Who are the Liberal Democrats?

The Liberal Democrats originated from the oldest political party in British history, the Whig party. After the Liberals fell out of favour with the electorate within the 1920s, they were essentially replaced by the Labour Party. Decades of near-elimination began to change in the 1970s and were built on n the 1980s. Just before the 90s began, the Liberal Party and their coalition partner the Social Democratic Party merged, becoming the Liberal Democrats. Following on from that, they have had various leaders who have led the party in various positions, and with various affiliations, which begs the question – who are the Liberal Democrats?

Under New Labour

One of the questions following the result of the 2010 election, was who the Liberal Democrats would “get into bed with” and on the BBC election night, many talked about the Liberal Democrats and Labour as a result of a history of connection. The late Paddy Ashdown was someone who was greatly linked with Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair before the 1997 election, as Blair was more central and therefore linked greater towards the politics of Ashdown. But more than that, there was a desire to ensure that the Conservatives were not in power, and so consensus was discussed between them. According to “The Ashdown Diaries”, Blair and Ashdown were building an agreement to coalition, and even continued discussing it on election day, but after it appeared that Labour would have a landslide victory, as the Exit Poll predicted, it became apparent that Labour would obviously go alone, as expected after such a resounding victory. This idea was a continuation of the Lab-Lib alignment to keep the Tories out as they had a history of pacts to ensure power was at the left of centre.

In 1999, Charles Kennedy came into leadership of the Liberal Democrats and changed the relationship between Labour and Liberal Democrats. A former MP for the Social Democratic Party, his relationship with Labour would obviously be different to the one that Ashdown had. He attempted to separate the parties. In his acceptance speech for leadership he stated “we have to give a voice to the disadvantaged and dispossessed because those voices are not being heard by New Labour that’s for sure”. This put into motion the opposition that the Liberal Democrats would now face in spite of their former alignment in goals and aims. This misalignment with the Labour {arty was deepened when the Iraq War began; Kennedy was one of the main vocal critics of the Labour Prime Minister. Famously, Kennedy said “Given the events at the United Nations in New York yesterday, when they spoke, today across the world people are speaking and the Prime Minister and the President have got to start listening”. I think this shows that the Liberal Democrats became more of their own party, and this was reflected in their general election results. In 2001, they went up net of six seats, with an increase 1.6% in the vote, and in 2005, they went up ten seats, with a 3.7% increase in the vote and a record 62 seats, giving them the swing advantage over their competitors for the second election in a row. This was set to give them a major advantage in possibly breaking through in the following election.

The Coalition

After Blair was ousted and Brown took over, the Liberal Democrats had a similar leadership issue with Menzies Campbell only taken over leadership for around a year and a half, before first term elected MP Nick Clegg took over leadership, and this is where the Liberal Democrats started to make more of a name for themselves. Clegg moved the Liberal Democrats more to the centre, as Brown took Labour further left. This happened after being inspired by The Orange Book. This was a controversial book at time of publishing, but Clegg appeared to believe in its content. This likely was a good position to be in considering the success the centrist Blair had achieved himself. However it could have alienated voters who were on the left who voted Lib Dem in 2005 after perceiving them as the real left wing party, and further left than Labour.

Clegg’s relationships with the other parties, and Labour specifically can be summed up in one speech made just before the 2010 election. He said “Mr. Speaker, [Brown] and [Cameron] are trying to fool people that they’re serious about political reform yet last week we had yet more proof that this is not true. The minute of the Haydon Philips cross party talks on party funding here in black and white, the Labour Party protecting their Trade Union pay masters, the Conservatives protecting their pay masters in Belize. Who do they think that they are kidding? After they sabotage that deal, why should anyone trust a single word that they have to say on political reform?”

Then later added in response to the Prime Minister “We all remember, back in 1997, the hope and promise of that new Government. Look at them now, you failed, it’s over, it’s time to go.” This shows that the Liberal Democrats had almost completely tied any elements of affiliation with the Labour Party, that by the time the 2010 negotiations came about, though the political pundits assumed they were more likely to go with Labour, they went with the party with the largest vote and the largest amount of seats, like Clegg had said – a complete 180 from their previous attitudes. It became enigmatic of the stark change that the Liberal Democrats had endured over the last 13 years, that the party that in 1997, the Lib-Lab pact would have attempted to oust, is the same party that Clegg propped up into government.

The Brexit Years

The previous section is important in understanding the political identity of the Liberal Democrats. They started the era of New Labour firmly onside, and corroborated with them to ensure the Tories were out, to a position where they joined in coalition with the party they began aiming to take out of office. This shows a drastic change in political identity. How did the political identity change following this? The identity of the party can only really be summarized by how Nick Clegg positioned himself, and the Liberal Democrats as the kingmakers, stating during the 2015 leadership debate “We will give the Conservatives a heart and Labour a head”. This was due to most polls indicating another hung Parliament, and after being in coalition with the Conservatives, and supplying a stable government, they deemed it that they were the main party that was going to be in another coalition after they had done a great job in ensuring there was stability. Despite this aim though, Clegg was also very quick to criticise Cameron, and what they had done in government, suggesting perhaps to the voters that they were ashamed of their time in government, and therefore the voters appeared to give most of the credit to the Tories, who shocked everyone by getting a majority in government by mainly winning Liberal Democrat seats. The Liberal Democrats were reduced to eight seats, their lowest amount since 1970. 

The Liberal Democrats now almost became a lost party. Their main policy platform up until their coalition had been political reform and education, but after the 2011 referendum on voting reform to Alternative Vote had been a resounding loss, and after the tuition fees were increased from £3,000 to £9,000, they had lost any legitimacy in the eyes of voters to represent their needs and concerns and were no longer trusted on education. Therefore, the Liberal Democrats were lost in the national picture and were lost to what their position in the political sphere would be. Fortunately for them, the biggest shock result was round the corner. Leave won the referendum on European Union membership, and the Liberal Democrats sought to be the voice of remain claiming that a second referendum was needed because they deemed campaign issues from both sides to have delegitimised the vote, and also they were against Brexit and so wanted to do what they could to ensure it didn’t happen. This allowed them to pick up potential voters who wanted to remain, and wasn’t being represented by the big parties who had committed to leave in 2017.  This was also helped by joining the “Progressive Alliance”, which would mean that other second referendum supporting parties, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru, would not split their vote in target seats. This had mixed results; despite going up in four seats, they actually went down in vote share, and so leader Tim Farron resigned, citing his religious beliefs as the reason for his rejection.

The Wipeout

The Liberal Democrats in essence became the remain party, and the main “people’s vote” party. This seemed like it was getting positive results as in 2019, they came second in the EU elections, getting 16 seats – an increase from their previous one seat, and had an increase of 13% of the vote share. They were also gaining in the polls and were challenging the major parties as Brexit issues continued to rage on, as Parliament could not make a decision. They also had defections, with MPs like Sam Gyimah, a rising star in the Conservative Party, defecting to them, as well as other defections from Labour and the newly formed Change UK. Moreover, they won the 2019 Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, a seat that had marginally voted for Brexit in 2016. However, this began to falter as the 2019 election began, and campaigning started, the Liberal Democrats made some catastrophic errors.

Firstly, they stated that they believed their leader, Jo Swinson, could become Prime Minister. Then they stated that if they got a majority in Parliament that they would completely stop Brexit without a referendum. A decision that showed a decline in polling as many saw it as undemocratic, and many of the stauch remainers believed that to be the wrong way to go about it, especially considering the party was against the First Past the Post system, it almost seemed hypocritical of the party. To make matters worse, when put to the people, Jo Swinson appeared deeply unpopular and untrustworthy, as many of the things she was saying appeared to be left-wing and progressive, but due to her voting record during the Coalition Government which she partook in, it made her image worse. Come election day, it was the opposite of the 2017 election, with a net loss of one seat, but an increase in vote share of 4.2%. Worst of all, Swinson lost her seat to the SNP. 

Following this, there is a lot of uncertainty in who the Liberal Democrats are anymore. Now that Brexit has happened, they appear to once again be lost to know what they are. Tim Farron may have tried to position the party to be questioning the lockdowns in latter times, but generally there appears to be a lack of understanding of what the Liberal Democrats are anymore as they do not appear to hold a purpose. Ed Davey has been criticised by many Lib Dems for being voiceless in this world of politics, and showing now real leadership to steer the party in any direction. Despite this, they appeared to have done well in the Local Elections, making net gains of councillors, possibly due to a lack of support towards the two major parties in certain regions, but it’s common for the Liberal Democrats to do better locally than nationally, and with the Greens polling above them currently, the question now has arisen by many. Who are the Liberal Democrats?

How does the Chesham and Amersham by-election affect my take on the Liberal Democrats?

The Chesham and Amersham by-election showed a tremendous swing to the Liberal Democrats that was among the highest since World War II. But does it change anything? In short, not really. Though of course such a monumental swing and majority is outstanding for any Lib Dem supporter, there are very distinctive differences between this victory and perhaps those in a General Election, which holds the real power in terms of governance and representation. Firstly, more resources can be given to win the seat. Ed Davey showed up to this seat multiple times and generally was able to concentrate their resources to this one seat which was able to pay off in fantastic fashion. In a General Election, these resources cannot be used in the same way, and there are around 632 possible seats they are able to stand in. Secondly, and probably most importantly, By-elections are very different to General Elections. The issues tend to be more locally based, and therefore shock results are plenty. This By-election seemed to be more based on infrastructure debate and green belts, especially considering the dismay over HS2, as that will directly impact this constituency. Therefore, as the Lib Dems ran against this, despite being in government when it was introduced, they were able to bring swing voters from the Conservative to them. Many Lib Dems I’ve spoken to are not confident of holding this seat come the next General Election, and with good reason. 

Closing Thoughts

It’s extraordinary for me to have seen the shift in the Liberal Democrats over the last 24 years What’s interesting, is once again the Liberal Democrats appeared to have been moving towards the left since Swinson took over, appealing back towards Labour after Vince Cable had critiqued Corbyn’s politics. It shows how sometimes politics can come full circle and parties can revert back to how the dynamics were.

The Liberal Democrats need to redefine themselves, and it’s unclear if Ed Davey can be that person who will take charge and bring a strong direction for the party and the country at large. Perhaps he has not had the opportunity to due to COVID-19, as Starmer appears to be suffering from similar issues. Maybe we will find out after the pandemic is finally over.

Aaron is an objective journalist who does analysis on the current climate of politics and political party successes and looks back at recent political history to see where we are headed for. You can find him on Twitter @aaron_gsmith.

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