and campaigners for the decriminalisation of recreational drugs.

Left wing or right wing?

Since the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major the Liberal Democrats and their precursor Liberal party have been seen as the centrist party of British politics. However, with Tony Blair's repositioning of Labour to the centre whilst the Lib Dems have defined themselves as a centre or even explicitly centre left party, they are now effectively the most left-wing of the United Kingdom's three main parties. With a few exceptions (most notably Paddy Ashdown ), Lib Dems opposed the 2003 Invasion of Iraq although with some division over whether troops should be withdrawn immediately or not once the war had begun , although they were the strongest advocates of the Kosovo War and before that, intervention in Bosnia. They favour higher taxes, but have also advocated 'pro-market' policies such as post office privatisation and the abolition of some government departments.

Some claim that attempting to place the Liberal Democrats within the 'left wing'-'right wing' model does not accurately represent their ideology and that the Liberal Democrats represent the Libertarian end of the Libertarian- Authoritarian axis, a political dimension that is orthogonal to the better-known Left-Right axis. For example some Lib Dems oppose the power of the trade unions while others oppose the power of the corporations. In fact their actual 'position' in both instances is an opposition to unaccountable power - whether it be left wing or right wing.

Others argue that this is consistent with both twentieth and twenty first century British politics, which is in turn an example of the traditional left-right spectrum of political analysis. According to this view, liberalism or political centrism is consistent with a left-right analysis of politics. Thus when the Lib Dems oppose the trade unions, they do so from the centre of the political spectrum with the trade unions being to the left of them. When the Lib Dems oppose the power of the large corporations, they still do this from the centre of the political spectrum with the difference being that the corporations are to the right of them.

Using a two-dimensional scale, Political Compass has labeled the Liberal Democrats as central on economic issues but liberal on social issues. Many would say that the party are more central-left on economic issues. The link to this chart can be found under the 'UK Election 2005' text on the navigation menu on the Political Compass website.

Left of Labour?

The shift in the political direction of Labour was initiated in the 1980s but accelerated in response to the party's fourth consecutive election defeat in 1992. Since the election of Tony Blair, the New Labour hierarchy have deliberately courted Conservative voters and even Conservative politicians on the basis that if they take the centre ground from the other parties, they gain power. In part they are able to do this because their own voters have nowhere to turn to the left of New Labour. Thus in recent years the Lib Dems have tried to a degree to accommodate these people, by adopting or at least making public, more social liberal policies. This approach has been successful to some degree. For example, the Marxist Tariq Ali implored Londoners to vote Lib Dem before the 2005 general election over the Iraq war.

In September 2005, however, there was a discussion at the Lib Dems conference as to whether the social liberal ideals have taken them as far as they can go, and whether they should now move back to the right in order to court Conservative voters. This could involve abolishing support for policies such as a proposed 50% tax rate for those who earn over £100,000. This policy proposal in particular has been used by the Conservative press to paint the party as 'left wing' and as such, this policy risks losing borderline and better off Lib Dem/Conservative voters. Proponents of a move to the right argue that left-wing policies could see the Lib Dems losing marginal seats to the Conservatives, seats which are vital if the Lib Dems wish to become the new 'official' opposition to any future Labour government. Opponents argue that the Lib Dems can unite the anti-Conservative vote in such marginal constituencies, and moving to the right risks losing other marginals in urban areas to the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru. They claim also that any move to the right could harm the Lib Dems in local elections, especially with the recent notable successes of the Greens. They also argue that a move to the right could lead not just to a loss of Lib Dem vote share, but also to a depressing of total turnout.


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 civil liberties, and have opposed the more authoritarian of Labour's anti-terror laws (e.g., detention without trial).
  • They support 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 support anti-discrimination laws. 25 Lib Dem MPs signed EDM710 calling on the government to extend the protections for religious groups, in respect of discrimination in the provisions of goods, facilities and services, to lesbians and gay men.
  • They are in favour of introducing a local income tax in place of the current council tax, which is collected based on the value of the taxpayer's house in 1991.
  • They are in favour of full UK participation in the European Union and an early referendum on joining the Euro. The party has a 'neutral/yes' view on joining the Euro and would only support joining the Euro if a referendum were to be held.
  • They are in favour of proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons, preferably by the STV system.
  • They are in favour of abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with an elected chamber.
  • They would fund 10,000 police officers (on top of Labour’s plans) and provide an extra 20,000 community support officers to back them up. Furthermore they would equip the police with new technology to tackle crime and cut time spent on paperwork.
  • They oppose the British national identity card. They support the use of biometrics in passports only, but the database behind these passports would carry only the information on the passport plus the biometric match.
  • They would establish a National Border Agency, bringing together officers from immigration, the police and customs, whose responsibilities currently overlap. This agency would deal with cross border crime, illegal immigration, terrorism and fraud.
  • They oppose the "protectionist labour market restrictions" imposed by many European governments on legal migrants from the new EU member states.
  • They would cut down on illegal working by inspecting employers and bringing prosecutions against those who use illegal labour.
  • They would use phone-taps and other ‘intercept communications’ as evidence in court against terrorist suspects, making prosecution easier.

The most well-known Liberal Democrat policy for most of the 1990s was to increase the basic rate of income tax by one percent to fund public services (especially education). This proposal was recently abandoned after Tony Blair's Labour government increased national insurance contributions by the same amount, a policy with much the same effect. Their current fiscal policies aim at increasing the top rate of income tax by 10 percent to 50% for those earning over £100,000 to fund their increased public spending plans, and to replace Council Tax 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.

The Liberal Democrats opposed UK participation in the 2003 Iraq war 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 David Laws, advocated a policy 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 abolishing the Department for Trade and Industry in 2004.

Current party policies can be found on the party website:

  • Most recent manifesto (external link)
  • Detailed policy papers (external link)

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 Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group in the European Parliament.

Proportional representation

Unlike the other main political parties in the United Kingdom, the Lib Dems have always strongly advocated Proportional representation. This has always been a cornerstone of the Party's policies, and on many occasions has been cited as a key requirement of any Lib Dem involvement in a coalition government. Several deals have been struck with Labour and Conservative leaders in the past, promising Liberal and Lib Dem support in return for a commitment to consider the introduction of PR, but the two major parties have always found it more advantageous to stick with first-past-the-post.

Both the Liberal Democrats and its Liberal and SDP predecessors have suffered under the current first past the post voting system. They have maintained a substantial part of the popular vote while being unable to focus that support in specific constituencies. This has been less of a problem in the 2001 and 2005 general elections, with the party focusing its resources on key winnable constituencies. Many credit this to the party's chief election strategist Lord Rennard.

There is currently a debate within the party as to whether this should remain such a high-profile issue. Indeed it is not certain that proportional representation would benefit the Lib Dems, who have performed less well than expected in elections using such a system (e.g. elections to the European Parliament).

The party has usually advocated the adoption of the single transferable vote with multi-member constituencies. A common debate in the party revolves around whether or not to give support to other forms of proportional representation that the party regards as flawed, such as the closed party lists for the European Parliament, since it may make it harder to achieve the single transferable vote.

Internal factions

Broadly speaking, Liberal Democrats can be classified into two main political factions:

Social liberals have dominated the party since its formation in 1988. Drawing inspiration from the likes of David Lloyd George, William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes, individuals from this wing of the party are keen advocates of the welfare state, higher taxation, and of government regulation to protect consumers, employees and the environment. Support for civil liberties and human rights is key to the social liberal outlook. Examples of social liberals within the modern parliamentary party include Paul Holmes, Norman Baker and Simon Hughes.

The free-market liberal or Libertarian wing of the party shares with social liberals a belief in basic civil and political freedoms ( negative freedoms). However, whereas social liberals further argue that the state should provide additional social and economic rights to its citizens ( positive freedoms), market liberals take a non-interventionist approach and are critical of government's ability to increase freedom. This often manifests itself as support for greater economic freedom, causing some tension between the two wings of the party. Many MPs from this wing contributed to the Orange Book ( 2004), a collection of essays intended to spark debate on a greater role for free-market liberalism in party policy, which led some commentators to question whether the party was undergoing a shift to the right. Some party donors, elements of the media and many non-urban elected party officials are known to back this wing of the party. Leading market liberals within the parliamentary party include Vincent Cable, David Laws and Chris Huhne.

It would be easy, but misleading, to presume to characterise these two wings of the party as consisting of former SDP members and former Liberal Party members respectively. However, many prominent social liberals (including Paddy Ashdown) were former Liberal MPs, whereas some prominent market liberals (such as Vincent Cable) came to the Liberal Democrats from the SDP. Content of personnel in these two wings are almost totally unrelated to such former party affiliation, whereas some ideological features of these wings can be said to have been stronger represented in former element parties.


The Liberal Democrats are a federal party comprising the state parties of Wales, Scotland and England, with around 72,000 members in total. 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), Engineers & Scientists ( ALDES), 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.One group notable by their omission are the Liberal Clubs(NULC).

The Parliamentary Parties - in the House of Commons, in the House of Lords and in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly - form semi-autonomous units within the party. The leaders in the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament are the leaders of the federal party and of the Scottish Party; the leaders in the other two chambers and the other officers of all the parliamentary parties are elected by those parties from amongst their own number. With the great expansion of the Parliamentary Parties and the increase in the finance available to those organisations, such as Short money in recent years, the Parliamentary parties have become a challenge to the power of the official party institutions. The power battle between federal officers and Parliamentary officers is ongoing.

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.

Leaders of the Liberal Democrats

  • David Steel and Robert Maclennan, 1988 (interim)
  • Paddy Ashdown, 1988 – 1999
  • Charles Kennedy, 1999 – 2006
  • Sir Menzies Campbell, 2006 –

Deputy Leaders of the Parliamentary Party of the Liberal Democrats

  • Russell Johnston, 1988 - 1992
  • Alan Beith, 1992 - 2003
  • Sir Menzies Campbell, 2003 – 2006
  • Vincent Cable, 2006 -

Liberal Democrat Shadow Cabinet

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