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Liberal Democrats (UK)
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Liberal Democrats (UK)

This text is part of the Liberalism series (III)
Liberalism in countries / Liberal parties
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The Liberal Democrats ("Lib Dems") are a politically liberal 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.

Table of contents
1 Introduction
2 History of the Liberal Democrats
3 Electoral results
4 Ideology
5 Structure
6 Leaders of the Liberal Democrats, 1988-Present
7 Frontbench: "Shadow cabinet"
8 External links


The Liberal Democrats do not easily fit into the "left-right" political spectrum. They are not a party founded on economic principles; while promoting some politically and socially liberal policies, they do not espouse an explicit economically liberal doctrine as seen in other "Liberal Parties" in other countries. Instead, 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. Their 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.

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. For a detailed history of the Liberal Party see that article.

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.

In 1981, with the Labour Party moving to the left a group of moderate Labour MPs left and established the Social Democratic Party (SDP), claiming to preserve previous Labour Party traditions.

The SDP and the Liberals soon realised that their 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 dissapointing results at the 1987 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 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.

The minority of the SDP who rejected the merger remained under David Owen's leadership, and some Liberal rejectionists also continued with the name "Liberal Party".

Post-1988 history

The former Liberal Paddy 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, as the centre ground was traditionally their territory.

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

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

The Liberal Democrats have positioned themselves as an anti-Iraq War party, and took part in the anti-war march led by their party leader.

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

Because of how the first past the post electoral system operates, the number of MPs elected from the Lib-Dems – and their forerunners – has been disproportionately small. 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.

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 progressively larger 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 centre, many now view the Lib Dems as being the most left-wing of Britain's mainstream parties and classify the Lib Dems as centre left.

However, attempting to place the Liberal Democrats within the 'left wing'-'right wing' model does not accurately represent their ideology. Liberalism claims to oppose undemocratic power in any form. When they 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. But neither term accurately represents the Lib Dems' ideology.


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:

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.

Current party policies can be found on the party website:

The Liberal Democrats are a member party of the Liberal International and their 11 MEPs form part of the ELDR group in the European Parliament.


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 Tories, the Lib Dems have chosen not to contest elections in the province. Instead, they have opted to work closely with the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.

See also:

Leaders of the Liberal Democrats, 1988-Present

The Liberal Democrats have often been seen as sniping at their leaders. Paddy Ashdown was seen as being too militaristic and of being too willing to co-operate with Tony Blair. Charles Kennedy has been described as being too laid-back for an active campaigning party, and rumours have been circulated that he drinks more than would be expected of a Party Leader.

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".

(As of December 2003)

External links

Links to Liberal Democrat organisations

Main (federal) party

State Parties

Specified Associated Organisations (SAOs)

Associated Organisations (AOs)

Local parties

Unofficial websites