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Liberal Democrats

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Liberal Democrats
Leader Nick Clegg MP
Deputy Leader Simon Hughes MP
President Tim Farron MP
Founded 3 March 1988
Merger of Liberal Party and Social Democratic Party
Preceded by SDP–Liberal Alliance
Headquarters 8-10 Great George Street,
London, SW1P 3AE
Youth wing Liberal Youth
Membership  (January 2013) 42,501
Ideology Liberalism ( British)
Social liberalism
Green liberalism
Community politics
Internal factions:
 • Progressivism
 • Civil libertarianism
 • Social democracy
 • Economic liberalism
 • Left-libertarianism
Political position Radical centre to Centre-left
International affiliation Liberal International
European affiliation Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party
European Parliament group Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
Colours      Yellow/Orange
House of Commons
57 / 650
House of Lords
90 / 788
European Parliament
12 / 72
London Assembly
2 / 25
Scottish Parliament
5 / 129
Welsh Assembly
5 / 60
Local government
2,670 / 21,871
Police & Crime Commissioners
0 / 41

Politics of the United Kingdom
Political parties

The Liberal Democrats are a social liberal political party in the United Kingdom, supporting constitutional and electoral reform, progressive taxation, environmentalism, human rights laws, banking reform and civil liberties. 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 prior. The Liberals had been in existence for 129 years and in power under leaders such as Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George. During these times in government, the Liberals are credited with the Liberal Reforms, which saw the creation of the welfare state. In the 1920s, the Labour Party replaced the Liberals as the largest opponent of the Conservative Party.

Nick Clegg was elected Leader in 2007. At the 2010 general election, the Liberal Democrats won 57 seats with 23% of the vote, making them the third-largest party in the House of Commons behind the Conservatives with 307 and Labour with 258. No party having an overall majority, the Liberal Democrats joined a coalition government with the Conservatives, with Clegg becoming Deputy Prime Minister and other Liberal Democrats taking up ministerial positions.


The opening line to the preamble of the Liberal Democrats constitution is "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." Most commentators describe the party as centrist. In 2011 party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said "But we are not on the left and we are not on the right. We have our own label: Liberal."

There are two main strands of distinct ideology within the party, social liberals and the economic liberals, more commonly known as Orange Bookers. The social liberals are seen as being the more traditionally centre-left end of the party with Orange Bookers being more towards the centre. The principal difference between the two is that the Orange Bookers tend to support greater choice and competition and as such aiming to increase social mobility through increasing economic freedom and opportunity for those with more disadvantaged backgrounds. Whereas the social liberals are more commonly associated with directly aiming to increase equality of outcome through state means. Correspondingly, Orange Bookers tend to favour cutting taxes for the poorest in order to increase opportunity contrasting with social liberals who would rather see higher spending on the disadvantaged to reduce income inequality.

Being an Orange Booker and a social liberal within the party are not mutually exclusives. David Laws, one of the most economically liberal MPs in the party said in Parliament "I am grateful to my Hon. friend for his kind comments about Gladstonian Liberalism. I hope that this is not only Gladstonian Liberalism, but liberalism tinged with the social liberalism about which my party is so passionate." Indeed the Orange Book, to which the term refers, discusses the need for a more complete liberalism for the party, more fully supporting the liberalism as a whole including social liberalism.

The social liberalism in the party stems from the start of the 20th Century when the Liberal party were bringing about many reforms, known as Liberal reforms which are often viewed as the creation of the modern public welfare system in the UK. A major part of creating the liberal welfare reforms was done by David Lloyd George, who later went on to become Prime Minister. They may also often look to William Beveridge who is credited with drafting further advancements of the welfare state and especially the National Health Service (NHS) and also social liberal economist John Maynard Keynes. In February 2009, many social liberals founded an internal party pressure group, the Social Liberal Forum to pursue social liberal policies within the party.

In a poll of Liberal Democrat members on 30 April 2011 64% classed themselves as social liberal with 35% counting themselves as economic liberals. Others high on the list were progressive with 65%, social democrat 34%, 45% centre left, 60% internationalist, 44% radical, 41% green.

In December 2011, in a speech to the Demos think tank and the Open Society Foundation Clegg put forward his definition of the three main political traditions in Britain, saying:

"Socialists support the idea of the good society, typically judged in terms of equality of income. In order to bring about this end they use the state quite aggressively in terms of labour market regulation, centralised public services and through tax and benefits.

Conservatives support the idea of a big society, with responsibility shared throughout society - people are responsible both for themselves and each other. The emphasis is naturally on non-state institutions such as marriage, the family, churches and voluntary organisations.

The liberal ideal is of the open society, where power is vested in people, not in the state or other institutions. This means that individuals need the capabilities and opportunities to chart their own course through life, and to hold institutions to account. So while the good society needs a strong state, and the big society needs strong social institutions, the open society needs strong citizens."


The party was the first major party in the United Kingdom to formally endorse same-sex marriage.

List of policies followed by their status in the current Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition agreement.


  • Tax-free earning threshold to rise to £10,000, paid for by a "mansion tax" of 1% on properties worth over £2m applicable to value of property over that figure. — Tax-free earning threshold to rise to £10,000, to be achieved by 2015.
  • Annual savings totalling £15bn, including scrapping ID cards and not renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent. — ID cards scrapped, Trident under review for cost effectiveness and decision on its replacement pushed back until after next general election.
  • Minimum wage set at same level for all workers aged over 16 - except apprentices.
  • Replace council tax with local income tax (England only).


  • Pupil premium of £2.5bn given to head teachers, aimed at disadvantaged children, which could allow average primary school to cut class size to 20 pupils. — £488 per child on free school meals, is given to schools on top of their main funding. Total pupil premium funding for 2011-12 is £625m and is due to rise to £2.5bn a year by 2014-15.
  • Introduce shared parental leave from work, extended to 18 months over time, and right for fathers to attend ante-natal appointments. Right for grandparents to request flexible working. — From April 2011 fathers will be able to take any unused maternity leave themselves if their partners go back to work early. Plans also announced to consult on further reforms to the current system of parental leave.
  • Workplace scheme for 800,000 pupils to give them the opportunity to gain skills and experience. — £1bn of new funding will provide opportunities including job subsidies, apprenticeships and work experience placements for 500,000 unemployed people. The government will subsidise 160,000 work places by providing £2,275 to any private sector business willing to hire an unemployed person aged 18 to 24 years old.
  • Replace national curriculum with "minimum curriculum entitlement" in state-funded schools and scale back tests at age 11. More freedom for school management.


  • Cut size of the Department of Health by half, abolishing or cutting budgets of quangos, scrapping Strategic Health Authorities and seeking to limit pay of top NHS managers to below level of prime minister. — Three quarters of health quangos axed. Plans announced to scrap Strategic Health Authorities.
  • Integrate health and social care, allow people to stay in homes for longer rather than going into hospital or residential care by limiting bureaucracy.
  • Scrap Labour's personal care at home and divert cash to give one week's respite for one million carers. — Over £400million available in additional funding over coalition period to the hundreds of thousands of carers who work over 50 hours a week.

Crime, justice and immigration

  • Focus on treatment (rather than imprisonment) of drug addicts. Drug policy based on independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs advice.
  • Make prisoners work, contributing from prison wages to compensation fund for victims. As resources allow, increase number of hours prisoners spend in education and training.
  • Presumption against short-term sentences of less than six months, replaced by rigorously enforced community sentences - allowing cancellation of prison-building programme.
  • Bill announced which will regulate CCTV, end the collection of DNA from innocent citizens, scrap ID cards, the children's contact database, ends control orders, reduces the maximum pre-charge detention period under that Act from 28 to 14 days, outlaws wheel-clamping on private land, enable those with convictions for consensual sexual relations between men aged 16 or over (which have since been decriminalised) to apply to have them disregarded, and an amnesty with British citizenship for all illegal immigrants.

Political reform

  • Introduce single transferable vote system (STV), cut number of MPs by 150 and introduce fixed-term parliaments. —Referendum took place on single winner variant of STV ( Alternative vote), number of MPs to be reduced by 50 and fixed term parliaments introduced.
  • Replace House of Lords with smaller, fully elected upper house. Introduce written constitution. —Plans outlined for a House of Lords with 300 members, 80% of which would be elected using STV.
  • Introduce voting rights from age 16. Give powers for electorate to sack MPs who break rules. Require all MPs, Lords and parliamentary candidates to pay UK tax.
  • Introduce statutory register of lobbyists, changing Ministerial Code to ban ministers and officials from meeting MPs on issues where the MP is paid to lobby. -Statutory register of lobbyists in coalition agreement.

Foreign policy

  • There would be a full judicial inquiry into allegations of British complicity in torture and state kidnapping. —A full judicial inquiry has been announced.
  • No like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear missile system. —Final decision on replacement to be pushed until after the next general election and
  • There should be a "strong and positive" commitment to Europe. —Included in coalition agreement.
  • That British companies should not be permitted to sell chemicals to abroad where they could be used in carrying out the death penalty. —This has been accomplished.



The Liberal Democrats were formed on 3 March 1988 by a merger between the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party, which had formed a pact nearly seven years earlier as the SDP–Liberal Alliance. The Liberals descended from the Whigs, Radicals and Peelites, while the SDP were a party created by former Labour members, MPs and cabinet ministers, but also gained defections from Conservatives.

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 March 1988, with Steel and Robert Maclennan (who had become SDP leader in August 1987) as joint interim leaders. The new party was initially named Social and Liberal Democrats (SLD) with the unofficial short form The Democrats being used from September 1987. The name was subsequently changed to Liberal Democrats in October 1989, which is frequently shortened to Lib Dems.

A new party logo, the Bird of Liberty, was adopted in 1989. This was famously dismissed by Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative prime minister at the time, as being "as dead as John Cleese's parrot".

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 others (led by former Liberal MP Michael Meadowcroft) creating a new ' Liberal Party' that claimed to be the continuation of the Liberal Party which had just dissolved itself. Michael Meadowcroft eventually joined the Liberal Democrats in 2007 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.

Post-1988 history

Ashdown (1988–99)

Paddy Ashdown: Leader from 1988 to 1999

The then-serving Liberal MP Paddy Ashdown was elected leader in July 1988. At the 1989 European Elections, the party received only 6% of the vote, putting them in fourth place after the Green Party. They failed to gain a single Member of the European Parliament at this election.

Over the next three years, 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 share of national votes in the 1990s that the Alliance had achieved in the 1980s. At their first election in 1992 (which ended in a fourth successive Conservative win), 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.

In the 1994 European Elections, the party gained its first two Members of European Parliament.

Following the election of Tony Blair as Labour leader in July 1994 after the death of his predecessor John Smith, Ashdown pursued co-operation between the two parties because he wanted to form a coalition government should the next general election end without any party having an overall majority. 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. The election was, however, something of a turning point for the Liberal Democrats. They took a smaller share of the vote than at the previous election, but they managed to more than double their representation in parliament.

Kennedy (1999–2006)

Charles Kennedy: Leader from 1999 to 2006

Ashdown retired as leader in 1999 and the party elected Charles Kennedy as his replacement. The party improved on their 1997 results at the 2001 general election, increasing their number of seats to 52 and their share of the vote to 18.3%. Liberal Democrat candidates won support from former Labour and Conservative voters due to the Lib Dems' position on issues that appealed 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%) and won 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 missed opportunity for the party; but much of the apparent lack of success resulted from the first-past-the-post electoral system: the party got almost a quarter of the total votes nationally but only one-tenth of the seats in the Commons. Controversy became associated with the campaign when it became known that Michael Brown had donated £2.4 million to the Liberal Democrats. Brown, who lived in Majorca, Spain at the time, was charged in June 2008 with fraud and money laundering and subsequently jumped bail and fled the country. In November 2008 he was convicted in his absence of thefts amounting to £36 million and sentenced to seven years imprisonment.

The 2005 election figures revealed a trend of the 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), many of which the Conservatives had held in the 1980s, and Lib Dem aspirants 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 outside 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 rumours had alleged 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 rumours, and some suggested that he had deliberately misled the public and his party.

Campbell (2006–2007)

Menzies Campbell: Leader from 2006 to 2007

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 visits to male prostitutes. 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 by-election over Labour 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 also came second place by 633 votes in the Bromley and Chislehurst by-election, threatening the safe Conservative seat and 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, including making gains from UK properties owned by non-UK residents eligible for 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.

Clegg (2007–present)

Nick Clegg: Leader from 2007 to present, and current Deputy Prime Minister

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 Vince Cable as Shadow Chancellor. His predecessors were also given roles: Campbell joined the all-party Commons foreign affairs select committee, and Kennedy campaigned nationwide on European issues, as president of the European Movement UK.

Political commentators have identified Clegg's leadership as promoting a shift to the radical centre in the Liberal Democrat Party, bringing a little more emphasis on to the economically liberal side of social liberalism

In March 2011 Nick Clegg made a speech to his party conference stating that he believed that his party belonged to the radical centre. Clegg also quoted John Maynard Keynes, William Beveridge, Jo Grimond, David Lloyd George and John Stuart Mill, implying that they may also have belonged to the radical centre. He pointed to liberalism as an ideology of people, and therefore, one of the radical centre "For the left, an obsession with the state. For the right, a worship of the market. But as liberals, we place our faith in people. People with power and opportunity in their hands. Our opponents try to divide us with their outdated labels of left and right. But we are not on the left and we are not on the right. We have our own label: Liberal. We are liberals and we own the freehold to the centre ground of British politics. Our politics is the politics of the radical centre."

In coalition government (2010–present)

After the first of three general election debates on 15 April 2010, a ComRes poll put the Liberal Democrats on 24%. On 20 April, a YouGov poll put the Liberal Democrats on 34%, the Conservatives on 33% and Labour on 28%.

In the general election held on 6 May 2010, the Liberal Democrats won 23% of the vote and 57 seats in the House of Commons. The election returned a hung parliament with no party having an absolute majority. Negotiations between the Lib Dems and the two main parties occurred in the following days. David Cameron became Prime Minister on 11 May after Gordon Brown's resignation and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government with the Conservative Party, with Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister and other Liberal Democrats in the cabinet. Three quarters of the Liberal Democrat's manifesto pledges went into the Programme for Government.

An academic study has suggested that the party has been able to secure a greater degree of control over government policy than their relative proportion of seats, with the party taking 75% of their manifesto pledges into the programme for government. Though some say this has had an adverse effect on the party's distinctiveness in the eyes of the voters.

Since joining the coalition poll ratings for the party have fallen, 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.

On 8 December 2010, the eve of a House of Commons vote on the raising of the UK's undergraduate tuition fee cap to £9,000, an opinion poll conducted by YouGov recorded voting intention figures of Conservatives 41%, Labour 41%, Other Parties 11% and Liberal Democrats 8%. the lowest level of support recorded for the Liberal Democrats in any opinion poll since September 1990. In the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, 2011 held on 13 January 2011, the Liberal Democrats gained 31.9% of the vote, a 0.3% increase despite losing to Labour. In a by-election in the South Yorkshire constituency of Barnsley in March 2011, the Liberal Democrats fell from a 2nd place at the general election to 6th,.

In council elections held on 5 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, where several LibDem candidates lost their deposits.

According to the Guardian

"They lost control of Sheffield council – the city of Clegg's constituency – were ousted from Liverpool, Hull and Stockport, and lost every Manchester seat they stood in. Overall, they got their lowest share of the vote in three decades".

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 two-thirds of voters.

In May 2011, Nick 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.

In council elections held on 3 May 2012, the Lib Dems lost more than three hundred councillors, leaving them with fewer than three thousand for the first time in the party's history.

On 20 September 2012 Clegg suffered intense media pressure after personally apologising for reneging on the promise to abolish university tuition fees.

Liberal Democrat Government Ministers

Members of the Cabinet
  • Nick Clegg – Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Deputy Prime Minister
  • Vince Cable – Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills
  • Ed Davey – Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
  • Michael Moore – Secretary of State for Scotland
  • Danny Alexander – Chief Secretary to the Treasury
  • David Laws – Minister of State in the Cabinet Office and Minister of State for Schools
Other Ministers
  • Steve Webb– Minister of State for Pensions ( Department for Work and Pensions)
  • Norman Lamb– Minister of State for Care Services ( Department of Health)
  • Tom McNally, Baron McNally – Minister of State in Justice, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords ( Ministry of Justice)
  • Jeremy Browne – Minister of State for Crime Prevention ( Home Office)
  • David Heath – Minister of State for Agriculture and Food ( Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
  • Norman Baker – Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Regional and Local Transport ( Department for Transport)
  • Don Foster – Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Community Cohesion ( Department for Communities and Local Government)
  • Jo Swinson – Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs ( Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities ( Government Equalities Office)
  • Lynne Featherstone – Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development ( Department for International Development)
  • Baroness Randerson – Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales ( Wales Office)
  • Duncan Hames – Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Deputy Prime Minister
  • Tom Brake – Deputy Leader of the House of Commons
  • Jim Wallace, Baron Wallace of Tankerness – Advocate General for Scotland
Commons Whips
  • Alistair Carmichael – Deputy Chief Whip, Comptroller of the Household, Liberal Democrat Chief Whip
  • Mark Hunter– Assistant Whip
  • Jenny Willott– Assistant Whip
Lords Whips
  • Richard Newby, Baron Newby – Deputy Chief Whip, Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard
  • Lindsay Northover, Baroness Northover
  • William Wallace, Baron Wallace of Saltaire
  • Susan Garden, Baroness Garden of Frognal

Struggle in the opinion polls

See Opinion polling for the next United Kingdom general election for more details, including a list of every opinion poll carried out in 2012

The graph shows opinion polling of voting intention for the Liberal Democrats and UK Independence Party in 2012. UKIP started the year at around 2-7% (see table below) and finished with 7-15% of the opinion poll share (depending on the polling company). Whereas support for the Liberal Democrats has remained fairly static around 10% with little fluctuation throughout 2012 across all the polling companies that conducted surveys.

There has been debate within the media as to whether UKIP have supplanted or are supplanting the Liberal Democrats as the third main party in British politics, as UKIP claim, in part based on these polling figures. However, UKIP currently holds no seats in the House of Commons and holds 3 seats in the House of Lords. The Liberal Democrats have higher representation in Local government, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament than UKIP.

Parliamentary party committees

In mid-2010, after the formation of the coalition, several parliamentary party committees were created to effectively shadow government departments, in order for the party to keep a distinct and separate set of polices to that of the Conservatives. These committees work together with ministers in order to keep joined up policy and democratic policy making decisions. There must be one co-chair for each of the committees from each House. The list of committees and co chairs as of 23 March 2012 is detailed in the table below:

Committee Commons co-chair Lords co-chair
Business, Innovation and Skills Lorely Burt Lord Razzall
Communities and Local Government Lord Tope
Constitutional and Political Reform Mark Williams Lord Maclennan of Rogart (Cabinet Office), Lord Tyler
Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Don Foster Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury
Education, Families, and Young People Dan Rogerson Baroness Walmsley
Energy and Climate Change (ECC), Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Andrew George Lord Teverson (ECC), Lord Greaves (EFRA)
Health and Social Care John Pugh Baroness Jolly
Home Affairs, Justice and Equalities Tom Brake Baroness Hamwee (Home Office), Lord Thomas of Gresford (Justice)
International Affairs Martin Horwood Lord Chidgey (DFID), Baroness Falkner (FCO), Lord Lee of Trafford (MOD)
Northern Ireland Stephen Lloyd Lord Alderdice
Scotland John Thurso Lord Maclennan of Rogart
Transport Julian Huppert Lord Bradshaw
Treasury Stephen Williams Lord Newby
Wales Roger Williams Baroness Randerson
Work and Pensions Lord German

Electoral results

Lib Dem vote and seat share 1983–2005

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 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 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
1983 SDP–Liberal Alliance 25.4% 23 3.5%
1987 SDP–Liberal Alliance 22.6% 22 3.4%
1992 Liberal Democrats 17.8% 20 3.1%
1997 Liberal Democrats 16.7% 46 7.0%
2001 Liberal Democrats 18.3% 52 7.9%
2005 Liberal Democrats 22.1% 62 9.6%
2010 Liberal Democrats 23.0% 57 8.8%

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.

European elections

Graham Watson: Former leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe is the Liberal Democrat MEP for South West England and the first Lib Dem to be elected to the European parliament

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 UK 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 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
1984 SDP–Liberal Alliance 18.5% 0 0%
1989 Social and Liberal Democrats 6.2% 0 0%
1994 Liberal Democrats 16.1% 2 2.3%
1999 Liberal Democrats 12.7% 10 11.5%
2004 Liberal Democrats 14.9% 12 15.4%
2009 Liberal Democrats 13.7% 11 15.3%

Scottish Parliament elections

Willie Rennie: Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats

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 5 seats after the 2011 election as a result of the widespread unpopularity of their coalition with the Conservative party at the UK level.

The current leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats is the MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, Willie Rennie, who took up his role in 2011.

Election Constituency votes Regional votes Total seats Share of seats
Share Seats Share Seats
1999 14.15% 12 12.43% 5 17 13.2%
2003 15.3% 13 11.8% 4 17 13.2%
2007 16.2% 11 11.3% 5 16 12.6%
2011 7.9% 2 5.2% 3 5 3.88%

Welsh Assembly elections

Kirsty Williams: Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats

Elections to the newly created National Assembly for Wales 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 a plurality 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 Liberal Democrat leader in the assembly, Michael German, become the Deputy First Minister. 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 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. 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
1999 Liberal Democrats 13.5% 3 12.50% 3 6 10%
2003 Liberal Democrats 14.1% 3 12.7% 3 6 10%
2007 Liberal Democrats 14.8% 3 11.7% 3 6 10%
2011 Liberal Democrats 10.6% 1 8.0% 4 5 8.3%


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 Executive. Chaired by the party leader, its 30+ members includes representatives from each of the groups and democratically elected representatives.

The Lib Dems had around 65,000 members at the end of 2010 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.

Specified Associated Organisations (SAOs) review and input policies, representing groups including: ethnic minorities (EMLD), women (WLD), the LGBT community ( LGBT+ Lib Dems), youth and students ( Liberal Youth), engineers and scientists (ALDES), parliamentary candidates (PCA) and local councillors (ALDC). Others can become Associated Organisations (AOs) as pressure groups in the party, such as the Green Liberal Democrats, Liberal Democrats Online, the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) 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 separate local party operating in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Liberal Democrats. 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 Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party, and their 11 MEPs sit in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group in the European Parliament.

Membership figures

Year Membership (as of 31 December)
2001 73,276
2002 71,636
2003 73,305
2004 72,721
2005 72,031
2006 68,743
2007 65,400
2008 59,810
2009 58,768
2010 65,038
2011 48,934


Entered office Left office Date of Birth
David Steel 1 7 July 1987 16 July 1988 31 March 1938
Robert Maclennan 2 6 August 1987 16 July 1988 26 June 1936
Paddy Ashdown 16 July 1988 9 August 1999 27 February 1941
Charles Kennedy 9 August 1999 7 January 2006 25 November 1959
Sir Menzies Campbell 3 2 March 2006 15 October 2007 22 May 1941
Vince Cable 4 15 October 2007 18 December 2007 9 May 1943
Nick Clegg 18 December 2007 Incumbent 7 January 1967
  • 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 Interim leader between the resignation of Charles Kennedy on 7 January 2006 and his own election on 2 March 2006.
  • 4 Interim leader between the resignation of Menzies Campbell on 15 October 2007 and the election of Nick Clegg on 18 December 2007.

Deputy Leaders

  • Russell Johnston, 1988–1992
  • Alan Beith, 1992–2003
  • Sir Menzies Campbell, 2003–2006
  • Vince Cable, 2006–2010
  • Simon Hughes, 2010–present

Party Presidents

(Presidents lead the Federal Executive Committee. 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.)

  • Sir Ian Wrigglesworth, 1988–1990
  • Charles Kennedy, 1991–1994
  • Robert Maclennan, 1995–1998
  • Diana Maddock, Baroness Maddock, 1999–2000
  • Navnit Dholakia, Baron Dholakia, 2001–2004
  • Simon Hughes, 2005–2008
  • Rosalind Scott, Baroness Scott of Needham Market, 2009–2010
  • Tim Farron, 2011–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–present

The Liberal Democrats did not have representation in the European Parliament prior to 1994.

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