The Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) are a liberal political party in the United Kingdom. As of May 2020, the party is currently the third largest in the UK in terms of votes cast in a general election, with 11 Members of Parliament in the House of Commons, 91 members of the House of Lords, five Members of the Scottish Parliament and one member in each of the Welsh Parliament and the London Assembly. It formed a coalition government of the United Kingdom with the Conservative Party from 2010–15. It is also currently in coalition with the Labour Party in the devolved Welsh government, and has also formed coalitions with the Labour Party in Scotland.
In 1981, an electoral alliance was established between the Liberal Party, a group which was the direct descendant of the 18th-century Whigs, and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a splinter group from the Labour Party. In 1988, the parties merged as the Social and Liberal Democrats, adopting their present name over a year later. Under the leadership of Paddy Ashdown and later Charles Kennedy, the party grew during the 1990s and 2000s, focusing its campaigns on specific seats and becoming the third-largest party in the House of Commons. Under the leadership of Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats were junior partners in David Cameron's Conservative-led coalition government in which Clegg served as Deputy Prime Minister. Although it allowed them to implement some of their policies, the coalition damaged the Lib Dems' electoral prospects and it suffered heavy losses at the 2015 general election. Following this, under the leaderships of Tim Farron, Vince Cable and Jo Swinson, it refocused itself as a party opposing Brexit.
Positioned in the centre ground of British politics, the Liberal Democrats ideologically draw upon both liberalism and social democracy. Different factions have dominated the party at different points in its history, each with its own ideological bent, some leaning towards the centre-left and others the centre-right. The party calls for constitutional reform, including a transition from the first-past-the-post voting system to proportional representation. Emphasising stronger protections for civil liberties, the party promotes socially liberal approaches to issues like LGBT rights, drug liberalisation, education policy, and criminal justice. It favours a market-based economy supplemented with social welfare spending. The party is internationalist and pro-European, it supports a People's Vote for the continued UK membership of the European Union and greater European integration, previously calling for adoption of the euro currency. The Lib Dems have promoted further environmental protections and opposed certain UK military engagements like the Iraq War.
The Liberal Democrats are historically strongest in northern Scotland, south-west London, south-west England and mid-Wales. Membership is primarily middle-class and more heavily university educated than most UK parties. The party's partner in Northern Ireland is the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. Internationally, the party is a member of the Liberal International and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party, with its MEPs formerly affiliated to the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament.
The Liberal Party had existed in different forms for over 300 years. During the 19th and early 20th century, it had been one of the United Kingdom's two dominant political parties, along with the Conservative Party. Following World War I, it was pushed into third place by the Labour Party and underwent a gradual decline throughout the rest of the 20th century. In the 1970s, the Liberal leader David Steel began contemplating how an alliance with other parties could return it to political power. In 1977, he formed a pact with Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan to back Callaghan's government in a motion of no confidence. This angered many Liberals and damaged them electorally. In the 1979 general election, the Liberals lost three seats in the House of Commons; the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, won the election.
Within Labour, many centrists were uncomfortable with the growing influence of the hard left, who were calling for the UK to leave the European Economic Community and unilaterally disarm as a nuclear power. In January 1981, four senior Labour MPs—Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, and David Owen, known as the "Gang of Four"—issued the Limehouse Declaration in which they announced their split from Labour. This led to the formal launch of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in March. One of its first decisions was to negotiate an electoral arrangement with the Liberals, facilitated between Jenkins, who was the first SDP leader, and Steel.
The new alliance initially did well in opinion polls. The SDP and Liberals agreed to contest alternating by-elections: the Liberals won in Warrington and the SDP in Crosby and Glasgow Hillhead between 1982 and 1983. At the 1983 general election, the Liberals gained five additional seats although the SDP lost many that they had previously inherited from Labour. After the 1983 election, Owen replaced Jenkins as head of the SDP. Several gains were made in subsequent by-elections: the SDP won in Portsmouth South and Greenwich and the Liberals in Brecon and Radnor and Ryedale.
Foundation and early years (1987–1992)
Both parties lost seats in the 1987 general election. In the wake of this, Steel called for the SDP and Liberals to merge into a single party. At the grassroots, various local constituency groups had already de facto merged. In the SDP, Jenkins, Rodgers, Williams, and the MP Charles Kennedy supported the idea; Owen and the MPs Rosie Barnes and John Cartwright opposed it. The SDP's membership was balloted on the idea: after it produced 57.4% in favour of the merger, Owen resigned as leader, to be replaced by Bob Maclennan. A Liberal conference in September found delegates providing a landslide majority for the merger. Formal negotiations launched that month and in December it produced a draft constitution for the new party. In 1988, Liberal and SDP meetings both produced majorities for the merger; finally, the memberships of both parties were balloted and both produced support for unification. Those in both parties opposed to unification split to form their own breakaway groups.
The Social and Liberal Democrats were formally launched on 3 March 1988. Steel and Maclennan initially became joint interim leaders. At the start, it claimed 19 MPs, 3,500 local councillors, and 100,000 members. In its first leadership election, Paddy Ashdown defeated Alan Beith. Ashdown saw the Liberal Democrats as a radical, reforming force, putting forward policies for introducing home rule for Scotland and Wales, proportional representation, transforming the House of Lords into an elected Senate, and advancing environmental protections. At the September 1988 conference it adopted the short form name "the Democrats" and in October 1989 changed its name to "Liberal Democrats". The bird of liberty was adopted as its logo. In 1989, its election results were poor: it lost 190 seats in the May 1989 local elections and secured only 6.4% of the vote in the 1989 European Parliament elections, beaten to third position by the Green Party of England and Wales. This was the worst election result for an established third party since the 1950s. Its prospects were buoyed after it won the 1990 Eastbourne by-election, followed by-election victories in Ribble Valley and Kincardine and Deeside. In the 1991 local elections it secured a net gain of 520 seats. In the 1992 general election, it secured 17.8% of the vote and 20 seats in the House of Commons: 9 of these were in Scotland and 5 in Southwest England.
Consolidation and growth (1992–1999)
Between 1992 and 1997 the party underwent a period of consolidation, particularly on local councils. In the 1994 local elections, it came second, pushing the Conservatives into third place. In the 1994 European Parliament elections, it gained two Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). In 1993, the party was damaged by allegations of racism on the Liberal Democrat-controlled council in Tower Hamlets; it faced additional problems as its distinctive centrist niche was threatened by the rise of Tony Blair and New Labour, a project which pushed Labour to the centre. At the 1997 general election, it fielded 639 candidates, securing 46 MPs, the greatest number that the Liberals had had since 1929. These were concentrated in Southwest England, Southwest London, and areas of Scotland.
Although Blair's Labour won a landslide victory in 1997 and did not require a coalition government, Blair was interested in cooperation with the Lib Dems. In July 1997 he invited Ashdown and other senior Lib Dems to join a Cabinet Committee on constitutional affairs. Privately, Blair offered the Liberal Democrats a coalition but later backed down amid fears that it would split his own Cabinet. The joint Committee launched the Independent Commission on the Voting System in December; its report, published in October 1998, proposed the change from the first past the post electoral system to an alternative vote top-up system. This was not the Lib Dems preferred option—they wanted full proportional representation—although Ashdown hailed it as "a historic step forward". Many Lib Dems were concerned by Ashdown's growing closeness with Labour; aware of this, he stepped down as party leader in 1999. Before he did so, the party took part in the 1999 elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. In both, the Lib Dems came fourth and became Labour's junior coalition partners.
Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell (1999–2007)
The MP Simon Hughes was initially seen as Ashdown's most likely successor, but was defeated in the contest by Charles Kennedy. To reduce the impact of more leftist members who tended to dominate at conferences, Kennedy proposed that all members—rather than just conference delegates—should vote for the party's federal executive and federal policy committees. In 2001, Kennedy suspended the Joint Cabinet Committee with Labour. The media characterised him as "Inaction Man" and accused him of lacking a clear identity and political purpose; later criticism also focused on his alcoholism. In the 2001 general election, the party fielded 639 candidates and made a net gain of 6, bringing its total of seats to 52.
Following the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States and the launch of the U.S.-led War on Terror, the Liberal Democrat MPs backed the government's decision to participate in the United States invasion of Afghanistan. The party was more critical of Blair's decision to participate in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003; Kennedy joined the large anti-war march in London. With the Conservatives backing the Labour government's decision to go to war, the Lib Dems were the only major party opposing it. In following years, Lib Dem MPs increasingly voted against the Labour government on a range of issues. Much of this Lib Dem opposition to the government came from their members in the House of Lords. In the 2003 local elections, the party secured about 30% of the vote, its highest ever result.
In 2004, The Orange Book anthology was published. Written largely by centre-right economists in the party, it sparked discussions about Liberal Democrat philosophy and brought criticism from the party's social-liberal wing. In the 2005 general election, the Lib Dems secured 62 seats, the most the Liberals had had since 1923. Kennedy however faced growing calls to resign over his alcoholism; in January 2006 he did so. In March, Menzies Campbell succeeded him as party leader. Campbell was not popular with voters and faced a resurgent Conservative Party under David Cameron; in the May 2007 local elections the party experienced a net loss of nearly 250 seats. In that year's Scottish Parliament election, the Scottish National Party (SNP) secured the largest vote and the Lib Dem/Labour coalition ended. Campbell was frustrated at the constant media focus on the fact that he was in his late sixties; in October he resigned and Vince Cable became acting leader.
Nick Clegg and coalition with the Conservatives (2007–2015)
In December 2007, Nick Clegg narrowly beat Chris Huhne to take the party's leadership. Clegg's reshuffle of the leadership team was seen by many as a shift to the right; under Clegg, the party moved away from the social democratic focus it displayed previously. It rebranded itself as a party that would cut rather than raise taxes and dropped its hard pro-EU position. In the 2008 local elections it gained 34 seats, beating Labour in terms of vote share. The following year, the party was damaged by the expenses scandal as several Lib Dem MPs and peers were found to have misused their expenses; Campbell for example was revealed to have claimed nearly £10,000 in expenses for luxury home furnishings. In the build-up to the 2010 general election, Clegg took part in the UK's first televised party leaders debate; he was generally considered to have performed well, with pundits referring to an ensuing "Cleggmania".
In the election, the Lib Dems secured 23% of the vote and 57 seats; the Conservatives were the largest party but lacked a majority. The Conservatives and Lib Dems formed a coalition government, with Clegg becoming Deputy Prime Minister. Four other Lib Dems—Cable, Huhne, Danny Alexander, and David Laws—entered the coalition Cabinet. Of the 57 Liberal Democrat MPs, only two refused to support the Conservative Coalition agreement, with former party leader Charles Kennedy and Manchester Withington MP John Leech both rebelling against. Many Lib Dems opposed the move, with some favouring a coalition deal with Labour. As part of the coalition agreement, the Conservatives agreed to Lib Dem demands to introduce elected health boards, put forward a Fixed Term Parliament Bill, and end income tax for those earning less than £10,000 a year. The Conservatives also agreed to shelve their plans to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a proposed British Bill of Rights. The Conservatives refused to agree to Lib Dem demands for proportional referendum, instead offering a referendum on a switch from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote system. The coalition introduced an emergency budget to attack the fiscal deficit.
After joining the coalition poll ratings for the party fell, particularly following the government's support for raising the cap on tuition fees with Liberal Democrat MPs voting 27 for, 21 against and 8 abstaining. The Liberal Democrats had made opposing tuition fees a major message of their campaign, with all of the party's MPs, including Nick Clegg, signing the Vote for Students pledge to oppose any increase in student tuition fees prior to the 2010 general election. Clegg later made a formal apology for breaking this promise in September 2012. Shortly after the 2015 general election, Liberal Democrat leadership contender Norman Lamb conceded that Clegg's broken pledge on university tuition had proven costly.
In the May 2011 local elections and the elections for the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament, the Liberal Democrats suffered heavy defeats. Clegg admitted that the party had taken "big knocks" due to a perception that the coalition government had returned to the Thatcherism of the 1980s.
As part of the deal that formed the coalition, it was agreed to hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote, in which the Conservatives would campaign for First Past the Post and the Liberal Democrats for Alternative Vote. The referendum, held on 5 May 2011, resulted in First Past the Post being chosen over Alternative Vote by approximately two-thirds of voters. In May 2011, Clegg revealed plans to make the House of Lords a mainly elected chamber, limiting the number of peers to 300, 80% of whom would be elected with a third of that 80% being elected every 5 years by single transferable vote. In August 2012, Clegg announced that attempts to reform the House of Lords would be abandoned due to opposition for the proposals by backbench Conservative MPs. Claiming the coalition agreement had been broken, Clegg stated that Liberal Democrat MPs would no longer support changes to the House of Commons boundaries for the 2015 general election. The Lib Dem Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne in 2011 announced plans for halving UK carbon emissions by 2025 as part of the "Green Deal" which was in the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto.
The Lib Dems lost over 300 councillors in the 2012 local elections, leaving them with fewer than 3000 for the first time in the party's history. In June 2012 it was reported that membership of the party had fallen by around 20% since joining the coalition. On 20 September 2012 Clegg personally apologised for breaking his pledge not to raise university tuition fees.
In February 2013, the party won a by-election in Eastleigh, the Hampshire constituency that had previously been held by the former minister, Chris Huhne. The party's candidate, Mike Thornton, had been a local councillor for the party, and held the seat. In eighteen other by-elections held throughout the 2010–15 Parliament, the party lost its deposit in 11; in the Rochester and Strood by-election held on 20 November 2014, it came fifth polling 349 votes or 0.9% of the total votes cast. This was both the worst result in the history of the party, and of any governing party. In the 2014 local elections, the Liberal Democrats lost another 307 council seats and ten of their eleven seats in the European Parliament in the 2014 European elections.
The Liberal Democrats experienced its worst-ever showing in the 2015 general election, losing 48 seats in the House of Commons, leaving them with only eight MPs. Prominent Liberal Democrat MPs who lost their seats included former leader Charles Kennedy, former deputy leaders Vince Cable and Simon Hughes, and several cabinet ministers. The party held onto just eight constituencies. The Conservatives won an outright majority. Clegg then announced his resignation as party leader.
Opposing Brexit (2015–2019)
Membership of the Liberal Democrats rose from 45,000 to 61,000 as the party prepared to hold its 2015 party leadership ballot. On 16 July 2015, Tim Farron was elected to the leadership of the party with 56.5% of the vote, beating opponent Norman Lamb. In the May 2016 local elections, the Liberal Democrats gained a small number of council seats, though they lost ground in the National Assembly for Wales. The party campaigned for a Remain vote in the referendum on United Kingdom membership of the European Union in June 2016. After the Leave vote, the Liberal Democrats sought to mobilise the 48% who voted Remain, and the party's membership rose again, reaching 80,000 by September.
In the 2017 general election, during which the party advocated continued membership of the European Single Market and a referendum on the Brexit withdrawal agreement, the Liberal Democrats' vote share dropped 0.5% to 7.4%, its lowest percentage ever, but produced a net gain of four seats. Farron then resigned; in July 2017 Vince Cable was elected leader unopposed. He called for a second referendum on the UK's relationship with the European Union. In December 2018, the MP for Eastbourne, Stephen Lloyd, resigned the Liberal Democrat Whip, saying that his party's position on Brexit was inconsistent with his pledge to his constituency that he would "respect the result" of the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum. Although Lloyd remained a Liberal Democrat member, this took the number of sitting Liberal Democrat MPs down to 11.
The party gained 704 councillors in the 2019 local elections. In the 2019 European Parliament election the party ran with an anti-Brexit message seeking the support of those who wish the UK to remain in the EU, using the slogan "Bollocks to Brexit" which attracted considerable media attention. In that election, the party gained 20% of the popular vote and returned 16 MEPs. In May, Cable stood down as leader, triggering a leadership election.
Between June and October 2019, the total number of MPs rose from 11 to 21, following eight defections from other parties, one by-election win, and Lloyd retaking the whip. The defections were mainly former MPs of Change UK, with Chuka Umunna and Sarah Wollaston joining directly from the party, whereas Heidi Allen, Luciana Berger, and Angela Smith joined after subsequently being part of The Independents. The remaining defectors were three of the 21 rebel Conservative MPs who had the whip withdrawn for voting against the government on a piece of legislation which would prevent a no-deal scenario on 31 October 2019: Antoinette Sandbach, Sam Gyimah, and Phillip Lee. The latter physically crossed the floor during the debate on the legislation, effectively removing the majority of the first Johnson government.
Heading into the 2019 general election, the party polled well, with one poll showing the party with 20% (within 4% of Labour) as late as 28 October. Nonetheless, during the campaign period the party's fortunes dwindled, and leader Jo Swinson received negative reviews. In the election, the Liberal Democrats lost ten seats from the previous parliament and one from the previous election, returning 11 MPs. Of the nine new MPs who joined between June and October 2019, the eight who contested their seats in the 2019 general election all lost their seats. However, the party did gain 4.2% in the vote, rising to 11.6%. Swinson herself narrowly lost her East Dunbartonshire constituency to the Scottish National Party's Amy Callaghan, and Swinson resigned the party leadership the next day. Deputy Leader Ed Davey and Party President Sal Brinton then jointly assumed the positions of acting co-leaders of the party. Brinton was at the end of the year (31 December 2019) replaced by Mark Pack as Party President and acting co-leader while Mike Dixon remains the party CEO.
Events post-Brexit (2020–present)
As of 2020, the party has 90 peers in the House of Lords. The Lib Dems' federal board set out a timetable in January 2020 which stated that a new party leader would be elected in July 2020. Due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United Kingdom in the late winter and spring which saw many politicians infected, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the party's board initially pushed the leadership election back to May 2021. The decision was reversed in May 2020 to hold the leadership election in July 2020.
— Whiteley et al, 2006
The "traditional liberalism" of the Liberal Party had emphasised free trade, religious tolerance, individual freedom and internationalism while the "new liberalism" associated with Liberal leader David Lloyd George had also foregrounded the need for the state to provide for the welfare of its citizens. In Britain, the divide between social democracy and social liberalism has become increasingly blurred since the Second World War.
The Liberal Democrats are a liberal party, with classical liberal and social liberal factions. The party is widely seen as being centrist, while some describe it as centre-left. Although the party has positioned itself in the centre ground of British politics, the political scientists Paul Whiteley, Patrick Seyd, and Antony Billinghurst noted that "conventional wisdom" held that the Liberal Democrats were "the centre party of British politics". They argued that this was to some extent misleading because "there have been times when the party has been more right wing than the Conservatives, and other times when it has been more left wing than Labour." They added that "Liberal Democrat ideology does not fall easily into a simple left-right dimension".
According to political pundits like Chris Cook and John Meadowcroft, the Liberal Democrats were set up as a centre-left party. Ashdown hoped that the Liberal Democrats could replace Labour on the centre-left of the political spectrum, something he thought would be achieved with the growing rejection of socialism. According to Cook, Ashdown envisioned "a party which supported both social justice and enterprise culture". In a 1999 survey, 58% of party members thought it was neither left nor right, 36% thought it was "fairly" left-wing, and 5% thought it "fairly" right-wing. As Blair's Labour Party moved towards the centre on many issues, the Lib Dems positioned themselves as the centre-left party of British politics; Kennedy underscored the idea of the Lib Dems as a party for social justice, stating: "Labour [under Blair] is no longer driven by a passion to fight poverty and inequality in Britain. I am, and so is our party." Under Clegg, the party repositioned itself in the political spectrum, with many commentators noting that its fiscal policies moved closer to those of the Conservatives.
Within the Liberal Democrats, the two main ideological strands are social liberals and economic liberals. The principal difference between the two is that the economic liberals tend to support greater choice and competition and aim to increase social mobility through economic deregulation and creation of opportunity, whereas the social liberals are more commonly associated with directly aiming to increase equality of outcome through state intervention. Economic liberals tend to favour cutting taxes for the poorest in order to increase opportunity, contrasting with social liberals who would rather see higher spending on public services and the disadvantaged in order to reduce income inequality.
The strand of social liberalism in the party is influenced by William Beveridge, who is credited with drafting further advancements of the welfare state, and economist John Maynard Keynes. In 2009, social liberals founded the Social Liberal Forum, a pressure group within the party, to pursue social liberal policies. Notable social liberals in the Liberal Democrats include Tim Farron, David Steel, Paddy Ashdown, Menzies Campbell, Charles Kennedy, and Simon Hughes. The party has also been described as having a social-democratic wing, identified with party figures including Kennedy, Ashdown and Campbell, with former leader Vince Cable self-identifying himself as a social democrat (Kennedy and Cable had been members of the SDP before the merger).
In 2000, Meadowcroft stated that at that time, the party's policies were "more recognisably social democratic than liberal". In 2004, members of the economic liberal strand contributed to The Orange Book, which contained social market economy policies and was seen as an attempt to move the party towards the centre-ground. Notable economic liberals include Nick Clegg, David Laws and Jeremy Browne, a group which has since been referred to as the "Orange Book Liberals".
On 13 February 2012, those welcoming social liberalism while advocating the equal importance of economic liberalism, founded Liberal Reform. The group opposes what it regards as illiberal policies and abuses of power, such as detention without trial, while advocating employee share ownership, tax cuts for those on low and middle incomes, the right of citizens to freedom of information, and of their right to personal privacy.
The Liberal Democrats support institutional reform in the United Kingdom, including the decentralisation of state power, reform of Parliament, and electoral reform. At its 1993 conference, the party put forward plans for the introduction of fixed term parliaments, something it secured while in the coalition government of 2010–15. Also in 1993, it also proposed state funding for political parties.
The Liberal Democrats have long included a commitment to proportional representation in their manifestos. According to the New Statesman, this is the "one policy with which the Liberal Democrats are identified in the minds of the public." The Lib Dems calls for devolution or home rule for Scotland and Wales were enacted by Blair's Labour government in the late 1990s. The 1993 conference also called for the introduction of a bill of rights into the British constitution. Its 2001 manifesto included a commitment to lowering the voting age from 18 to 16.
According to a 1999 survey, two-thirds of party members supported retaining the monarchy. In the 1990s, there was an anti-royalist contingent within the party; in 1993, the party conference announced support for removing the royal prerogative, and the 2000 conference backed calls for the monarch to be removed as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. At its 2003 conference, the party's Youth and Student League put forward a motion calling for the abolition of the monarchy and the introduction of an elected head of state. The 2000 party conference produced a call for the 1701 Act of Settlement to be reformed so as to allow the heir to the throne to marry a Roman Catholic, while the party's 2001 manifesto called for the disestablishment of the Church of England.
The 1999 membership survey found that most favoured free markets and individual responsibility; they were nevertheless split on whether or not they regarded private enterprise as the best way to solve economic problems. Most were against either further privatisation or further nationalisation, although they were overwhelmingly favourable to increasing taxation and government spending. The membership was also heavily against additional restrictions on trade unions.
Liberal Democrat policy has generally been favourable to social welfare spending. During the 2000s, the party made pledges for major investment into health, education, and public services. In 1995, the party announced a plan to put £2 billion into education, including nursery places for under fives, while its 2005 manifesto included a commitment to use £1.5 billion to decrease class sizes in schools. In the 2000s, the party also pledged to abolish tuition fees for university students, and in the build-up to the 2010 general election, Clegg pledged that under a Lib Dem government this would be achieved over six years. In 2004, it pledged to add £25 a week to the state pension for people over the age of 75. In 2003, it outlined plans for devolving control of schools to local councils.
In the mid-1990s and early 2000s, it stated that such increases in education spending would be funded through higher taxes. These included a 50% tax on those earning over £100,000 a year, and the addition of an extra penny on the basic rate tax. In 2003, the party's conference approved plans for a local income tax of 3.5 pence in the pound that would replace council tax; the party believed that this would result in 70% of the population paying less tax. In 2006, the party abandoned its plans for a 50% tax on the highest earners, and also put forward plans to cut income tax but balance the books by increasing tax on air travel and introducing a carbon tax.
Under Clegg, the party emphasised lowering taxes rather than raising them; it stated that a 4 pence reduction in the basic rate tax could be permitted by finding £20 billion savings in Whitehall. This measure was opposed by the left of the party. Amid the 2008 recession, Clegg called for £20 billion cuts to state spending, to be funded by measures like reducing the number of people eligible for tax credits and scrapping road building schemes. In its 2010 manifesto, it pledged to end income taxes for those earning under £10,000 a year, something it introduced through the Cameron coalition government. Also in 2010, it stated that it would halve the national deficit over the course of four years. It had also specified that it would oppose any increases in VAT, although when in coalition announced an increase in VAT to 20%.
The Liberal Democrats were the only one of Britain's three major parties to oppose the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The party's leadership stressed that this was not because the party was intrinsically anti-war, but because the invasion did not have support from the United Nations. In the wake of the invasion, the party's 2005 manifesto included a pledge that the UK would never again support a military occupation deemed illegal under international law. Menzies Campbell demanded the suspension of all future arms exports to Israel. Other policies included:
- At a Lib Dem conference in 2015, considered an early test of the leadership of Tim Farron, Lib Dem activists voted against a "scrap Trident" motion. Following the conference, a spokesperson for the Lib Dems said: "There has been much discussion about how quickly, safely and efficiently Britain can reduce its nuclear capability. The party will now look into the options for the future of Britain's nuclear deterrent. Tim Farron believes Britain should be stepping down the nuclear ladder and doing so in conjunction with our NATO allies around the world."
- A full judicial inquiry into allegations of British complicity in torture and state kidnapping.
- The Liberal Democrats have also successfully accomplished prohibiting British companies from selling chemicals abroad where it is known that they may be used in carrying out the death penalty.
- The Liberal Democrats called on the UK government to suspend UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia and condemned the Saudi-led coalition's attacks targeting civilians in Yemen.
- The Liberal Democrats condemned the unilateral Turkish invasion of the Kurdish areas in Syria.
Internationalism and European integration
Whiteley et al. noted that "like the Liberals before them, [the Liberal Democrats] have taken a strong positive position on internationalism", including the need for international cooperation, aid for the developing world, and European integration. In this they have always been more internationalist and pro-Europeanist than either Labour or the Conservatives.
From its foundation, the Liberal Democrats were wholly committed to the UK's membership of the European Union. In 1993, it called for the UK to take a lead in seeking a timetable for the adoption of a pan-European currency, and also called for the formation of an autonomous European central bank. A 1999 survey of party members found they overwhelmingly backed European integration, and two thirds wanted the UK to adopt the euro currency. In its 1999 manifesto for the European Parliamentary elections, it called for completing the European single market, holding a referendum on the adoption of the euro currency, establishing an EU constitution, expanding the EU into Central and Eastern Europe, and encouraging an EU-wide clampdown on pollution and international crime. This attitude had been inherited from the Liberal Party which had originally proposing membership into the predecessor European Coal and Steel Community. However, the Liberal Democrats oppose the European federalism espoused by their counterparts.
Despite its pro-European stance, the party has included Eurosceptics such as the MP Nick Harvey. The 1999 membership survey found that 37% wanted the UK to remain in the EU but to have the latter's powers reduced while 5% of members wanted the UK to leave the EU altogether. Cook argued that whereas the Lib Dems were once "the most pro-European of all British parties", by 2008 it had "a vocal Eurosceptic element" who were opposed to the British ratification of the EU's Lisbon Treaty without a referendum. Under Clegg, the party backed away from its hardline pro-EU position.
In June 2016, following the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum in which 51.9% of those voting voted in favour of leaving the European Union, Tim Farron stated that if Liberal Democrats were to be elected in the next parliamentary election, they would not follow through with triggering Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union and leaving the EU ("Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements") but would instead keep UK part of the EU. Following this promise, the Liberal Democrats claim that their membership has increased by 10,000 since the referendum; at one point, the growth in the party was the equivalent of one person joining per minute. Campaigning for a second referendum regarding the exact goals of Brexit negotiation is currently one of the party's flagship policies.
The Liberal Democrats have strongly advocated for environmental protection and have typically taken more radical stances on environmental issues than either Labour or the Conservatives. In 1993, the party put forward proposals for an EU tax on energy use and CO2 emissions. That year, it also proposed that GDP should be redefined to take into account pollution and the depletion of natural resources. At its 2009 conference, the party introduced a commitment for Lib Dem controlled councils to cut their carbon emissions by 10% in 2010. Other policies included:
- Designate an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas with appropriate management by 2020.
- Encourage the uptake of water metering, including introducing metering in all defined water-stressed areas by 2025, coupled with the development of national social tariffs to protect low income households.
- Complete the coastal path, introduce a fuller Right to Roam and a new designation of National Nature Parks to protect up to a million acres of accessible green space valued by local communities.
Human rights and individual liberty
The Liberal Democrats place greater emphasis on human rights and individual freedoms than the Conservatives or Labour. Conversely, the political scientist John Meadowcroft expressed the view that "the Liberal Democrats are a supposedly liberal party that does not believe in liberty." Commenting on the 1999 membership survey, Whiteley et al. noted that the majority of members took "a distinctly right of centre view" on many, although not all, moral and legal issues.
Its 1997 manifesto committed the party to lowering the age of consent for same-sex couples to 16, bringing it in line with that for mixed-sex couples. At its 2000 conference, party delegates backed calls for the government to provide legal recognition for same-sex relationships. In the 1999 membership survey, 57% believed that the government should discourage the growth of one-parent families. That same survey found just over half of the party membership expressing pro-choice views regarding abortion access.
At its 1994 conference, party delegates voted to end criminal prosecutions for cannabis possession, although the party's 23 MPs voted against the measure. The 1999 membership survey suggested a tougher stance on many law and order issues, with over half wanting longer sentencing and no option of parole for those serving life sentences. The 2004 party congress approved a ban on smoking in public places.
In March 2016, the Liberal Democrats became the first major political party in the UK to support the legalisation of cannabis. The party supports cannabis sale and possession to be legal for all UK adults aged 18-years-old and over, the set up of specialist licensed stores to sell cannabis, the legalisation of home cultivation of cannabis for personal use, small scale cannabis clubs to be licensed, and a new regulator to oversee the market.
Organisation and structure
The Liberal Democrats are a federal party of the parties of England, Scotland, and Wales. The English and Scottish parties are further split into regions. The parliamentary parties of the House of Commons, the House of Lords, 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 the Scottish Party; the leaders in the other two chambers, and the officers of all parliamentary parties, are elected from their own number. Co-ordination of all party activities across all federated groups is undertaken through the Federal Board. Chaired by the party leader, its 30+ members includes representatives from each of the groups and democratically elected representatives.
In the first quarter of 2008, the party received £1.1 million in donations and have total borrowings and unused credit facilities of £1.1 million (the "total debt" figure reported by the Electoral Commission includes, for example, unused overdraft facilities). This compares to Labour's £3.1 million in donations and £17.8 million of borrowing/credit facilities, and the Conservatives' £5.7 million in donations and £12.1 million of borrowing/credit facilities.
Specified Associated Organisations (SAOs) review and input policies, representing groups including: ethnic minorities (LDCRE), women (WLD), the LGBT community (LGBT+ Liberal Democrats), youth and students (Young Liberals), engineers and scientists (ALDES), parliamentary candidates (PCA) and local councillors (ALDC). Others can become Associated Organisations (AOs) as campaigning or representative groups in the party, such as the Green Liberal Democrats (GLD), the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) and the Liberal Democrat Disability Association. There are many other groups that are not formally affiliated to the party, including Social Liberal Forum (SLF) and Liberal Reform.
Like the Conservatives, the Lib Dems organise in Northern Ireland. Although they do not contest elections in the province, they work with the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, described as its sister party and de facto agreeing to support the Alliance in elections. There is a separate local party operating in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Liberal Democrats.
It is also a sister party of the Liberal Party of Gibraltar and contests the South-West England constituency at European Parliamentary elections on a joint ticket with them taking place six on the party list.
The party is a member of Liberal International and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party. Their 16 MEPs sat in the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament until Britain left the European Union.
The party colour is yellow, more specifically amber. The party anthem is the old Liberal's "The Land" while its slogan is "Build a Brighter Future". The party headquarters are at 8–10 Great George Street London SW1P 3AE.
In the 2005 general election, the party was endorsed by The Independent. Cook noted that in the build-up to the 2010 election, most mainstream press—which was aligned with either the Conservatives or Labour—was "voraciously hostile" to the Lib Dems. In that election, it nevertheless attracted the endorsement of The Guardian and The Observer.
Whereas Labour gained funding through its links to trade unions and the Conservatives through big business, the Liberal Democrats have relied on funds raised by the subscriptions and donations provided by its members. The party had some major donors, such as Lord Jacobs, who gave it around £1 million over the course of twenty years until he resigned in 2008. In some years, it struggled to cover its costs; in 2008 for instance it made a loss of £670,000.
In its early years, the caricature of Liberal Democrat members was that of "sandal-wearing, bearded eccentrics obsessed by the minutiae of electoral reform". Based on their 1999 survey of Liberal Democrat members, Whiteley noted that although party members shared many of the same attitudes as the party's voters, there were also "striking differences", namely in that members were "older, more middle-class and better educated" than the voters. Their survey found that party membership was 54% male; and was dominated by middle-class people, with working-class individuals comprising only 5% of members (in contrast to 30% of Labour and 19% of Conservative members at that time). The average age was 59, and 58% of members were aged 56 or over. A third were retired, and a third in full-time employment. A majority worked, or had previously worked, in the non-profit sector. 42% possessed a degree, which was higher than among Labour (30%) and Conservative (19%) members at that time. 65% of members considered themselves religious, with 70% of those being Anglican, 15% Methodist, and 11% Roman Catholic.
As of 1999, 43% of members had previously belonged to the Liberal Party, 14% to the Social Democratic Party, and 42% had joined with no previous political affiliation. 21% of members had joined because of their social contacts, such as friends, family, and colleagues, who were already members. Around 40% of members stated that they joined because they agreed with the party's principles; a further 16% said they joined because of its policies. The majority of members were largely inactive in party activities, with only 22% of those polled indicating that they were willing to attend party meetings.
The senior ranks of the party have long been heavily male-dominated; after the 1997 general election, for instance, only three of its 46 MPs were women. Reinforcing its "male, middle-class image", after the 2010 election, 40% of Liberal Democrat MPs were privately educated.
Membership fluctuated between 1988 and 2000 between a low of 69,000 in 2000 and a peak of 101,768 in 1994. Membership increased sharply after the confirmation on 18 April 2017 of the 8 June 2017 general election, surpassing 100,000 on 24 April 2017 and reached an all-time high in June 2019 following the 2019 European elections, increasing further after their win in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election which reduced the working majority of the Conservative government to just one seat.
As of 2019, the party has a minimum of 17,102 registered supporters which are not included in the membership figure of at least 120,000 members.
The 1997 British Election Study Survey found that the average Liberal Democrat voter was aged 47, with 52% between the ages of 18 and 45. 16% of Lib Dem voters at that time possessed a degree. 23% were working class or blue collar workers, a much higher percentage than was found among the party's membership. The survey found that Liberal Democrat voters shared many attitudes with the members; these voters overwhelmingly desired proportional representation and 63% backed EU membership. Where the voters differed from the members was on the issue of foreign aid; over half of members wanted to increase the UK's foreign aid budget, whereas only a third of Liberal Democrat voters agreed.
Analysing voting patterns from the 1990s, Whiteley et al. argued that highly educated people were more likely than average to vote Liberal Democrat, that older people were less likely than average to vote Liberal Democrat, and that class, gender, or ethnicity had no impact on the tendency to vote for the party.
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From the Liberal Party, the Liberal Democrats inherited a strong base in Wales and Scotland. In 2010, Cook noted that the party's safe seats "do not fit a very homogenous pattern", being scattered amidst rural, middle-class suburban, and inner city areas. A key feature of the party's electoral strategy has been foregrounding community politics. Examining the survey evidence, Whiteley et al. argued that the strength of grassroots party activism in a particular area had a big impact on the vote share that the Liberal Democrats received there.
Throughout its history, the first past the post system has prevented the Liberal Democrats from receiving a share of parliamentary seats that reflects their share of the vote.
In the 1992 general election, the Lib Dems succeeded the SDP–Liberal Alliance as the third most popular party, behind Labour and the Conservatives. Their popularity never rose to the levels attained by the Alliance, but in later years their seat count rose far above the Alliance's peak, a feat that has been credited to more intelligent targeting of vulnerable seats. The vote percentage for the Alliance in 1987 and the Lib Dems in 2005 is similar, yet the Lib Dems won 62 seats to the Alliance's 22. This was because in 1983, the Alliance vote was fairly evenly spread throughout the country, whereas in 2005 the Liberal Democrat vote was concentrated in particular areas, allowing them to win at least three times as many parliamentary seats as in 1983 despite getting a slightly lower share of the overall vote.
The first-past-the-post electoral system used in UK general elections is not suited to parties whose vote is evenly divided across the country, resulting in those parties achieving a lower proportion of seats in the Commons than their proportion of the popular vote (see table and graph). The Lib Dems and their Liberal and SDP predecessors have suffered especially, particularly in the 1980s when their electoral support was greatest while the disparity between the votes and the number of MPs returned to parliament was significantly large. The increase in their number of seats in 1997, 2001 and 2005 was attributed to the weakness of the Conservatives and the success of their election strategist Chris Rennard. Lib Dems state that they want 'three-party politics' in the Commons; the most realistic chance of power with first past the post is for the party to be "the kingmakers" in a hung parliament. Party leaders often set out their terms for forming a coalition in such an event—Nick Clegg stated in 2008 that the policy for the 2010 general election was to reform elections, parties and Parliament in a "constitutional convention".
20 / 650
46 / 659
52 / 659
62 / 646
57 / 650
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with DUP confidence and supply
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The party had control of 31 councils in 2008, having held 29 councils prior to the 2008 election. In the 2008 local elections they gained 25% of the vote, placing them ahead of Labour and increasing their control by 34 to more than 4,200 council seats—21% of the total number of seats. In council elections held in May 2011, the Liberal Democrats suffered heavy defeats in the Midlands, North and Scotland. They also lost heavily in the Welsh assembly and Scottish Parliament. In local elections held in May 2012, the Lib Dems lost more than 300 councillors, leaving them with fewer than 3000 for the first time in the party's history. In the 2013 local elections, they lost more councillors. In the 2014 local elections they lost over 300 councillors and the control of two local governments.
In the 2016 local elections, the number of Liberal Democrat councillors increased for the first time since they went into coalition in 2010. The party won 43 seats and increased its vote share by 4%. A number of former MPs who lost their seats in 2015 won council seats in 2016, including former Manchester Withington MP John Leech who won 53% of the vote in a traditionally safe Labour seat. Leech's win was hailed as 'historic', signifying the first gain for any party in Manchester other than Labour for the first time in six years, and provided the city's majority Labour administration with its first opposition for two years. Cheadle's former MP Mark Hunter also won a seat on Stockport Council.
As of 2020, the party has 2,534 councilors.
As a pro-European party, the Liberal Democrats tended to fare badly at European Parliament elections. In the 2004 local elections their share of the vote was 29% (placing them second, ahead of Labour) and 14.9% in the simultaneous European Parliament elections (putting them in fourth place behind the UK Independence Party). The results of the 2009 European elections were similar with the party achieving a vote of 28% in the county council elections yet achieving only 13.7% in the Europeans despite the elections taking place on the same day. The 2009 elections did however see the party gain one seat from UKIP in the East Midlands region taking the number of representatives in the parliament up to 11. In 2014 the party lost ten seats, leaving them with one MEP. Campaigning on a pro-Remain platform with the slogan "Bollocks to Brexit", the party achieved their best ever results in the 2019 election, taking 19.6% of the vote and winning 16 seats.
In the European Parliament from 2004 to 2019, the party sat with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) political group, which favoured further strengthening European integration. The group's leader for seven and a half years was the South West England MEP Graham Watson, who was also the first Liberal Democrat to be elected to the European Parliament when he won the old Somerset and North Devon constituency in 1994. The group's current leader is the former Prime Minister of Belgium Guy Verhofstadt. Following the 2019 European elections, the Liberal Democrats joined Renew Europe, the successor group to the ALDE group.
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Scottish Parliament elections
The first elections for the Scottish parliament were held in 1999 and resulted in the Liberal Democrats forming a coalition government with Labour from its establishment until 2007. The Liberal Democrat leader Jim Wallace became Deputy First Minister, a role he continued until his retirement as party leader in 2005. The new leader of the party, Nicol Stephen, then took on the role of Deputy First Minister until the election of 2007.
For the first three Scottish Parliament elections, the Lib Dems maintained a consistent number of MSPs. From the 17 elected in 1999, they retained this number in 2003 and went down one to 16 in 2007. However, this fell to only five seats after the 2011 election as a result of the widespread unpopularity of their coalition with the Conservative party at the UK level.
|Election||Constituency votes||Regional votes||Total seats||Share of seats|
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Welsh Assembly elections
The first elections to the newly created National Assembly for Wales were in 1999; the Liberal Democrats took six seats in the inaugural Assembly; Welsh Labour won a plurality of seats, but without an overall majority. In October 2000, following a series of close votes, the parties formed a coalition, with the Liberal Democrat leader in the assembly, Michael German, becoming the Deputy First Minister. The deal lasted until the 2003 election, when Labour won enough seats to be able to govern outright.
The party had polled consistently in the first four elections to the National Assembly, returning six representatives in the first three elections and five in the 2011 Election, thereby establishing itself as the fourth party in Wales behind Labour, the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru, but fell to just one seat in 2016. Between 2008 and 2016, the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats was Kirsty Williams, the assembly member for Brecon & Radnorshire, the Assembly's first female party leader.
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|Entered office||Left office||Length of term||Date of birth||Date of death|
|David Steel1||7 July 1987||16 July 1988||1 year 0 months 9 days||31 March 1938|
|Bob Maclennan2||6 August 1987||11 months 10 days||26 June 1936||17 January 2020|
|Paddy Ashdown||16 July 1988||9 August 1999||11 years 0 months 24 days||27 February 1941||22 December 2018|
|Charles Kennedy||9 August 1999||7 January 2006||6 years 4 months 29 days||25 November 1959||1 June 2015|
|Menzies Campbell3||2 March 2006||15 October 2007||1 year 7 months 13 days||22 May 1941|
|Vince Cable4||15 October 2007||18 December 2007||2 months 3 days||9 May 1943|
|Nick Clegg||18 December 2007||8 May 2015||7 years 6 months 28 days||7 January 1967|
|Sal Brinton, Baroness Brinton5||8 May 2015||16 July 2015||70 days||1 April 1955|
|Tim Farron||16 July 2015||20 July 2017||2 years 4 days||27 May 1970|
|Vince Cable||20 July 2017||22 July 2019||2 years 2 days||9 May 1943|
|Jo Swinson||22 July 2019||13 December 2019||4 months 20 days||5 February 1980|
|Ed Davey6||13 December 2019||25 December 1965|
|Sal Brinton, Baroness Brinton6||31 December 2019||18 days||1 April 1955|
|Mark Pack6||1 January 2020||27 July 1970|
- 1 Joint interim leader, as leader of the Liberal Party before the merger
- 2 Joint interim leader, as leader of the Social Democratic Party before the merger
- 3 Acting leader between the resignation of Charles Kennedy on 7 January 2006 and his own election on 2 March 2006
- 4 Acting leader between the resignation of Menzies Campbell on 15 October 2007 and the election of Nick Clegg on 18 December 2007
- 5 Interim leader following the resignation with immediate effect of Nick Clegg on 8 May 2015, and in the absence of any Deputy Leader, as President of the Party
- 6 Joint interim leaders following the disqualification of Jo Swinson as leader upon losing her seat on 13 December 2019, Davey as Deputy Leader and Brinton as President of the Party; Pack replaced Brinton as Party President (and so joint interim leader) at midnight on 31 December/1 January
- Russell Johnston, 1988–1992
- Alan Beith, 1992–2003
- Menzies Campbell, 2003–2006
- Vince Cable, 2006–2010
- Simon Hughes, 2010–2014
- Malcolm Bruce, 2014–2015
- Office not in use, 2015–2017
- Jo Swinson, 2017–2019
- Vacant, 2019 (July–September)
- Ed Davey, 2019–present
Presidents chair the Federal Board. They are elected for a two-year term, starting on 1 January and ending on 31 December. They may serve a maximum of two terms.
- Ian Wrigglesworth, 1988–1990
- Charles Kennedy MP, 1991–1994
- Robert Maclennan MP, 1995–1998
- Diana Maddock, 1999–2000
- Navnit Dholakia, 2001–2004
- Simon Hughes MP, 2005–2008
- Rosalind Scott, 2009–2010
- Tim Farron MP, 2011–2014
- Sal Brinton, 2015–2019
- Mark Pack, 2020–present
Leaders in the House of Lords
|Leader||Entered office||Left office|
|Roy Jenkins, Baron Jenkins of Hillhead (1920–2003)||16 July 1988||4 May 1997|
|William Rodgers, Baron Rodgers of Quarry Bank (b. 1928)||4 May 1997||13 June 2001|
|Shirley Williams, Baroness Williams of Crosby (b. 1930)||13 June 2001||22 June 2004|
|Tom McNally, Baron McNally (b. 1943)||22 June 2004||15 October 2013|
|Jim Wallace, Baron Wallace of Tankerness (b. 1954)||15 October 2013||13 September 2016|
|Richard Newby, Baron Newby (b. 1953)||13 September 2016||Present|
Leaders in the European Parliament
- Graham Watson, 1994–2002 (President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party)
- Diana Wallis, 2002–2004
- Chris Davies, 2004–2006
- Diana Wallis, 2006–2007 (Vice-President of the European Parliament)
- Andrew Duff, 2007–2009
- Fiona Hall, 2009–2014
- Catherine Bearder, 2014–2019
- Caroline Voaden, 2019–2020
The Liberal Democrats did not have representation in the European Parliament prior to 1994.
Chairs of the English Liberal Democrats
- Paul Farthing (1994–2000)
- Dawn Davidson (2000–2004)
- Stan Collins (2004–2007)
- Brian Orrell (2007–2010)
- Jonathan Davies (2010–2012)
- Peter Ellis (2012–2015)
- Steve Jarvis (2015–2017)
- Liz Leffman (2017–2018)
- Tahir Maher (2019–2020)
- Gerald Vernon-Jackson (2020–present)
Leaders of the Scottish Liberal Democrats
- Malcolm Bruce (3 March 1988 – 18 April 1992)
- Jim Wallace (18 April 1992 – 23 June 2005)
- Nicol Stephen (27 June 2005 – 2 July 2008)
- Tavish Scott (26 August 2008 – 7 May 2011)
- Willie Rennie (17 May 2011 – present)
Leaders of the Welsh Liberal Democrats
- Richard Livsey (1988–1992)
- Alex Carlile (1992–1997)
- Richard Livsey (1997–2001)
- Lembit Öpik (2001–2007)
- Mike German (2007–2008)
- Kirsty Williams (2008–2016)
- Mark Williams (2016–2017)
- Kirsty Williams (Acting, 2017)
- Jane Dodds (2017–present)
This section needs to be updated.January 2020)(
In 2006, Whiteley et al. noted that the Liberal Democrats were "a major force in contemporary British politics". Although throughout its history, the party had been relegated to third party status, they argued that it had the capability of breaking through to become one of the country's main two parties if proportional representation (or something like it) was introduced, or if either the Conservatives or Labour were severely weakened by splitting in two.
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