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The Liberal Democrats, often referred to as "Lib Dems," are a centrist (with strands of centre-left and centre-right ideology) party in the United Kingdom, historically occupying third place in seats - however, after three miserable elections in a row, they have been occupying fourth since 2010.
They were formed from an alliance of the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party. They have 11 MPS, and 92 Lords in the House of Lords, somehow. The Party's leader is Ed Davey, who became acting leader in December 2019 before being elected outright on August 2020. Recent previous leaders include Jo Swinson, Vince Cable and Nick Clegg (now working for Facebook) and Lord Paddy Ashdown.
From 2010 to 2015 they were in government in coalition with the Conservatives, and gave up essentially any support they had in an attempt to smooth the edges on the Tories. Usually in a coalition government, the minor party gets the blame: the base hates them for abandoning their values and the main party gets praise for their successes. Nick Clegg writes about this in Politics: Between the Extremes.
In the 2015 election they were predicted to do poorly, and were decimated to the level of the minor regional parties. They were given some minor reprieve in the 2019 European election, riding on the wave of anti-Brexit sentiment (riding it much better than the other centrist party, mind you) before fate decided to crush them again and cut their MP total in half in the 2019 general election, even losing the seat of their leader, Jo Swinson, making her the shortest elected leader of the Liberal Democrats since it was founded at less than 5 months.
Most Lib Dems are liberals; the internal spectrum is mostly between social liberalism and economic liberalism. On the traditional left-right spectrum, most place the party in the centre or centre-left.
On the social liberalism side, they support things like civil liberties, reviewing the law on recreational drugs, anti-discrimination laws, same-sex marriages, abortion, and genetic research. With economic liberalism they support more progressive taxes, a social market economy, and economic integration with the EU. They like increased public service provision, fiscal rules, immigration, multilateralism, intervention in other countries only with UN backing, increasing aid spending. They like fighting global warming, disestablishing the Church of England, a written constitution and electoral and government reform. They favour replacing the UK's current Trident nuclear deterrent with a less expensive alternative. Of course, like ALL centrist/liberal parties, their actual voting record is a lot less progressive. These policies are little more than lip service to voters, instead consistently backing the Tories when they must and only opposing them when they know it won't make a difference (doesn't Labor do that enough already?).
From the preamble to the party's constitution states:
“”The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard 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, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.
|—The Liberal Democrats Constitution|
When the Liberal-SDP merger occurred in 1988, a small number of members of the Liberal Party disagreed with merging and continued as a separate party, sometimes jokingly referred to as the Continuity Liberal Party. They have about 100 local councillors but no Parliamentary representation. They and others get annoyed when sloppy commentators who should know better talk about the "Liberal Party" as being a member of the government coalition.
The Liberal Democrats have (at least) two internal factions despite being smaller than the Tories and Labour. The first, and at the moment more powerful group is known as the Orange Bookers,[note 1] who campaign for not only social liberalism but strong market liberalism and some austerity measures. Former head of the Liberal Democrat Party Nick Clegg is a member of this group, as are most of the formerly leading Lib Dems, and they are largely responsible for the rightward drift of the party. While they started off popular enough after going into coalition with the Conservative Party they become increasingly unpopular among both the public and the left-wing of their own party, and it's expected that they will lose much of their influence. They've been noted as being ideologically similar to David Cameron and his group of moderate conservatives within the Conservative Party, though they're still closer to the political center.
The second faction is mainly comprimised of the Beveridge Group, who are social liberals and social democrats that hark back to John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge as their primary inspiration. They are more firmly center-left, being probably to the left of Tony Blair's New Labour but still much more moderate and market friendly than "Old Labour". They were more skeptical of the Con-Lib coalition and tend to dislike the Orange Bookers, viewing them as somewhat "market fundamentalist", particularly in their support for privatization. They appear to have lost most of their influence after the once popular leadership of Charles Kennedy (who was more or less a social liberal) spectacularly imploded after his alcoholism began to impair him so severely that he began to miss events, or show up to them in poor condition (Kennedy died in 2015 as a result of a hemorrhage related to his alcoholism shortly after he lost his seat in the 2015 General election). While Tim Farron, a Beveridge Group member, did briefly lead the party, his leadership was undermined by conflicts over his religious views (especially with LGBTQ voters) and he resigned when the party did little better at the 2017 election. Since then the Orange Bookers have been in charge.
With most of their voters abandoning them in the election, it is predicted that there will be a backlash from the left-wing of the party to take back leadership after the right-wing cost them almost everything. Others predict that the factions will try to stay together in the interest of not becoming even weaker.
In their leadership election, the two candidates were Norman Lamb, who follows the neoliberal faction, and Tim Farron, who voted against the tuition raise. Farron's religious beliefs and voting record against abortion and gay rights came under scrutiny, but he won the leadership race, and he now represents the left wing of the party following the resignation of centrist Nick Clegg.
Which was then completely abandoned once Jeremy Corbyn became Leader of the Opposition, as Farron thought it was better to take the centrist voters instead. Welp.
2017 Election onwards
A snap election took place in June 2017. The Lib Dems increased their number of seats from 8 to 12 but received 0.5% less of the popular vote. It was widely speculated that this drop in the vote share was a consequence of Leader Tim Farron's views on gay sex and abortion Farron resigned shortly after the election.
Vince Cable won the July 2017 Leadership election, which was uncontested. Despite failing to gain support in the first year, Cable lead the Lib Dems to second place in the May 2019 EU Parliament Elections (second only to the Brexit Party). Cable resigned in July 2019.
In July 2019, Jo Swinson took over as Leader of the Liberal Democrats. As a result of defections and by-election wins, the party had 21 MPs.
She has led the Lib Dems to officially declare their policy to disregard the 2016 referendum entirely and revoke Article 50 - perhaps a little ironic, considering Jo Swinson herself called for an EU referendum in the House of Commons in 2008. Uh, okay, maybe not? The Lib Dems are unsure whether their favoured option is a policy of revoking Article 50 or holding a second referendum, so true to their straightforward and honest nature, they've decided on... both. Politics is very confusing sometimes.
The Liberal Democrats, as a result of confused messaging, miserable campaigning, and everyone remembering 2010, were humiliated in the 2019 United Kingdom general election, having their new-found count of 21 MPs cut down to 11 MPs, losing every single one of their defective MPs. Incredibly, Jo Swinson lost her seat to the SNP, forcing her to resign as Leader with immediate effect. As LibDem politicians are eager to blame anybody but themselves, refusing to acknowledge the warnings received from former leaders Cable and Farron to Swinson about backing the December election, the future looks bleak for British centrism.
In June 2021, the Liberal Democrats won the previously safe Chesham and Amersham seat off the Conservatives in a by-election. Whilst the result had been expected to be close, with the Lib Dems probably winning, they overturned a 16000 vote majority for the Conservatives in 2019, to being an 8000 vote majority for the Lib Dems, representing a swing of 25%. This could be interpreted as a shift in the politics of the south of England, moving away from the Conservative party.
Despite the merger of the Liberal Party and Social Democratic Party in 1988, not everybody wanted to be part of the Lib Dems. This led to various offshoots.
The Liberal Party claims to be a continuation of the British Liberal Party of the late 19th and 20th century and of the Whigs before them, pursuing policies similar to European Free Democrat parties. Its members didn't like the social democratic wing of the Liberal Democrats, and are more centrist or centre-right. The Preamble to its constitution says "its chief care is for the rights and opportunities of the individual, and in all spheres it sets freedom first"; according to its website it opposes the tendency towards "more regulations, laws and targets and ... central government control." They supported Brexit, but also want more local democracy.
Social Democratic Party
The original version of the SDP was founded by the so-called Gang of Four, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen, who left the Labour Party in 1981, feeling the new leader Michael Foot was too left-wing. David Owen didn't want to join the Lib Dems and continued as leader of a rump SDP after the majority merged with the Liberals in 1988.
Today, in particular after their New Declaration in 2018, they have morphed into a combination of centrist/third way economics, and conservative anti-woke social policies. They claim to be "social democratic" but also to "represent neither capital nor labour, not private industry nor the public sector". Their policies are anti-trans rights, supporting "segregation by biological sex in prisons and women’s refuges" and opposing self-identification. Scheduled speakers at its November 2021 conference include a host of culture-wars fighters: controversial right-wing historian David Starkey, Brendan O'Neill of Spiked magazine, Claire Fox, and Rod Liddle. David Owen has publicly disowned this incarnation of the SDP and has even gone back to openly supporting Labour (although without re-joining the party)
- They are named after the book The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism, which was mainly written by free-market Liberal Democrat politicians
- "Why being centrist hasn't helped the Lib Dems". New Statesman. 6 Oct 2014. Retrieved 5 Aug 2015.
- "Nick Clegg claims Lib Dems now centrist choice, not party of protest". The Guardian. 10 Mar 2013. Retrieved 5 Aug 2015.
- Glen Segell (2001). Electronic Democracy and the UK 2001 Elections. Glen Segell Publishers. p. 69. ISBN 978-1-901414-23-3.
- Talking Politics. Politics Association. 2004. p. 19.
- Share of UK popular vote since 1832
- "Facebook hires former deputy PM Sir Nick Clegg". BBC. 19 October 2018. Retrieved 12 Jul 2018.
- The Guardian's Political Profile
- The Liberal Democrats on International Affairs
- See the Wikipedia article on Liberal Democrats § Policies.
- The Liberal Democrats on Defence.
- How the Orange Bookers took over the Lib Dems
- Where We Stand And Why We Are Needed, Liberal Party website, accessed 26 Oct 2021
- Who were the Social Democratic Party?, BBC News, 18 Feb 2019
- Policies, SDP website, accessed 26 Oct 2021
- Main Page, SDP website, accessed 26 Oct 2021
- Transgender and Biological Sex Based Rights, SDP website, accessed 26 Oct 2021
- SDP - 2021 Conference and Annual General Meeting, accessed 26 Oct 2021