|President||Baroness Scott of Needham Market|
|Founded||3 March 1988|
|Merger of||SDP-Liberal Alliance|
|Headquarters||4 Cowley Street,
London SW1P 3NB
|International affiliation||Liberal International|
|European affiliation||European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party|
|European Parliament Group||Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe|
|Official colours||Gold, Black|
|House of Commons|
|House of Lords|
|Politics of the United Kingdom
The Liberal Democrats, often shortened to Lib Dems, are a centrist to centre-left social liberal British political party. The party was formed in 1988 by a merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party. The two parties had formed the electoral SDP-Liberal Alliance for seven years before then. The party's leader is Nick Clegg. The Lib Dems are the third-largest party in the House of Commons, behind the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. There are 63 Lib Dem Members of Parliament (MPs)—62 were elected at the 2005 general election and one in a 2006 by-election. The Scottish Liberal Democrats formed a coalition with Labour in the first two sessions of the Scottish Parliament, and the Welsh party were in a coalition with Labour in the National Assembly for Wales from 2001 to 2003.
Promoting social liberalism, the Liberal Democrats voice strong support for constitutional reform, civil liberties, and higher taxes for public services. The party president's book of office is John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, which defended individual rights while attacking the tyranny of the majority and the despotism of custom. Although the party objects to state limitations on individual rights, it does favour a welfare state that provides for the necessities and amenities of life. They support multilateral foreign policy, opposing British participation in the War in Iraq and supporting the withdrawal of troops from the country. The Liberal Democrats are the most pro-European Union of the three main parties in the UK. The party has strong environmentalist values—favouring renewable energy and commitments to deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Since their foundation, Lib Dems have advocated electoral reform to use proportional representation, hoping to replace the House of Lords with an elected chamber.
The Liberal Democrats were formed on 2 March 1988 by merging the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party. The Liberals descended from the British Whig Party, the Radicals and the Peelites, while the SDP were a Labour splinter group.
Having declined to third party status after the rise of the Labour Party from 1918 and especially during the 1920s, the Liberals were challenged for this position in the 1980s when a group of Labour MPs broke away and established the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP and the Liberals realised that there was no space for four political parties and entered into the SDP-Liberal Alliance so that they would not stand against each other in elections. The Alliance was led by David Steel (Liberal) and Roy Jenkins (SDP); Jenkins was replaced by David Owen. The two parties had their own policies and emphases, but produced a joint manifesto for the 1983 and 1987 general elections.
Following disappointing results in the 1987 election, Steel proposed to merge the two parties. Although opposed by Owen, it was supported by a majority of members of both parties, and they formally merged in 1988, with Steel and Robert Maclennan (who had become SDP leader in August 1987) as joint interim leaders. The new party was named Social and Liberal Democrats (SLD); after shortening this to The Democrats in October 1988, it changed to Liberal Democrats in October 1989, which is frequently shortened to Lib Dems. The minority of the SDP who rejected the merger remained under Owen's leadership in a rump SDP; The minority of the Liberal Party divided, with some retiring from politics immediately and some (led by former Liberal MP Michael Meadowcroft), creating a new 'Liberal Party' which, nevertheless claimed to be the continuation of the Liberal Party which had just dissolved itself. Michael Meadowcroft eventually joined the Liberal Democrats (they called it 'rejoined') in 2008 but some of his former followers continue still as 'The Liberal Party', most notably in a couple of electoral wards of the City of Liverpool.
The former Liberal MP Paddy Ashdown was elected leader in July 1988. At the 1989 European Elections, the party received only 6% of the vote, beaten to fourth place by the Green Party. By the early 1990s, the party recovered under Ashdown's leadership. They performed better at the 1990 local elections and in by-elections—including at Eastbourne in 1990, Ribble Valley in 1991 and Kincardine & Deeside in 1991.
The Lib Dems did not reach the 20% threshold shares of national votes in the 1990s that the Alliance had achieved in the 1980s. At their first election in 1992, they won 17.8% of the vote and twenty seats. They more than doubled their representation at the 1997 general election, when they gained 46 seats—through tactical voting and concentrating resources in winnable seats.
Following the election of Tony Blair as Labour leader in 1994, Ashdown pursued cooperation between the two parties because he wanted to form a coalition government. This Lib-Lab pact failed to form because Labour's massive majority after the 1997 general election made it an irrelevance for Labour, and because Labour were not prepared to consider the introduction of proportional representation and other Lib Dem conditions.
Ashdown retired as leader in 1999 and Charles Kennedy was elected as his replacement. The party improved on their 1997 results at the 2001 general election, increasing their seats to 52 and their vote share to 18.3%. They won support from former Labour and Conservative voters due to the Lib Dems' position on issues that appeal to those on the left and the right: opposition to the war in Iraq and support for civil liberties, electoral reform, and open government. Charles Kennedy expressed his goal to replace the Conservatives as the official opposition; The Spectator awarded him the 'Parliamentarian of the Year' award in November 2004 for his position on the war. The party won seats from Labour in by-elections in Brent East in 2003 and Leicester South in 2004, and narrowly missed taking others in Birmingham Hodge Hill and Hartlepool.
At the 2005 general election, the Lib Dems gained their highest share of the vote since the SDP-Liberal Alliance (22.1%), receiving 62 seats. Many had anticipated that this election would be the Lib Dem's breakthrough at Westminster; party activists hoped to better the 25.4% support of the 1983 election, or to reach 100 MPs. 2005 could be considered a wasted opportunity for the party; but much of the apparent lack of success was a result of the Westminster first-past-the-post elections: the party got almost a quarter of the total votes nationally but only one-tenth of the seats in the Commons.
One trend at the election was that Lib Dems replaced the Conservatives as Labour's main opponents in urban areas. Many gains came in previously Labour-held urban constituencies (e.g. Manchester Withington, Cardiff Central, Birmingham Yardley), and they had over 100 second-place finishes behind Labour candidates. The British electoral system makes it hard for the Conservatives to form a government without winning some city seats out of its rural heartlands, such as the Lib Dem Bristol West constituency, where the Conservatives came third in 2005 after holding the seat until 1997.
In a statement on 5 January 2006, Charles Kennedy admitted to a long battle with alcoholism and announced a leadership election in which he intended to stand for re-election, while Sir Menzies Campbell took over as acting leader.
For several years there were rumours alleging that Kennedy had problems with alcohol—the BBC's Nick Robinson called it "Westminster's worst-kept secret". Kennedy had on previous occasions denied these rumors, although some suggested that he had deliberately misled the public and his party.
Kennedy initially planned to stand as a candidate, but he withdrew from the election citing a lack of support among Lib Dem MPs. Sir Menzies subsequently won the contest, defeating Chris Huhne and Simon Hughes, among others, in a very controversial race. Mark Oaten withdrew from the contest because of revelations about his visits to rent boys. Simon Hughes came under attack regarding his sexuality while Chris Huhne was accused live on The Daily Politics of attempting to rig polls.
Despite the negative press over Kennedy's departure, the leaderless party won the Dunfermline and West Fife seat from Labour in a by-election in February 2006. This result was viewed as a particular blow for Gordon Brown, who lives in the constituency, represents the adjacent seat and featured in Labour's campaign. The party came second place by 633 votes in the Bromley and Chislehurst by-election, pushing Labour into fourth place behind the United Kingdom Independence Party. In July 2007, Sir Menzies announced that the party wished to cut the basic rate of income tax from 20 to 16p per pound—the lowest rate since 1916—and wanted to finance the cut using green taxes and other revenues from UK properties owned by non-UK residents eligible for a capital gains tax.
Opinion poll trends during Campbell's leadership showed support for the Lib Dems decline to less than 20%. Campbell resigned on 15 October 2007, and Vince Cable became acting leader until a leadership election could be held. Cable was praised during his tenure for his performances at Prime Minister's Questions over the Northern Rock crisis, HMRC's loss of child benefit data, and the 2007 Labour party donation scandal.
On 18 December 2007, Nick Clegg won the leadership election, becoming the party's fourth leader. Clegg won the leadership with a majority of 511 votes (1.2%) over his opponent Chris Huhne, in a poll of party members. Clegg is the Member of Parliament for Sheffield Hallam, and was an MEP for the East Midlands from 1999 to 2004.
In his acceptance speech, Clegg declared that he was "a liberal by temperament, by instinct and by upbringing" and that he believes "Britain [is] a place of tolerance and pluralism". He claimed that his priorities were defending civil liberties; devolving the running of public services to parents, pupils and patients; and protecting the environment, and that he wanted to forge a "liberal alternative to the discredited policies of big government". He also proposed a target to double the number of Lib Dem MPs within two elections, and before the 2008 local elections confirmed that he was pleased with their performance in the polls: "the polls yesterday were at 20%, that's considerably higher than 13% just a few years ago. It's far, far higher than we've ever been at this point in the political cycle two or three years after a general election."
Shortly after election, Clegg reshuffled the party's Frontbench Team, making Chris Huhne the replacement Home Affairs spokesperson, Ed Davey the Foreign Affairs spokesperson, and keeping Vincent Cable as Shadow Chancellor. His predecessors were also given roles: Campbell joined the all-party Commons foreign affairs select committee, and Kennedy is to campaign nationwide on European issues, as president of the UK's European Movement.
In United Kingdom general elections, the Lib Dems succeeded the Liberal-SDP Alliance as the third most popular party, behind Labour and the Conservatives. Their popularity initially declined from the levels attained by the Alliance, but their seat count has risen to its peak of 63 seats, 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.
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 1983 and 1987 when their electoral support was greatest. 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 Lord 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 is to reform elections, parties and parliament in a "constitutional convention".
|General election||Name||Share of votes||Seats||Share of seats||Source|
The party has performed better in local elections as it won control of 31 councils. 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.
The party has generally not performed as well in elections to the European Parliament. 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 United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)). 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 Europe, the party sits with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) political group, which favours further strengthening the EU. The group's leader for seven and a half years was the South West of 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 Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt.
|European election (UK)||Name||Share of votes||Seats||Share of seats||Source|
The first elections for the Scottish parliament were held in 1997 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
Since the parliament was established, the Lib Dems have maintained a consistent number of MSPs. From the 17 initially elected, they retained this number in 2003 and went down one to 16 in 2007.. The current leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats is the MSP for Shetland, Tavish Scott, who took up his role in 2008.
|Scottish Parliament Elections||Name||Share of constituency votes||Seats||Share of regional votes||Seats||Total Seats||Share of Seats|
Elections to the newly created Welsh assembly also took place for the first time in 1999 and saw the Liberal Democrats take six seats in the inaugural assembly, with Welsh Labour winning the majority of seats in the assembly, but not enough to win an outright majority. In October 2000, following a series of close votes, the parties formed a coalition that saw the Lib Dem leader in the assembly, Michael German, become the Deputy First Secretary. The deal lasted until the election of 2003, when Labour won enough seats to be able to govern outright.
The party has polled consistently in all three elections to the assembly, so far returning six representatives each time and establishing itself as the fourth party in Wales behind Labour, the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru. The current leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats is Kirsty Williams, the assembly member for Brecon & Radnorshire, the assembly's first female leader.
|Welsh Assembly Elections||Name||Share of constituency votes||Seats||Share of regional votes||Seats||Total Seats||Share of Seats|
The Liberal Democrats are a federal party of the parties of Wales, Scotland and England. Scotland and England are further split into regional parties. 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. The Lib Dems had around 73,000 members in 2004, and 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. In 2005, the party received a donation of £2.4 million from businessman Michael Brown, the largest single donation in its history.
Specified Associated Organisations (SAOs) review and input policies, representing groups including: ethnic minorities (EMLD), women (WLD), the LGBT community (Delga), youth and students (Liberal Youth), engineers and scientists (ALDES), parliamentary candidates (PCA) and local councillor s (ALDC). Others can become Associated Organisations (AOs) as pressure groups in the party, such as the Green Liberal Democrats, Liberal Democrats Online and the Liberal Democrat Disability Association. The National Union of Liberal Clubs (NULC)represents Liberal Social Clubs which encourages recreational institutions where the promotion of the party can take place.
Like the Conservatives, the Lib Dems organise in Northern Ireland, though they do not contest elections in the province: they work with the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, de facto agreeing to support the Alliance in elections. There is a small separate local party of the Lib Dems in Northern Ireland. Several individuals, including Alliance Party leader David Ford, hold membership of both parties. Alliance members of the House of Lords take the Lib Dem whip on non-Northern Ireland issues, and the Alliance Party usually has a stall at Lib Dem party conferences.
The party is a member of Liberal International and the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, and their 11 MEPs sit in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group in the European Parliament.
The Lib Dems are a centrist to centre-left party that favours the welfare state and progressive taxation. Former leader Charles Kennedy said that they were neither to the left nor the right while his successor Menzies Campbell claimed that the party is on the centre-left. In 2009, Nick Clegg said he hoped to make the party a "vanguard of the progressive centre left" in the next general election. However, Vince Cable later claimed that the Lib Dems were not a centre-left party and had a "a liberal approach to economic policy, free-trade and open markets."
Liberal Democrats can be classified into two factions—social and market liberals—that are unrelated to membership of the party's predecessors. Several social liberals, including Paddy Ashdown, were former Liberal MPs, and some market liberals, such as Vincent Cable, were from the SDP.
Social liberals advocate the welfare state, higher taxation and public spending, government regulation to protect consumers, employees and the environment and support civil liberties and human rights. Social liberals include Paul Holmes, Norman Baker and Simon Hughes. Social liberal MPs from the party form the Beveridge Group in the House of Commons.
The market liberal or libertarian wing shares with social liberals a belief in basic civil and political freedoms (negative freedoms). However, while social liberals argue that the state should provide social and economic rights to its citizens (positive freedoms), market liberals criticize the government's ability to increase freedom. This criticism often manifests itself as support for greater economic freedom, causing tension between the two wings. Several MPs from the market liberal wing contributed to the Orange Book (2004), a collection of essays intended to spark debate on a greater role for free-market liberalism in economic policy. Some party donors, journalists and party officials back this wing of the party. Leading market liberals in the party include Vince Cable, David Laws and Nick Clegg.
|Entered office||Left office||Date of Birth|
|1.1||David Steel 1||7 July 1987||16 July 1988||31 March 1938|
|1.2||Robert Maclennan 2||6 August 1987||16 July 1988||26 June 1936|
|2||Paddy Ashdown||16 July 1988||9 August 1999||27 February 1941|
|3||Charles Kennedy||9 August 1999||7 January 2006||25 November 1959|
|4||Sir Menzies Campbell 3||2 March 2006||15 October 2007||22 May 1941|
|Vincent Cable 4||15 October 2007||18 December 2007||9 May 1943|
|5||Nick Clegg||18 December 2007||Incumbent||7 January 1967|
The Liberal Democrats did not have representation in the European Parliament prior to 1994.
The key positions on this team include: