The Liberal Party
The Liberals attempted to appeal to both middle- and working-class voters, but suffered from an inability to define their identity clearly.
From Liberals to Liberal Democrats
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 which relegated them to fourth-largest party in the House of Commons. Following this, under the leaderships of Tim Farron, Vince Cable and Jo Swinson, it refocused itself as a party opposing Brexit. However, since 2015 the party has failed to recapture its pre-coalition successes under Ashdown and Kennedy, and a poor performance in the 2019 general election saw leader Swinson lose her seat. Ed Davey won the Leadership election and became Leader on 27 August 2020 at the 2020 Liberal Democrats leadership election.
It's important to distinguish between classical and new liberals
Classical liberals were committed to the freedom of the individual and wanted the state to play a minimal role in society. In the 19th century this expressed itself in support for free trade, and laissez faire economics as well as political reforms the widening of the franchise, the extension of civil liberties to people who did not belong to the established Anglican Church, and the widening of educational opportunity. Their most notable leader, W.E. Gladstone (Prime Minister 1868-74,1880-85, 1886 and 1892-94), also attempted without success to extend self-government to Ireland as part of the UK.
The 'New Liberal' governments of the Edwardian era (1906-14) were more interested in social reforms, including old age pensions and National Insurance, in a bid to discourage working people from supporting the newly founded Labour Party. This was the beginning of modern liberalism: a recognition that many individuals could not be truly free on account of the inequalities produced by free-market capitalism. This make them very different from classical liberals. Freedom could no longer be defined merely as being 'left alone' (negative freedom) but required an active state to support people and enable them to reach their potential. (positive freedom)
Labour replaced the liberals as the main party of opposition and social reform.
After 1945 the political consensus and left little room for the liberals to offer a meaningful alternative and their representation in Parliament fell to single figures.
The party experienced short-lived revivals in the early 1960s and again in the early 1970s. It was unable to make a breakthrough under the 'first past the post' electoral system, which favoured its larger rivals, whose support was concentrated in certain areas.
In 1981 the Liberals ehanced thier appeal by an alliance with the SDP. The Labour Party experienced a division that led a group of right-wing MPs to create the Social Democrat Party (SDP). The SDP formed an electoral pact with the Liberals, fighting the 1983 and 1987 general elections as the Alliance. In 1988 the two parties merged to form the Liberal Democrat Party.
The Liberal Democrat share of the vote grew modestly and in the 1997 election — aided by popular disillusionment with the Conservatives, tactical voting and careful targeting of seats —this translated into a parliamentary total of 46. By 2005 this had risen to 62 seats.
The experience of coalition government
In the period of New Labour government, especially under the leadership of Charles Kennedy, they were essentially a centre-left party rather than aiming to be equidistant between the two larger parties. They were opposed to the Iraq War, identity cards and student tuition fees, and in favour of a 50 per cent income tax rate on those earning more than £100,000. Kennedy exemplified the priorities of the Social Liberals: those who were influenced by the tradition of generous welfare provision, which could be traced back to the wartime Beveridge Report.
Nick Clegg, one of the authors of the Orange Book, which supported free market solutions to problems, and emphasised the party's traditional commitment to the freedom of the individual, became party leader in 2007. His approach was to position the party so that it could conceivably work with either one of the two larger parties in coalition. In May 2010 after the general election the Lib Dems formed a coalition with the Conservatives the first time since 1945.
Clegg argued that the Liberal Democrats could be a moderating force on the policies of their coalition partner. Clegg was persuaded that because of the gravity of the financial crisis the party needed to demonstrate its credentials as a responsible party of government. But this meant going along with the programme of cuts and the policies of austerity.
The speed with which they dropped their signature pledge to scrap tuition fees to support the tripling of fees in 2012 made them look opportunistic and devoid of principle. They failed to use the substantial power they wielded by dint of the fact Cameron relied on their votes in parliament in order to extract significant concessions on toxic policies such as the bedroom tax and the hostile environment. Instead, as part of the unlikely “quad” alliance alongside Cameron and George Osborne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander exuded an air of chummy coexistence with the architects of austerity, rather than leaders of a party fundamentally at odds with the regressive Conservative agenda, pushing for change at every opportunity.
The ensuing disillusionment of party activists contributed to the Liberal Democrats' heavy losses in the 2015 general election, which saw them reduced to a rump of eight seats.
What do the Liberal Democrats stand for?
Clegg hoped that the party would be forgiven if they could point to significan achievements. He secured a referendum on electoral reform in May 2011, but this back fired because the rejection of the Alternative Vote option, for which the Liberal Democrats campaigned buried the cause for a generation. The party has supported the Single Transferable Vote, but the leadership felt that the Alternative Vote was the maximum they could hope to achieve in the circumstances — a sign of their limited bargaining power within the coalition partnership
What do the Liberal Democrats stand for?
It is not easy to decide where exactly to place them on the political spectrum. A policy statement on their website says that they aim to keep Britain 'open, tolerant and united' — but this does not distinguish them much from other mainstream UK parties.
Constitutional Reform The Liberal Democrats support institutional reform in the United Kingdom, including the decentralisation of state power, reform of Parliament, and electoral reform.
• Economic policy 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 But this was seen as at odds with thier support for austerity and in 2015 general election the Liberal Democrats continued their commitment to eliminating the budget deficit, the most important policy underpinning their coalition with the Conservatives. However, it must be done in a way that was fair to the poor. 'austerity lite'
In government they introduced a policy, to which the Conservatives signed up, of progressively raising the basic income-tax threshold so that more low-income people were relieved of paying tax. They promised to 'borrow less than Labour, cut less than the Tories'. They stressed their environmental credentials more than their rivals, with a commitment to renewable energy and the expansion of the Green Investment Bank they had helped to establish, to attract funding for projects such as offshore wind farms.
· Welfare policy In coalition the Liberal Democrats shared the Conservative objective of controlling spending on benefits, while uprating pensions and extending free childcare to enable parents to return to work. They differentiated themselves by pledging to curb benefits paid to better-off pensioners, in order to afford more support for the low-paid. On the NHS, just like the Conservatives and Labour, they pledged increased funding from 2015.
· Law and order The Liberal Democrats aim to see that civil liberties are not eroded as a consequence of giving the authorities more powers to fight crime. In coalition they opposed the Conservatives' plans for the so-called 'Snoopers' Charter', the Communications Data Bill, the purpose of which was to allow the monitoring of Internet use. In their emphasis on the rehabilitation of prisoners, and the use of community service as an alternative to short-term prison sentences, they are close to the position taken by moderate Conservatives and Labour. 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.
· Foreign policy The Liberal Democrats supported the war in Afghanistan in 2001. The party was the only 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.
The Liberal Democrats have consistently been the most enthusiastic of all the UK parties for British membership of the EU. Perhaps the party's most distinctive policy position in opposition was its reluctance to accept the result of the Brexit referendum. This contrasted with the views of both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn who.