Navigation – Plan du site
Political Parties: Strengthening their Identity, Adapting their Image
Government Parties: Winning and Holding Power

The Liberal Democrat Party : From Contender to Coalitionist

Le Parti libéral démocrate : des rangs de l’opposition au partage du pouvoir
Muriel Cassel-Piccot

Résumés

Cet article étudie l’évolution des Libéraux-démocrates depuis 1988 et évalue le rôle qu’ils se sont forgé sur la scène politique britannique. Après un bref rappel des circonstances dans lesquelles le parti est né, puis a réussi à préserver et à développer une tradition politique singulière, nous nous intéresserons à la façon dont s’appliquent ses valeurs fondamentales. Une attention particulière sera portée à l’identité et au fonctionnement du parti, et plus encore à son approche fédéraliste et démocratique. Les stratégies mises en place ont permis à l’organisation de remporter certaines victoires. Elles impliquent cependant une professionnalisation qui a pu être source de tensions, que les différents leaders, chacun dans un style propre (un stratège visionnaire, un communicant rassembleur, un administrateur digne de confiance et un négociateur ambitieux), ont cherché à apaiser. L’enjeu pour le parti est aujourd’hui d’autant plus difficile qu’il doit continuer à défendre une position « médiane » tout en partageant le pouvoir avec les Conservateurs, ce qui implique souvent des paradoxes et des compromis – des notions peu compatibles avec la nature d’un système politique britannique fondé sur la confrontation.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 Percentage of votes at general elections : 1992 : 17.8 %; 1997 :16.8 %; 2001 : 18.3 % ; 2005  (...)
  • 2 Andrew Russell & Edward Fieldhouse, Neither Left nor Right ? : The Liberal Democrats an (...)

1For the last twenty-three years, the Liberal Democrats have enjoyed a revival that is all the more interesting since the party’s profile is characterised by electoral diversity, ideological contrasts, and political paradoxes, and since it has secured a status as a strong third party, a political force that must be reckoned with despite mixed results. They have traditionally been described as the centrist party in British politics ; however, they have also been considered left of Labour. They have aligned themselves as a rather anti-Conservative party ; they have tried to win Conservative sympathizers at general elections, and yet they have now embarked on a coalition with David Cameron. If the party, its policies, and leaders have enjoyed some popularity among the British population, they have nevertheless remained the third choice of a large section of the electorate.1 Seen in a perspective that relies on a binary interpretation of complex political, economic, and social questions, the Liberal Democrat Party is characterized by ambivalence : neither right nor left2 and/or both right and left. Similarly, the party is both young and old. Officially founded in 1988, it can be traced back to 1868 when seen as an offshoot of the long-standing Liberal Party.

2The history of a real, actual, political party is quite different from the abstract political ideology from which it originates and on which it is based. There are inevitably strong links between the two, between philosophical ideas, theories, and values on the one hand and their political expression and implementation on the other. However, ideology tends to endure whereas strategies and policies change over time and with circumstances. In Britain, the Liberal Democrats have claimed continuity with the liberal tradition, which developed from the 17th century and prepared the ground for their liberal activities and actions of today :

Closed societies – opaque, hierarchical, insular – are the sorts of society my party has opposed for over a hundred and fifty years. That’s why Gladstone fought for a liberal internationalism ; why Lloyd George battled the House of Lords […].3

3And since 1988, they have accomplished a number of achievements. What progress have they made ? Which strategies have they implemented ? Where do they stand today ?

Origins, links, and splits since 1945

4The Liberal Party enjoyed long spells of power in the 19th century but experienced ups and downs, enduring repeated decline and enjoying periodic rejuvenation in the 20th century. More particularly, after World War II, at a time when collapse seemed unavoidable and extinction most probable, Clement Davies, who led the Liberal Party from 1945 to 1956, managed to keep it together as an independent organisation.

  • 4 Alun Wyburn-Powell, Clement Davies and his Impact on the Liberal Party, British Lib (...)

[Davies] did not lose his own seat. He did not split the Party. He oversaw the first election since 1929 that did not suffer a net loss of seats. He did not engage in any futile attempts to form an alliance with the Conservatives or Labour. He did not bring the Party into disrepute.4

  • 5 Two famous examples are Torrington and Orpington, which were won from the Conservatives in (...)
  • 6 The Liberal Party polled 7.5 % of the votes and had 6 MPs in the House of Commons in 1970.
  • 7 “Community politics”, the roots of which lay in the Young Liberals’ radicalism and militanc (...)

5Revival came later with attractive, forceful, and popular Jo Grimond, who became leader in 1956 and who wanted to see a “realignment of the left”. Under his stimulating leadership, the party was revitalised at the grassroots, achieving by-election successes5 and advances at the municipal level. In 1967, Jo Grimond was succeeded by Jeremy Thorpe, whose early years at the head of the party proved difficult with little electoral impact, critical financial problems, and the growing radical militancy of the Young Liberals. The results of the 1970 election6 were disastrous. The same year, at their Assembly, the Liberals decided to formalise and institutionalise “community politics”,7 an approach to local activism, collective decision- making, and people’s control of the exercise of power. They resolved to carry the following resolution :

  • 8 Robert Pinkney, “Nationalizing Local Politics and Localizing a National Party”, Directory o (...)

A primary strategic emphasis on community politics ; our role as political activists is to help organise people in communities to take and use power, to use political skills to redress grievances, and to represent people at all levels in the political structure.8

  • 9 Focus leaflets concentrate on local issues, use simple language and pictures, and invite r (...)
  • 10 Bernard Greaves & Gordon Lishman, The Theory and Practice of Community Politics, A. (...)

6The fulfilment of the resolution, which implied effective communication with “ordinary voters” and putting liberalism into practice, was soon achieved notably with the use of the Focus leaflet,9 a bulletin intended to give national issues local twists. The party gathered momentum with a series of triumphs in by-elections as in Rochdale and Sutton & Cheam in 1972 or the Isle of Ely and Ripon in 1973, and striking successes in local government elections as in Liverpool. By establishing a strong local base through meetings and debates with the electorate, and later advocating “a democratic, participatory, decentralised, community oriented, diverse, creative, dynamic, and experimental” process,10 the party could show that grassroots involvement is a proof that they can make decisions and be trusted at the national level. But the downside of the approach can be a lack of convergence between Liberal Democrats operating at different levels in terms of policies and relation or cooperation with the other main parties. More precisely, the difficulty has been to combine ideology with political strategy, and to conciliate full participation in a broad movement, effective leadership and clear, coherent Liberal views without being accused of contradictions.

  • 11 Chris Cook, A Short History of the Liberal Party, 1900-2001, 6th ed., Basingstoke : Palgrav (...)
  • 12 The Lib-Lab Pact (1977-78) was a period of cooperation between the Liberal and Labour Parti (...)

7Soon again, however, the 1974 February and October elections were to bring disappointments.11 In 1976, the election of skilful Grimondite David Steel at the head of the party brought the Thorpe era to conclusion. The new left-of-centre leader, a staunch believer in the politics of cooperation, engaged in multi-party government with the Lib-Lab pact until 1978.12 Still, the 1979 election was a new setback for the Liberals as the unpopularity of the Labour government had rubbed off on them.

  • 13 Although the Liberal/SDP Alliance polled 25.4 % of the votes in 1983, it only won 23 seats (...)
  • 14 With 22.5 % of the votes cast, the Liberal/SDP Alliance won 22 seats in 1987.

8In the meantime, following the appointment of Conservative Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979, the Labour Party experienced internal disagreements and feuds, and moved left. Conference decisions notably included the right for Constituency Labour Parties to reselect MPs, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and withdrawal from the EEC, which the social democratic right of the party found intolerable. Breaking point was reached in 1981 when a group of four moderate prominent party figures – Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and William Rodgers, popularly known as the “Gang of Four” – seceded and established the Social Democratic Party (SDP). One of the first decisions of the newly founded party was to negotiate with their closest ally, the Liberals, characterized by their attachment to the rights of individuals and minorities. Indeed, there was no place for two parties in the centre ground of British politics. A lengthy series of negotiations took place between David Steel and Roy Jenkins so that their candidates would not stand against each other. The talks led to a partnership known as the Alliance, in which the two parties actually produced joint programmes and manifestos. In the 1983 general election, the number of votes cast for the Alliance showed that the Liberal Party was back in the British political arena, but the number of seats won proved that support still needed to be turned into a real force.13 The 1987 elections confirmed both the stability of the Alliance vote and the absence of a real breakthrough.14

  • 15 The options were : Liberal and Social Democrats, The New Liberal and Social Democratic Part (...)
  • 16 Michael Meadowcroft, Tony Greaves, Rachel Pickford, and Andy Millson walked out.
  • 17 David Dutton, A History of the Liberal Party, Basingstoke : Palgrave, 2004, 267.
  • 18 Chris Cook, A Short History of the Liberal Party, 1900-2001, op. cit., 201.

9Such disappointing results prompted David Steel to initiate and secure a full democratic merger of the Liberals and the SDP. A majority in each of the two parties supported his call. However, David Owen, who had succeeded Roy Jenkins in 1983 and regarded the Liberals as weak and unreliable on issues like defence and the market economy, met it with hostility. After a fierce and vindictive campaign, the outcome of the SDP ballot was a victory for the merger and caused David Owen to resign. He was soon replaced by Robert Maclennan. Talks over a merger were protracted : there was controversy over the name of the new party ;15 there was disagreement about the inclusion of a support clause for NATO in the preamble of the constitution ; there was dissension over constitutional proposals on policy and decision-making ; there was contention about the centralism of the new structure. Despite clear warnings produced by the Liberal Party Council over nomenclature and NATO in December 1987, David Steel pressed ahead with the conclusion of the deal on 13 January 1988, which brought about the resignation of four members of the negotiating team.16 The situation further deteriorated on the very same day when the Steel-Maclennan policy package (that notably included the end of universal child benefit, the extension of VAT to food, fuel, newspapers, and children’s clothes, the removal of tax relief on mortgages, and support of the Trident nuclear missile)17 was revealed. Although the prospect of a merger seemed wrecked at the time, the project was rescued from total collapse. The controversial policies were dropped and replaced by a new document elaborated by a new negotiating team. After these disputes, a victorious Liberal Assembly held in Blackpool, a bitter SDP meeting in Sheffield, and a lacklustre ballot of members, a centre-left party, christened the Social and Liberal Democrats (SLD), was finally launched on 3 March 1988 under the joint interim leadership of David Steel and Robert Maclennan. The new party claimed 19 MPs, 3,500 councillors, and a membership of one million.18

  • 19 Paddy Ashdown, The Ashdown Diaries, Vol. 2 : 1997-1999, London : Allen Lane, 2001, 30.
  • 20 The party came fourth after the Greens in the European elections, with 6.2 % of the vote an (...)

10The election of a new leader took place in July 1988 with the two key players declining to stand, leaving the choice between two former Liberals. Finally, Paddy Ashdown, MP for Yeovil, defeated Alan Beith and took over an organisation that was “confused, demoralised, starved of money and in the grip of a deep identity crisis”.19 The difficult start of the new party was worsened by disappointing results in local elections, by-elections, and the European elections20 in 1988 and 1989, when its name was settled as the Liberal Democrats. By 1990 however, the Liberal Democrats were already recovering despite Michael Meadowcroft’s continuing the Liberal Party and David Owen’s continuing the SDP. In 1990 and 1991, the Liberal Democrats won the Eastbourne & Ribble Valley by-elections ; from then on, and until 2010, they enjoyed a period of steady growth at local as well as national levels. Since the general election of 2010 however, although partners in government, their fortunes have been mixed if not flagging.

Ideology, constitution, and organisation

  • 21 <http://www.libdems.org.uk/constitution.aspx>, accessed 11 July 2011.
  • 22 Liberal Democrat Party, The Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010, 13-14.
  • 23 Ibid., Preamble, paragraph 1, 7.
  • 24 Ibid., 60-61.
  • 25 Subsidiarity is the idea that matters ought to be dealt with by the lowest competent unit.
  • 26 The Liberal Democrats, The Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010, op.cit., Preamble, paragraph 2, 7.

11Although it was difficult for the Liberal Democrats to create an identity for themselves and show distinctive features when they founded their party, they forcefully stated their ideology in their constitution21 and in their manifestos. Their tenets are individual liberty and social justice. The former is safeguarded by personal ownership of property in a market that operates freely. However, in order to encourage the latter as well as to promote a sustainable economy and secure the right of all to social provision and cultural activity, the state is allowed to intervene when necessary. For instance, it should not only offer free education for all, but also provide money for schools teaching to the poorest pupils ; it should raise the threshold at which people start paying income tax, impose a tax on properties that are over £2m, and tax capital gains at the same rates as incomes.22 As the champions of freedom, equality, dignity, and well-being of the individual, they aim “to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, […] in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity […], to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity”.23 In fact, their ideology is about giving power to the people. They strongly object to the undemocratic concentration of power in unaccountable bodies. Instead, they favour the democratic process, advocate proportional representation for elections to both the House of Commons and a second chamber to replace the House of Lords, and support devolution and decentralisation with decisions made at the lowest and most appropriate local level, including regional assemblies. Such principles imply protecting civil liberties with no state intervention in personal affairs, opposing the introduction of identity cards, rejecting prejudices and discrimination of any sort, increasing parliamentary oversight of the executive, and supporting cooperation, participation, and partnership. However, the strong emphasis that they place on a system of democratic local governments does not prevent them from being supportive of the European Union and advocating integration. As defenders of internationalism, as the most pro-European British party, and supporters of the Lisbon treaty, they want to put “Britain at the heart of Europe”.24 They believe in European cooperation and again insist on the principle of subsidiarity,25 arguing that the EU is useful for dealing with global issues such as the environment but that it should not interfere in areas where local actions are more effective. They also campaign for continuing reform of the EU budget and call for a referendum on the British EU membership. In order to reach these ideals and achieve these objectives, the Liberal Democrats have organised themselves into a federal structure, which reflects the members’ commitment to participative politics, and their belief “that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from the people”.26

12Indeed, the selection of the party leader demonstrates the practice of democracy. The candidates who stand at leadership elections need to be sitting Liberal Democrat MPs. But this is not the only requirement : they must also “be proposed by at least ten per cent of other members of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons and supported by 200 members in aggregate in not less than 20 Local Parties […] and must indicate acceptance of nomination”.27 Once the election has been called, the Federal Executive Committee publishes “a timetable for nominations, withdrawals, despatch and receipt of ballot papers and the holding of ballots”28 and so determines the length of the voting process. A postal vote of all party members decides who will lead the party to the next general election, voting being by single transferable vote (STV), a proportional system which uses preferential voting in multi-member constituencies.29 Both the (early) adoption of the OMOV (One Member, One Vote) principle and of the single winner version of STV illustrate the practice of democracy.

13The process described, which exemplifies the functioning of the party, agrees with its strongest feature : federalism. It is a system which is at odds with British political culture but in which the power to govern is shared between different levels. The structure of the organisation comprises four tiers from the local parties at the bottom to the Federal Party at the top as shown below.

14 FEDERAL PARTY

15 WELSH PARTY

16 SCOTTISH PARTY

17 ENGLISH PARTY

18 LOCAL PARTIES

19 REGIONAL PARTIES

20 REGIONAL PARTIES

21 LOCAL PARTIES

22 LOCAL PARTIES

[Image non convertie]

23The over-600 local parties – the level at which people usually join – are the smallest units of the Liberal Democrat Party. Normally constituency-based, they have at least 30 members each and their own constitution subject to the party constitution. All party members are entitled to attend their local regional conferences and the federal conferences where only elected delegates can vote. The number of party delegates to the party conference is proportional to the membership figure of the local party.30 The primary aims of the local party are to organise election and recruit members.

  • 31 Ibid., Article 4.5, 15.

[…] to secure the election of Liberal Democrats as Members of Parliament, UK Members of the European Parliament and members of local and other elected authorities ; […] to admit and actively recruit new members of the Party and encourage members to renew their membership ; […].31

  • 32 ACT allows people – supporters, members and non-members – to get “involved in politics (...)
  • 33 <http://www.liberator.co.uk>, accessed 11 July 2011.

24Local members participate in the policy formulation process and campaigning activities of the party, and help all local people to secure their rights. In practical terms, members have to pay a minimum membership fee of £12 per year (£6 per year for students) and they can subscribe to Liberal Democrat News, a weekly that covers every aspect of the party’s work. Also, they can join the Liberal Democrat Network, ACT,32 Facebook and Twitter online, and can subscribe independently to Liberator, a magazine, which is “a forum for debate among radical Liberals in all parties and none”.33 However, following the general tendency, the numbers of Liberal Democrat members have decreased as shown in the table below.

Liberal Democrat Party Membership, 1987-2009

1987

137,500

1992

100,000

1997

100,000

2001

73,305*

2005

72,031*

2009

58,768*

Source : compiled by the author. *The Federal Party, Reports and Financial Statements : <http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/​party-finance/​>, accessed 11 July 2011.

  • 34 Patrick Seyd & Patrick Whiteley, “British Party Members : An Overview”, Party Politics, (...)

25This decline in numbers is accompanied by a decline in members’ activism. Not only are members less active, but they also spend less time on party work in the average month.34

26The second tier comprises the regional parties. England is divided into 11 regions, Scotland 8, and Wales 4. The third tier is made up of the three state parties, each of which has their own constitution : the Scottish Liberal Democrats, the Welsh Liberal Democrats (Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol Cymru), and the Liberal Democrats in England.35 The fourth tier is the Federal Party, which is responsible for party policy, strategy, the preparation of the elections to Westminster and the European Parliament, media relations and international relationships. The work of the Federal Party is directed, coordinated, and implemented by the Federal Executive, which has 29 voting members (the party leader, the party president, three vice-presidents, two MPs, one peer, one MEP, two councillors, three state representatives, fifteen members elected at the party conference, plus a small number of non-voting members). The Federal Executive (FE) oversees the Federal Finance and Administration Committee (FFAC), which plans and administers the budget of the Federal Party, directs the Federal Party administration, and ensures that the party complies with the regulations of the 2000 Political Parties, Elections, and Referendums Act.36 Another subordinate committee, which reports to the FE, is the Campaigns and Communications Committee (CCC), which coordinates policy making and the party’s campaign strategy.37

  • 38 See below.

27The sovereign representative and policy-making body of the Liberal Democrat Party is the bi-annual Federal Conference where delegates with voting rights are sent and where party policy is determined and drawn up. The administration of the conference is overseen by the Federal Conference Committee (FCC), which includes the party president, the chief whip, one representative from each of the state parties, two elected representatives from the Federal Executive, two representatives from the Federal Policy Committee, the Federal Chief Executive, one member of staff from the party, and twelve members elected at the Federal Conference. The policy drawn up by the party conference is coordinated and refined by the Federal Policy Committee (FPC). The role of the FPC is to oversee the policy-making process of the Federal Party and to prepare the manifestos for the Westminster and European elections. More precisely, the committee is responsible for : researching and developing policy, which occasionally involves setting up policy working groups ; deciding which policy proposals submitted by party members or associations38 as motions to conference will be debated ; producing papers for debates at the Conference. Chaired by an MP, the committee is composed of the leader, four MPs, the party president, one Lord, one MEP, three councillors, three state party representatives and fifteen members elected by the party conference.

28Party policy is also input and reviewed by a number of particular groupings within the party. These organisations of persons with a common link of interest satisfy certain criteria defined in the Constitution. Their membership is limited to members of the party ; their goals are consistent with the fundamental values and objectives of the party ; their internal procedures conform to the basic democratic principles ; and they are listed in an annexe at the end of the federal Constitution.39 There are nine such recognised groups that are resourced through the party and through their own fundraising activities. They are called Specified Associated Organisations (SAOs) : the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors (ALDC),40 the Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers & Scientists (ALDES), the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Liberal Democrats, known as the Democrats for Lesbian and Gay Action (DELGA) before 2011, the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD),41 the Liberal Democrat Agents and Organisers Association,42 Liberal Youth,43 the Parliamentary Candidates Association (PCA),44 the Women Liberal Democrats (WLD),45 and the Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association.46

29With forty years of experience, the ADLC brings together Liberal Democrat councillors, helps them campaign, provides them with information, advice, and tools including website pages, gives them access to the party’s data management system (Connect), and publishes a magazine entitled Campaigner. The ALDES aims to create a positive image of science and solidarity amongst Lib Dem scientists, and to provide the party with specialist knowledge in policy development by contributing to working groups. The organisation holds conferences, publishes newsletters, booklets and briefing notes. The LGBT Liberal Democrats are “committed to promoting the policies of the party to gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, and to ensuring that the party’s policies address their needs”.47 The association, which publishes newsletters and calls conferences, supports “tackling bullying in schools, getting tough on hate crime, ending deportations of LGBT refugees to countries where they face persecution, pressing other countries to recognise civil partnerships, broadening the transgender definition, and increasing LGBT representation in Parliament”.48 The Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats have their own constitution and their objectives are to develop the education, participation and representation of ethnic minority within the party and in Parliament, to pursue policies of equal opportunities for all, and to seek positive action. With members aged 30 and under or registered as students, Liberal Youth run campaigns on issues that affect their generation, events like protest and action days, and training meetings (Activate) ; they publish a monthly e-newsletter (Yell), and their own policy book (Liberal Youth Policy Register Oct 2011).

30Alongside the nine SAOs, there are Associated Organisations (AOs), which constitute another type of groups. The AOs are quite similar to the SOAs. However, they are not listed in the Constitution and are not financed by the central party. The AOs are given certain rights and privileges, such as consultation over policy papers, as defined within the Federal Party’s Constitution. For instance, the Democrat Action Group for Gaining Electoral Reform (DAGGER) promotes the qualities and benefits of STV ; the Green Liberal Democrats, who publish a quarterly political journal (Challenge), work to make the federal party the greenest party in the UK, and to advance the cause of environmentalism and sustainability at all levels ; the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum, which is the voice of Christian faith in the party and produces Christian Focus, a quarterly newsletter, encourages Christian input in activities and pushes forward radical policies ; and the Liberal Democrats Online (LDO) promote the use of the internet to gain supporters, to win votes, and to develop policies on the internet. Finally there are also bodies for special interest groups such as the Liberal Democrat Disability Association, whose goal is to raise awareness and understanding of disability.

31Thus, the main characteristic of the Liberal Democrat Party is its democratic approach with its pyramidal, four-tier structure, its plurality of members playing an active role at all levels in the party’s organisations and bureaucratic committees, and its federal conference, whose role in policy-making is supreme. Coupled with a commitment to “community politics”, which focuses on campaigning, communication and concentration on certain areas, these elements agree with the liberal tradition of grassroots activism,49 decentralisation, and devolution of power. They tend to prove that the party is member-oriented, through a bottom-up approach that allows the rank-and-file to join in, get involved, and make decisions. And indeed, the weight of the members can be quite heavy as illustrated by the following examples : a vote in favour of the decriminalisation of cannabis in 1994,50 which was strongly disapproved of by Paddy Ashdown and the leadership ; a vote in favour of Menzies Campbell’s policy of delaying the decision on replacing Britain’s nuclear weapons ;51 a vote in favour of an amendment calling for radical changes in the government’s Health Bill, which increased pressure on Nick Clegg at the party’s spring conference in Sheffield in 2011.52 This interpretation is confirmed by the “triple-lock” directives,53 which were passed at the 1998 Southport Conference, at a time when Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair were very close. The resolution intended to avoid risks for the party to lose its independence through its leadership in the event of a deal with another party. In such a case, the consent of 75 % of both the FE and the parliamentary party will be required ; unless a three-quarters majority of each group is reached, a two-thirds majority of a special conference vote will be required ; in case of a new failure, a ballot of all the members of the party will be carried out. In addition, at the last party’s spring conference in 2011, a motion on “Strategy, Positioning, and Priorities”54 was passed, confirming the independence of the party and rejecting any pre-electoral pact for the next election.

32However, the same document also reiterates the strong and effective leadership of the leader and his team. It also reflects the professionalization of the party, which has been noted since 1997 with notably : the creation of a Liberal Democrat shadow cabinet and of the Parliamentary Office of Liberal Democrats ; general improvement in the operations in the Cowley Street headquarters including the improvement of systems, the introduction of new election software, the reorganisation of the Policy, Communications, Campaigns and Marketing teams, the transformation of fundraising, and a move to a new building located 8-10 Great George Street on 30 August 2011 ; and the network of qualified campaign staff across the country.55 Indeed, in order to reinforce its credibility, identity, and efficiency, the party has had to increase its direction from the top.56 In 2006, Menzies Campbell delivered a speech in London and declared they had to be less amateurish :

If we are to be credible then we must above all be credible on policy. We must streamline our policy-making process to make it more responsive and immediate. Our Party Conference will always be the most important voice in determining our policies. But the conference committee is already looking at ways to professionalise the party conference […].57

33He was concerned on the one hand with the slowness of the policy-making process and its potential ineffectiveness, and on the other with the timely saleability of policies and the freedom of elected politicians in an increasingly competitive political and electoral environment.58 In 2008, Christopher Bones was commissioned by Nick Clegg, Simon Hughes and Chris Rennard to make recommendations for the party to campaign more effectively and to increase its number of MPs. The report advocated a justifiable agglomeration of power interpreted by commentators as either centralising power or streamlining a complex internal administration. It notably led to the creation of an unelected body, the Chief Officers Group (COG),59 which acts as a management board to the party. Three years after its creation, and despite fears of a democratic deficit, this administrative change looks rather positive, as its work has rarely suffered controversy. It also seems that the improvement recommended in the party’s technology infrastructure is getting into place.60

34Dealing with the workings of their party, once again the Liberal Democrats fall between two chairs. They try to bridge the gap between two opposites : a federal internal structure and an efficient, professional party ; a slow democratic process of policy-making characterised by the power of the party conference to determine policy versus an ever-accelerating media-oriented political scene ; a bottom-up approach giving the grassroots significant influence versus a top-down, more centralised approach to their organisation ; a strong ideology of individualism and the pragmatism of realpolitik in power ; a centralisation of power in the party at variance with the intrinsic nature of liberal democracy. The task is all the more difficult as the grassroots are mavericks, who speak their mind, make themselves heard even when they disagree with the leadership, and believe that the freedom of thought and action for each person is the most important value in a society. These tensions are heightened by the party’s role in the coalition. Could they be eased by greater transparency and clearer communication between the leadership and the grassroots ? Could they be diffused by swifter decision-making, better political training, and unequivocal strategic devices ? In such an ambiguous context, how have Lib Dem leaders steered a course for their party ?

Politics, leaderships, and strategies

  • 61 The two parties agreed on the implementation of devolution, the European Human Righ (...)
  • 62 The committee first started as the Joint Consultative Committee. Its purpose was to discuss (...)
  • 63 The commission, chaired by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, proposed to replace Single Majority Si (...)
  • 64 Andrew Russell & Edward Fieldhouse, Neither Left nor Right ? : The Liberal Democrats and the (...)
  • 65 He spoke with authority on Hong Kong and former Yugoslavia.
  • 66 Don MacIver (ed.), The Liberal Democrats, Hemel Hempstead : Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1996, (...)
  • 67 Andrew Russell & Edward Fieldhouse, Neither Left nor Right ? : The Liberal Democrat (...)
  • 68 Chris Cook, A Short History of the Liberal Party, 1900-2001, op. cit., 215.
  • 69 As newly elected leader, Paddy Ashdown tried to talk the party into branding themselves “De (...)

35The first leader of the Liberal Democrats as such was Paddy Ashdown (born 1941). He won the leadership campaign with over 70 % of the vote after a career in the army, in the Civil Service and in the industrial sector. At age 47, he was a relative newcomer to politics and his vision was one of a radical reforming party. After a very difficult start, he took his party throughout the 1990s, ensuring electoral success in local government, at by-elections, at Westminster and at the European level. The recovery of the organisation coupled with the growing unpopularity of the Conservative government and Tony Blair’s taking New Labour towards the political centre ground, led Paddy Ashdown to end the Liberal Democrats’ policy of equidistance. Just like David Steel before him in 1977-78, Paddy Ashdown decided to work and collaborate with Labour even if, for a time, he publicly denied it and then had to impose his decision on his parliamentary party. The cooperation based on a progressive agenda – including proportional representation – and referred to as “the Project” led to the Cook-Maclennan agreement61 in 1997, the Joint Cabinet Committee (JCC),62 and the Jenkins Commission.63 Although the JCC survived until 2001, “the Project” was killed by a lack of progress in the parties’ partnership due to the magnitude of Labour’s victory, strong opposition from the upper echelons of the Labour Party, and probably basic human failings.64 Moreover, some Liberal Democrats had not embraced Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown’s 1998 Joint Statement to extend cooperation. Paddy Ashdown’s leadership can be seen in a contrasting light : although he dominated the party, his power was limited. On the one hand, he was the one who rescued and rebuilt the party after the merger. He has been described as a committed, dynamic, and charismatic leader, well-versed in international matters,65 with a hands-on style of leadership – especially between 1992 and 1999. Regarded as the party’s strongest asset66 and even as the party personified, he was anxious to control the whole agenda. In other words, he largely dominated the Liberal Democrats.67 He also built a huge amount of credit with activists and cultivated grassroots support. He attended numerous party committees “devot[ing] himself […] to living and working with ordinary people, spending two to three days a week over a six-month period listening to their views”.68 On the other hand however, his domination of the organisation coupled with his closeness to the rank-and-file did not really allow him to lead the party exactly where he wanted to take it. They differed in opinion on several occasions : for instance, when they adopted a new name,69 when they had a vote on cannabis decriminalisation, and when they decided to cooperate with Tony Blair and Labour. Nevertheless, when Paddy Ashdown retired as leader in 1999, his achievements were quite impressive : the establishment of a viable third party, the securing of devolution for Scotland and Wales, proportional representation for the European elections, and proposals for further constitutional reform. His resignation, whether a consequence of the failure of “the Project” or a part of his long-term plan, and the arrival of Charles Kennedy as leader indicated if not a new era at least a new style for a party, which had greatly recovered.

  • 70 Menzies Campbell, My Autobiography, op. cit., 152.
  • 71 He studied philosophy and politics at the University of Glasgow. There, he became a member (...)
  • 72 Jackie Ashley, “Kennedy turns Lib Dem guns on Labour”, The Guardian, 21 January 200 (...)
  • 73 Andrew Russell & Edward Fieldhouse, Neither Left nor Right ? : The Liberal Democrat (...)
  • 74 John Barrett, Alistair Carmichael, Paul Holmes, and John Pugh.

36Indeed, the year 1999 proved a key date for the party as it entered a new phase at the beginning of the 21st century : charismatic Ashdown resigned and relaxed “Chatshow Charlie” Kennedy (born 1959) succeeded him. Charles Kennedy was a different type of leader from Paddy Ashdown, with a different profile and a different approach. A man of higher education and a politician nearly all his adult life, a key player in the merger which would never have taken place without him,70 he led the party to their best election results in over eighty years.71 He turned it into a real force in the political arena. Under his leadership, which has often been compared to a chairmanship, the party made new advances in Westminster (52 seats in 2001 and 62 seats in 2005), and significant ones in the National Assembly for Wales (6 seats in 2003 and 2007), and in the Scottish Parliament (17 seats in 2001 and 16 seats in 2007). Strategically speaking, cooperation was abandoned in Westminster. Although in 2002 Charles Kennedy agreed that “the Project” had helped the party, he did not see the future in cooperation with Labour. He did not want the Liberal Democrats to be perceived as “bit-part players in someone else’s show”.72 However, the situation was different with Scotland and Wales. Devolution gave the Liberal Democrats the opportunity to work in coalition in Edinburgh and Cardiff. Their positions in the devolved assemblies and in the Scottish Executive Cabinet boosted their credibility as a party of government. Thus, the party was once again facing a complex dilemma : Lib-Lab cooperation in the Celtic fringe was at odds with carving distinctive policies at national general elections while simultaneously appealing to both Conservative and Labour voters. As Andrew Russell and Edward Fieldhouse have shown,73 the key to solving the problem was to get away from the Right-Left spectrum, but this was no easy task especially in a long history of adversarial politics, of two-partism, and of first-past-the-post voting, and when the party itself tends to use the distinction. In 2001, left-winger Liberal Democrats74 set up the Beveridge Group to promote social liberalism. It was a response to a drift towards economic liberalism and away from robustly accountable public services, responsive to community needs and provided by democratically elected bodies. In 2003, Alistair Carmichael, one of its members, wrote for Liberator :

  • 75 Alistair Carmichael, “Setting Communities Free”, Liberator, November 2003.

… our policy paper ‘Setting Business Free’ starts with the line, “Liberal Democrats believe in freedom, choice and diversity”. No mention there of our belief in equality and community. It is an inauspicious start and sadly the paper gets worse. In its introduction we are told that, “Liberal Democrats start with a bias in favour of market solutions”. Do we ? This certainly came to news as me.75

  • 76 Richard S. Grayson, “The Liberal Democrat Journey to a Lib-Con Coalition – And Where Next ? (...)

37In 2004, The Orange Book, a collection of essays written by leading, young, right-winger Liberal Democrats revived the opposition between right and left. The publication, although much of it was already party policy and the rest was interpreted as challenging ideas for debate,76 was often reviewed as a right-wing manifesto promoting small state, free trade, choice and competition.

  • 77 Paul Marshall & David Laws (eds.), The Orange Book : Reclaiming Liberalism, London: (...)

The vision should be one in which a mixture of public sector, private and mutually owned enterprises compete to provide mainstream services. The private sector already provides nursery, special needs and vocational education for LEAs or government. Voluntary organisations like churches are already substantial providers of schooling. Provided the state performs its central function of ensuring that there is a regime for standard-setting and testing, and providing resources to pay for a quality service, there is no reason why the state itself should provide the service.77

38Meanwhile, at the head of the party, Charles Kennedy, who imposed a new conversational and laid-back style, was a leader who did not really look like one. And this was part of his popularity : “Voters like[d] his honest, down-to-earth approach and he repeatedly score[d] well in opinion polls.”78 Indeed, during the 2005 general election, he was considered the trust worthiest of the three main leaders among voters.79 Moreover, unlike his predecessor, Charles Kennedy was described as a team person rather than a dominant voice :

  • 80 “Profile: Charles Kennedy”, op. cit.

He [Kennedy] likes to describe his leadership as “collegiate”, and makes a point of consulting widely and building consensus within the party, rather than leading from the front like Ashdown.80

  • 81 At a morning press conference, Charles Kennedy was embarrassed when he had to answer questi (...)
  • 82 During the 2005 electoral campaign, Charles Kennedy enjoyed free flights charged to a Swiss (...)
  • 83 Charles Kennedy attempted to question Tony Blair on CIA flights through British airspace. T (...)
  • 84 Charles Kennedy, “I’ve been coming to terms with a drinking problem”, The Times, 5  (...)

39Nonetheless, in spite of these contrasts, Charles Kennedy’s leadership, just like Paddy Ashdown’s, was characterised by inconsistency as evidenced by his achievements and popularity versus his being constantly questioned and criticized. He was blamed for not taking advantage of the best opportunity in 80 years to become a real challenger in Westminster. He had to face criticisms for positioning the party too far on the left, failing to attract more Labour voters, spoiling the launching of the manifesto,81 breaking the law,82 and making a fool of himself at Prime Minister’s Questions.83 By the end of 2005, part of the inconsistency was named alcoholism and the leader’s capabilities were questioned. He held a press conference on 5 January 2006 to admit that “over the past 18 months [he had] been coming to terms with and seeking to cope with a drinking problem”,84 and to call for a leadership election.

  • 85 A barrister in England and Wales.
  • 86 Andrew Sparrow, “Menzies Campbell : Lib Dems should feel comfortable disagreeing with Torie (...)
  • 87 Menzies Campbell, “Menzies Campbell : Extraordinary Rendition”, The Independent, 2 January  (...)
  • 88 Menzies Campbell, “Our Foreign Policy is just Plain Wrong”, The Observer, 20 August 2008. <(...)
  • 89 Menzies Campbell, My Autobiography, op. cit., 286.
  • 90 Paul Marshall & David Laws (eds.), The Orange Book : Reclaiming Liberalism, op. cit (...)

40After a period of uncertainty and a swift campaign, Menzies Campbell (born 1941), the establishment favourite, became the third leader of the Liberal Democrats on 2 March 2006. Neither an early comer nor a latecomer to politics, he became an advocate in Scotland85 before entering a political career. Although he was the oldest of the contenders, his respectable authority and his esteemed experience singled him out as the one who could set the party on the right track again. He was chosen for his confidence, his perseverance (he participated in the 1964 Olympic Games), his courage (fighting cancer), his gravitas, and his reputation as a tenacious diplomat who inspired trust and was recognised in the larger political sphere. However, he was at the head of the party for nineteen months only, proving himself a caretaker leader. In difficult times for the Liberal Democrats, he was a safe card, a decent reasonable politician. Despite looking and sounding like a Conservative,86 he was a member of the “realignment of the left” generation. And yet, he strongly disagreed with Tony Blair’s decision to fight in Iraq and to introduce ID cards. He also criticized the Prime Minister for his position on “extraordinary rendition”, in other words for denying CIA rendition flights had landed on British territory, and thus supporting the transport of suspected terrorists around the world for interrogation ;87 condemned the British government’s reluctance to call for a cease-fire in Lebanon in 2006 ;88 and later refused ministerial positions for Liberal Democrats offered by Gordon Brown.89 It can fairly be argued that he excelled in the fields that required diplomatic expertise, but he never managed to create a renewal of political dynamics within the party. He was soon reproached his age, his old-fashioned style, his aloof dignity. In other words, it was difficult for members to see him as the embodiment of the party. Pressured to go, especially by the media and by Liberal Democrat Lords, Menzies Campbell resigned when, in the autumn of 2007, Gordon Brown stopped contemplating the prospect of a general election. The Liberal Democrat leader had succeeded in holding the party together and in maintaining a distinctive image for it. In that context, exercising party leadership had been a complex and difficult task, which he had accomplished to the best of his ability. It was time now to move forward. That was when a left-wing answer to The Orange Book, a volume entitled Reinventing the State : Social Liberalism for the 21st Century was published.90 Whether the divide within the party as illustrated by these two books is sharp or not, whether it is a question of centre-left or centre-right politics, whether it is a distinction between economic and social liberalism, or minimalist and maximalist social liberalism, the differentiation is still used and contributes to the blurring of the party’s distinctiveness and even the questioning of its existence.

  • 91 Paddy Ashdown, A Fortunate Life, London : Aurum, 2009, 386.
  • 92 “Senior Lib Dems Quit over EU Vote”, BBC, 5 March 2008. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politic (...)
  • 93 David Laws, 22 Days in May, London : Biteback, 2010, 336 p.
  • 94 The Liberal Democrat Party, The Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010, op.cit., 39.
  • 95 <http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/>, accessed 20 July 2011.
  • 96 Short and Cranborne Money is the name given to the annual payment made to opposition partie (...)
  • 97 Robert Hazell & Dr. Ben Yong, Inside Story : How Coalition Government Works, Consti (...)
  • 98 Mary Ann Sieghart, “A Party that is Growing up in Public”, The Independent, 13 December 201 (...)
  • 99 David Edgar, “Who’ll Stand up for Liberty in Britain”, The Guardian, 27 January 2011. (...)
  • 100 “NHS Shakeup : From Malignant to Muddled”, The Guardian, 23 May 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/co (...)
  • 101 Robert Hazell & Dr. Ben Yong, Inside Story : How Coalition Government Works, op. ci (...)

41Nick Clegg (born 1965), one of the “Young Turks” and one of the 25 MPs who refused to serve under Charles Kennedy, became the fourth leader of the Liberal Democrats and the youngest party leader in the United Kingdom on 18 December 2007. Backed by the party grandees, he had been spotted on at a very early date by Paddy Ashdown who describes him today as a gifted leader.91 Nick Clegg did not stand against Menzies Campbell in 2006 as he lacked notoriety and experience. A very telegenic communicator, a modern politician, he is characterised by his open-mindedness, owing to his educational and family background. After a narrow victory over Chris Huhne in 2007, some tensions with his frontbench in 2008,92 and a hard-fought 2010 general election campaign in which he performed very well personally but failed to prevent his party from losing seats in Westminster, Nick Clegg and his team entered a coalition with the Conservative Party, which they described as a very good deal and the only possible option.93 However despite pre-election pledges notably to scrap unfair tuition fees94 and to oppose public cuts, the leadership has not fulfilled its promises and has caused discontent. But the problem is as much an issue of policies as a question of confidence. Indeed, students and their parents no longer have trust in the party and what it can deliver. Today, after these mistakes and a severe defeat in the AV referendum on 5 May 2011, the polls show that support for the Liberal Democrats is low, barely in a two-digit figure, oscillating between 9 and 11 %.95 And yet, despite a lack of support, financial resources (loss of Short and Cranborne Money),96 and special advisers,97 Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats can be credited with a number of successes : they appear as reasonable, serious, responsible politicians ;98 they are no longer just a party of protest but they have achieved stable government ; they have put a break on the Conservatives, made a difference on civil liberties99 and the reform of the NHS ;100 they have taken part in the establishment of a coalition that is relatively effective and decisive and whose work is collegiate.101 Paradoxically, their rather moderate behaviour and determination will probably have to change as the next general election approaches if they want to remain a force in Westminster and in government, unless circumstances decide otherwise.

Conclusion

42This paper has tried to assess the current situation of the Liberal Democrat Party after 23 years of existence. At its creation, it inherited a mixed bag of fortunes ; it had to find a place for itself and to show a distinctive identity. The federal organisation of the party, defined in its constitution, is quite different from the other two parties’ with its tradition of democratic decision-making and compromise. With time the party has tried to professionalise itself, although financially speaking, things have been quite difficult. The attempt at professionalization, which includes centralization, can be seen as a sign of growth, maturity, and governance capability even if it is at odds with the basic philosophy of the party. The challenge for the leadership is to reconcile the two, by ensuring that its various bodies work unequivocally and by having recourse to pragmatism, transparency, and discernment. However, the task will be more difficult at the next general election as the party is in government today. The Liberal Democrats will have to convince the electorate that they can manage the country efficiently in a distinctive way, with distinctive policies, but without any rub off from their Conservative partners. Once again their main concern will be to stress their specific identity, with a focus on the notion of continuity. And once again, this will not be an easy task : compared to the two main political parties, the Liberal Democrat Party is still young despite its heritage ; it is the third force on a strongly binary political stage ; and its leaders have proved to be rather different, imprinting different styles on a party that needs to ensure continuity at all levels and in all fields. Paddy Ashdown was a builder and a strategist; competent, forward-looking, inspiring and courageous, he had a vision for his party. Charles Kennedy was a facilitator and integrator, fostering unity, achieving synergy, with a flair for communication and relationships. Menzies Campbell was a reliable and honest caretaker, who reaffirmed the party’s values and policies. Nick Clegg is an ambitious negotiator and achiever, whose task is now to make continued headway.

43If the Liberal Democrats struggle so hard, it is mainly because they have always had to strike a balance between extremes and opposite tendencies in an economic, political, and social environment that does not really allow for balance. The leaderships, strategies, and policies of the party exemplify this argument, while the merger between the SDP and the Liberals increasingly belongs to the past and while the party has been oscillating between the two main parties for a variety of reasons. Defending an “average” position in the centre ground is very challenging as it often entails contrasts, paradoxes, negotiations, and compromises, which can be seen as a lack of stability and conviction, and a readiness to abandon principles. For the Liberal Democrats, it means turning these interpretations into qualities such as open-mindedness, flexibility, and pragmatism. It means waging a war on several fronts: keeping away from the two main parties; holding them at a reasonable distance while proving a capacity for government; retaining independence even in a coalition ; looking forward to the future to show visionary leadership ; demonstrating adaptability without damaging the fragile credibility and distinctiveness of the party.

Haut de page

Bibliographie

ASHDOWN Paddy, The Ashdown Diaries, Volume 1 : 1988-1997, London : Allen Lane, 2000, 400 p.

ASHDOWN Paddy, The Ashdown Diaries, Volume 2 : 1997-1999, London : Allen Lane, 2001, 592 p.

ASHDOWN Paddy, A Fortunate Life, London : Aurum, 2009, 404 p.

BENTHAM Claire, “Liberal Democrat Policy-making : An Insider’s View, 2000-2004”, The Political Quarterly, vol. 78, n°1, January-March, 2007, 59-67.

BRACK Duncan, GRAYSON Richard & HOWARTH David (eds.), Reinventing the State: Social Liberalism for the 21st Century, London : Politico’s, 2007, 378 p.

CAMPBELL Menzies, My Autobiography, London : Hodder & Stoughton, 2008, 326 p.

COOK Chris, A Short History of the Liberal Party, 1900-2001, Basingstoke : Palgrave, 2002, 288 p.

DOUGLAS Roy, Liberals : A History of the Liberal and Liberal Democratic Parties, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2004, 395 p.

DUTTON David, A History of the Liberal Party, Basingstoke : Palgrave, 2004, 347 p.

EVANS Elizabeth & SANDERSON-NASH Emma, When is a Triple Lock not a Triple Lock ? Professionalization and Pragmatism in the Liberal Democrats, Paper presented at EPOP 2010.

EVANS Elizabeth & SANDERSON-NASH Emma, “From Sandals to Suits : Professionalisation, Coalition and the Liberal Democrats”, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Political Studies Association, BJPIR, 2011.

GRAYSON S. Richard, “The Liberal Democrat Journey to a Lib-Con Coalition – And Where Next ?”, Compass, 2010, 15 p., <http://clients.squareeye.net/uploads/compass/documents/Compass LD Journey WEB.pdf>, accessed 11 June 2011.

HAZELL Robert & YONG Ben, Inside Story : How Coalition Government Works, Constitution Unit, 3 June 2011, 14 p., <http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/coalition-government/interim-report.pdf>, accessed 11 July 2010.

HICKSON Kevin, The political Thought of the Liberals and Liberal Democrats since 1945, Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2009, 224 p.

LAWS David, 22 Days in May, London : Biteback, 2010, 336 p.

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS : <http://www.libdems.org.uk/constitution.aspx>

Liberal Democrat Manifestos : Changing Britain for Good, 1992 ; Make the Difference, 1997; Freedom, Justice, Honesty, 2001 ; The Real Alternative, 2005 ; Change that Works for You, 2010.

MARSHALL Paul & LAWS David (eds.), The Orange Book : Reclaiming Liberalism, London : Profile, 2004, 302 p.

McIVER, Don, The Liberal Democrats, Hemel Hempstead : Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1996, 280 p.

RUSSELL Andrew & FIELDHOUSE Edward, Neither Left nor Right ? : The Liberal Democrats and the Electorate, Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2005, 272 p.

WALTER David, The Strange Rebirth of Liberal England, London : Politico’s Publishing, 2003, 232 p.

Haut de page

Notes

1 Percentage of votes at general elections : 1992 : 17.8 %; 1997 :16.8 %; 2001 : 18.3 % ; 2005 : 22 % ; 2010 : 23 %. <http://www.parliament.uk>, accessed on 11 July 2011.

2 Andrew Russell & Edward Fieldhouse, Neither Left nor Right ? : The Liberal Democrats and the Electorate, Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2005, 272 p.

3 Nick Clegg, speech given to Demos, 19 December 2011. <http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2011/12/open-society-power-state>, accessed 2 January 2012.

4 Alun Wyburn-Powell, Clement Davies and his Impact on the Liberal Party, British Liberal Political Studies Group’s Conference, Gregynog, 15 January 2006.

5 Two famous examples are Torrington and Orpington, which were won from the Conservatives in 1958 and 1962.

6 The Liberal Party polled 7.5 % of the votes and had 6 MPs in the House of Commons in 1970.

7 “Community politics”, the roots of which lay in the Young Liberals’ radicalism and militancy, is a phrase used to denote the local activism which came to play a dominant part in the Liberal Party’s revival.

8 Robert Pinkney, “Nationalizing Local Politics and Localizing a National Party”, Directory of Liberal Party Resolutions, London : Liberal Publication Department, 1978, 351.

9 Focus leaflets concentrate on local issues, use simple language and pictures, and invite readers to contact the local Liberal Democrats.

10 Bernard Greaves & Gordon Lishman, The Theory and Practice of Community Politics, A.L.C Campaign Booklet n°12, 1980. <http://www.cix.co.uk/~rosenstiel/aldc/commpol.htm>, accessed 10 January 2012.

11 Chris Cook, A Short History of the Liberal Party, 1900-2001, 6th ed., Basingstoke : Palgrave, 2002, 157.

12 The Lib-Lab Pact (1977-78) was a period of cooperation between the Liberal and Labour Parties so that James Callaghan’s government could stay in office.

13 Although the Liberal/SDP Alliance polled 25.4 % of the votes in 1983, it only won 23 seats because of the first-past-the-post system.

14 With 22.5 % of the votes cast, the Liberal/SDP Alliance won 22 seats in 1987.

15 The options were : Liberal and Social Democrats, The New Liberal and Social Democratic Party, or The Alliance.

16 Michael Meadowcroft, Tony Greaves, Rachel Pickford, and Andy Millson walked out.

17 David Dutton, A History of the Liberal Party, Basingstoke : Palgrave, 2004, 267.

18 Chris Cook, A Short History of the Liberal Party, 1900-2001, op. cit., 201.

19 Paddy Ashdown, The Ashdown Diaries, Vol. 2 : 1997-1999, London : Allen Lane, 2001, 30.

20 The party came fourth after the Greens in the European elections, with 6.2 % of the vote and no MEPs.

21 <http://www.libdems.org.uk/constitution.aspx>, accessed 11 July 2011.

22 Liberal Democrat Party, The Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010, 13-14.

23 Ibid., Preamble, paragraph 1, 7.

24 Ibid., 60-61.

25 Subsidiarity is the idea that matters ought to be dealt with by the lowest competent unit.

26 The Liberal Democrats, The Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010, op.cit., Preamble, paragraph 2, 7.

27 Ibid., Article 10.5, 29.

28 Ibid., Article 10.4, 29.

29 <http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-03872.pdf>, accessed 11 July 2011.

30 <http://www.libdems.org.uk/constitution.aspx>, accessed 11 July 2011, Article 6.2, 20.

31 Ibid., Article 4.5, 15.

32 ACT allows people – supporters, members and non-members – to get “involved in politics and identify with the Liberal Democrats”. They “can join groups, organise events, watch videos, talk politics and join in campaigns”. <http://www.libdems.org.uk/404.aspx?aspxerrorpath=/constitution.aspx>, accessed 5 January 2012.

33 <http://www.liberator.co.uk>, accessed 11 July 2011.

34 Patrick Seyd & Patrick Whiteley, “British Party Members : An Overview”, Party Politics, vol. 10, July 2004, 355-366.

35 The Federal Conference may, upon the recommendation of the Federal Executive, resolve to establish and/or recognise a State Party in Northern Ireland.

36 The Act, which was part of the constitutional reform implemented by the New Labour government, set up an independent Electoral Commission to regulate political parties. It notably polices their registration, requires them to submit statements of their accounts, and imposes restrictions on campaign expenditure.

37 <http://www.scribd.com/doc/49086179/Liberal-Democrat-Spring-Conference-Reports-2011>, accessed 11 July 2011.

38 See below.

39 <http://www.libdems.org.uk/constitution>, accessed 11 July 2011, Article 13, 35-36.

40 <http://www.aldc.org/ >, accessed 11 July 2011.

41 <http://ethnic-minority.libdems.org/en/>, accessed 11 July 2011.

42 <http://www.ldagents.org.uk/>, accessed 11 July 2011.

43 <http://www.liberalyouth.org/about-liberal-youth/>, accessed 11 July 2011.

44 <http://www.libdempca.org.uk/>, accessed 11 July 2011.

45 <http://womenlibdems.org.uk/en/>, accessed 11 July 2011.

46 <http://www.libdemlawyers.org.uk/>, accessed 11 July 2011.

47 <http://lgbt.libdems.org.uk/en/>, accessed 6 January 2012.

48 <http://lgbt.libdems.org.uk/en/page/manifesto2010>, accessed 6 January 2012.

49 Elizabeth Evans & Emma Sanderson-Nash, When is a Triple Lock not a Triple Lock ? : Professionalization and Pragmatism in the Liberal Democrats, Paper presented at EPOP 2010.

50 In 1994, the party conference voted in favour of the decriminalisation of cannabis by 426 votes to 375 while Paddy Ashdown as well as all the other MPs opposed the amendment.

51 Brian Wheeler, “Sir Menzies Wins Vote on Trident”, BBC, 3 March 2007. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6415007.stm>, accessed 11 July 2011. The then leader wrote in his autobiography : “They realised I was staking my leadership on the vote. The conference rules gave me no concessions.” Menzies Campbell, My Autobiography, London : Hodder & Stoughton, 2008, 274.

52 Toby Helm, “Nick Clegg Suffers Defeat as Liberal Democrats Reject Health Reforms”, The Guardian, 12 March 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/mar/12/nick-clegg-defeat-liberal-democrats>, accessed 11 July 2011.

53 <http://blogs.ft.com/westminster/2010/03/the-full-text-of-the-lib-dem-triple-lock/ - axzz1RtiP9RP1>, accessed 11 July 2011.

54 <http://www.libdems.org.uk/news_detail.aspx?title=Carried_with_amendment:_Strategy,_Positioning_and_Priorities&pPK=07a9d6af-9669-4fda-8560-5303c4e495f0>, accessed 11 July 2011.

55 <http://s3.amazonaws.com/ld-migrated-assets/assets/0000/7657/A08ReformCommission.pdf>, 5, accessed 11 July 2011.

56 Elizabeth Evans & Emma Sanderson-Nash, When is a Triple Lock not a Triple Lock ? : Professionalization and Pragmatism in the Liberal Democrats, op. cit., 6. Andrew Russell & Edward Fieldhouse, Neither Left nor Right ? : The Liberal Democrats and the Electorate, op. cit., 67.

57 “My Priorities for a Liberal Britain”, speech delivered on 8 June 2006. <http://www.mingcampbell.org.uk/2006/06/08/my-priorities-for-a-liberal-britain/>, accessed 11 July 2011.

58 Claire Bentham, “Liberal Democrat Policy-making : An Insider’s View, 2000-2004”, The Political Quarterly, vol. 78, n 1, January-March, 2007, 59-67.

59 The Chief Officers’ Group consists of the party leader, the chairs of the FFAC, FCC, CCC, the Parliamentary Office of the Liberal Democrats, representatives of the English, Scottish, and Welsh parties, the Federal Party’s President, Treasurer, and Chief Executive. The Liberal Democrats Reports and Financial Statements, Year ended 31 December 2010. <http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/119448/Liberal-Democrats-Federal-SoA-2010.pdf>, accessed 6 January 2012.

60 <http://www.libdemvoice.org/nearly-three-years-on-how-does-the-bones-report-look-24309.html>, accessed 11 July 2011.

61 The two parties agreed on the implementation of devolution, the European Human Rights Convention, and the reform of the House of Lords.

62 The committee first started as the Joint Consultative Committee. Its purpose was to discuss constitutional affairs.

63 The commission, chaired by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, proposed to replace Single Majority Single Plurality (SMSP) in Westminster elections by an AV (Alternative Vote) top-up system to create a broadly proportional outcome. David Dutton, A History of the Liberal Party, op. cit., 289.

64 Andrew Russell & Edward Fieldhouse, Neither Left nor Right ? : The Liberal Democrats and the Electorate, op. cit., 43.

65 He spoke with authority on Hong Kong and former Yugoslavia.

66 Don MacIver (ed.), The Liberal Democrats, Hemel Hempstead : Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1996, 183-184.

67 Andrew Russell & Edward Fieldhouse, Neither Left nor Right ? : The Liberal Democrats and the Electorate, op. cit., 70.

68 Chris Cook, A Short History of the Liberal Party, 1900-2001, op. cit., 215.

69 As newly elected leader, Paddy Ashdown tried to talk the party into branding themselves “Democrats” but he failed. According to his own words, he had underestimated the importance of the liberal tradition as well as the question of identity. See Paddy Ashdown, The Ashdown Diaries, Volume 1 : 1988-1997, London : Allen Lane, 2000, 11.

70 Menzies Campbell, My Autobiography, op. cit., 152.

71 He studied philosophy and politics at the University of Glasgow. There, he became a member of the Dialectical Society (a debating club) and president of Glasgow University Union. At twenty-three, he became the youngest MP to sit in the House of Commons. He won the Scottish seat of Ross, Cromarty & Skye for the SDP in 1983. Later, when the Social and Liberal Democratic Party was taking form, Kennedy was one of the few SDP MPs to support the merger.

72 Jackie Ashley, “Kennedy turns Lib Dem guns on Labour”, The Guardian, 21 January 2002. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2002/jan/21/liberaldemocrats.interviews1>, accessed 11 July 2011.

73 Andrew Russell & Edward Fieldhouse, Neither Left nor Right ? : The Liberal Democrats and the Electorate, op. cit., 259.

74 John Barrett, Alistair Carmichael, Paul Holmes, and John Pugh.

75 Alistair Carmichael, “Setting Communities Free”, Liberator, November 2003.

76 Richard S. Grayson, “The Liberal Democrat Journey to a Lib-Con Coalition – And Where Next ?”, Compass, 2010. <http://clients.squareeye.net/uploads/compass/documents/ Compass%20LD%20Journey%20WEB.pdf>, accessed 11 July 2011.

77 Paul Marshall & David Laws (eds.), The Orange Book : Reclaiming Liberalism, London: Profile Books, 2004, 161.

78 “Profile: Charles Kennedy”, The Times, 5 January 2006. <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article785448.ece>, accessed 11 July 2011.

79 “Poll gap stays just as wide no matter who wins the arguments”, The Daily Telegraph, 29 April 2005, 1 & 8. YouGov Poll, 5,108 respondents to : “Is he, or is he not, telling lies to win this election ?” Answer : Tony Blair, Yes 58 %, No 26 %; Michael Howard, Yes 51 %, No 24 %; Charles Kennedy, Yes 22 %, No 46 %.

80 “Profile: Charles Kennedy”, op. cit.

81 At a morning press conference, Charles Kennedy was embarrassed when he had to answer questions about his party’s policy on local taxation.

82 During the 2005 electoral campaign, Charles Kennedy enjoyed free flights charged to a Swiss company. But the law bans political parties from accepting donations from foreign companies. Cf. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act, 2000.

83 Charles Kennedy attempted to question Tony Blair on CIA flights through British airspace. The Prime Minister replied that his question was “completely absurd”.

84 Charles Kennedy, “I’ve been coming to terms with a drinking problem”, The Times, 5 January  005.

85 A barrister in England and Wales.

86 Andrew Sparrow, “Menzies Campbell : Lib Dems should feel comfortable disagreeing with Tories”, The Guardian, 5 November 2010. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/nov/05/sir-menzies-campbell-interview-lib-dems-disagree>, accessed 11 July 2011.

87 Menzies Campbell, “Menzies Campbell : Extraordinary Rendition”, The Independent, 2 January 2006. <http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/menzies-campbell-extraordinary-rendition-524010.html>, accessed 11 July 2011.

88 Menzies Campbell, “Our Foreign Policy is just Plain Wrong”, The Observer, 20 August 2008. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/aug/20/foreignpolicy.syria>, accessed 11 July 2011.

89 Menzies Campbell, My Autobiography, op. cit., 286.

90 Paul Marshall & David Laws (eds.), The Orange Book : Reclaiming Liberalism, op. cit. ; Duncan Brack, Richard S. Grayson & David Howarth (eds.), Reinventing the State : Social Liberalism for the 21st Century, London : Politico’s, 2007, 278 p. See also Richard S. Grayson, “The Liberal Democrat Journey to a Lib-Con Coalition – And Where Next ?”, op. cit., 7.

91 Paddy Ashdown, A Fortunate Life, London : Aurum, 2009, 386.

92 “Senior Lib Dems Quit over EU Vote”, BBC, 5 March 2008. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/7279805.stm>, accessed 11 July 2011. Three senior Liberal Democrats resigned from the frontbench defying Nick Clegg’s order over the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

93 David Laws, 22 Days in May, London : Biteback, 2010, 336 p.

94 The Liberal Democrat Party, The Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010, op.cit., 39.

95 <http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/>, accessed 20 July 2011.

96 Short and Cranborne Money is the name given to the annual payment made to opposition parties in the House of Commons and House of Lords respectively. Short Money was introduced in 1974 by H. Wilson’s government ; Cranborne Money was introduced on 27 November 1996. As the Liberal Democrats are members of the coalition, they are no longer in the opposition.

97 Robert Hazell & Dr. Ben Yong, Inside Story : How Coalition Government Works, Constitution Unit, 3 June 2011, 12. <http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/coalition-government/interim-report.pdf>, accessed 11 July 2011.

98 Mary Ann Sieghart, “A Party that is Growing up in Public”, The Independent, 13 December 2010. <http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/mary-ann-sieghart/mary-ann-sieghart-a-party-that-is-growing-up-in-public-2158709.html>, accessed 11 July 2011.

99 David Edgar, “Who’ll Stand up for Liberty in Britain”, The Guardian, 27 January 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commen.tisfree/2011/jan/27/civil-liberty-britain-freedom-bill>, accessed 11 July 2011.

100 “NHS Shakeup : From Malignant to Muddled”, The Guardian, 23 May 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/may/23/health-reforms-nick-clegg-changes>, accessed 11 July 2001.

101 Robert Hazell & Dr. Ben Yong, Inside Story : How Coalition Government Works, op. cit., 10.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Muriel Cassel-Piccot, « The Liberal Democrat Party : From Contender to Coalitionist », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XII-n°8 | 2014, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2014, consulté le 25 juin 2017. URL : http://lisa.revues.org/6954 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.6954

Haut de page

Auteur

Muriel Cassel-Piccot

Université Lyon 3 – Jean Moulin, France. Muriel Cassel-Piccot is a senior lecturer at Université Lyon 3 – Jean Moulin, France. She first started her career as a researcher in communication, focusing on British media and advertising. Since then, she has expanded her field of study, devoting particular attention to British parties’ communication strategies and to the Liberal Democrat Party.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Revues.org