British Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series, second edition

by Robert Leach, Bill Coxall and Lynton Robins

Update 7 - The Liberal Democrats under new leadership, again

A third force in British politics

One of the noticeable trends of the last decade or two in British politics has been the rise of the Liberal Democrats. Following the 2005 election, the Liberal Democrats looked ‘set to establish themselves as a permanent and sizeable third force at Westminster’ British Politics, 2006, 85). That may still prove true, but the Liberal Democrat advance has stalled, and their future appears more uncertain. Polls suggest they are likely to lose votes and seats at the next General Election unless their fortunes improve markedly. Whether new leader Nick Clegg can transform their prospects remains to be seen.

The Liberal Democrats in General Elections from 1992-2005

The growth in the number of Liberal Democrat MPs has been steady and cumulative. Back in the 1950s a common jibe was that the entire parliamentary Liberal Party (then six strong) could be fitted within one London taxi. The Liberal Democrats would need a fleet of taxis today, or a large double decker bus (see table below).
Year % votes Number of seats % seats
1992 18 20 3
1997 17 46 7
2001 19 52 10
2005 22 62 10

Two points may be made about this steady Liberal Democrat advance in terms of Westminster seats. The first is that it has been achieved in spite of an unfavourable (and, Liberal Democrats would claim, unfair) electoral system (British Politics, 2006, 69-72). The proportion of Westminster seats obtained by the party continues to lag behind the percentage of the national vote. The votes achieved nationally by the Liberal Democrats over a series of elections would make them a sizeable party in almost any other European state, with reasonable prospects of a share in government (see British Politics Box 5.2).

The second point is that the steady growth in the number of Liberal Democrat MPs has not been the product of a comparable growth in its support in terms of its share o the total UK vote. The rise in Liberal Democrat seats has occurred despite a failure to achieve a significant Liberal Democrat breakthrough in terms of votes. The party has increasingly concentrated its resources on winnable seats. They have also benefited from increased tactical voting by both Labour and Conservative supporters to keep out hated rivals in constituencies where their own party prospects are poor (British Politics, 2006, 85-6).

Liberal Democrats outside Westminster

Outside Westminster, the Liberal Democrats have benefited from proportional electoral systems for more recent elections for the European Parliament, and for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly (see British Politics, 2006, Tables 15.5, 16.3 and 16.4). Although their share of the vote was rather lower than in recent UK General Elections, their share of seats was significantly higher. Indeed the Liberal Democrats were coalition partners with Labour in the Scottish Executive from 1999 until 2007, and more briefly figured in the government of Wales.

On top of this, the Liberal Democrats have long played a significant role in local government, with a majority on some councils, and involved in power sharing in others (despite the fact that local elections are still conducted on the first past the post system). Thus while the Liberal Democrats have had no share of power at Westminster, they have by no means been excluded from power at other levels of government.

The origins of the Liberal and Liberal Democrat revival

The seeds of the Liberal and now Liberal Democrat revival were sown up to fifty years ago. Back in the 1950s the old Liberal party had been reduced to a rump of six seats at Westminster (and two of these were courtesy of local electoral pacts with the Conservatives). Under the leadership of Jo Grimond (1956-1967) and Jeremy Thorpe (1967-1976) there was some increase in the Liberal vote, the occasional parliamentary by-election triumph and a more modest advance in representation at Westminster. After the inconclusive election of February 1974, the Conservative Prime Minister attempted to draw Thorpe’s Liberals into a coalition government, offering their leader a Cabinet post, (reportedly the Foreign Office). Thorpe was tempted, but his party was opposed, and in any case the two parties together would not have commanded a majority. After Jeremy Thorpe was enveloped in scandal, his successor David Steel first negotiated a pact with Labour to keep Callaghan’s now minority government in power from 1977-8, but declined to renew it. Thus Liberal votes contributed to the defeat of the Callaghan government by one in the parliamentary confidence vote in 1979 that ushered in eighteen years of Conservative government.

In 1982 Steel negotiated an electoral pact the with the new Social Democratic Party, a breakaway from Labour formed by former Cabinet ministers Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rogers. This Liberal-SDP Alliance threatened to ‘break the mould’ of British politics. Sensational parliamentary by-election victories and public opinion polls indicated the Alliance was more popular than Conservatives or Labour, and might win a General Election. Jenkins, elected leader of the SDP was named Prime Minister designate.

Yet in the 1983 General Election the Alliance obtained only 23 seats on 25% of the vote. Of the partnership the Liberals did markedly better, winning 17 seats to the SDP’s 6. Jenkins immediately resigned as SDP leader, to be replaced by the young thrusting David Owen, a former Labour Foreign Secretary. Steel’s relationship with Owen was more difficult than with Jenkins. The satirical television programme Spitting Image cruelly portrayed Steel as a small puppet in Owen’s pocket. Even so the two-headed Alliance survived to fight another General Election in 1987. A slightly worse result convinced most Liberals and many SDP supporters that a full merger of the two parties was the only viable solution. The ensuing merger was messy, opposed bitterly by Owen and his supporters, and by some Liberals, but following a majority vote in favour of merger by the supporters of both parties in 1988, the new Social and Liberal Democrats (SLD) was born, soon to be known simply as Liberal Democrats. Paddy Ashdown was elected first leader of the merged party by a postal ballot of members.

The immediate prospects for the new merged party were poor. There was confusion over the party name and image, not helped by continuing competition from the rump of Owen’s old SDP and maverick Liberals. Yet in 1992 the Liberal Democrats led by Ashdown, at least managed to hold their own. Subsequently their support improved as the Major government’s problems increased. Although Labour was the main beneficiary of growing Conservative unpopularity from 1992 to 1997, the Liberal Democrats worked with Labour on devolution and other issues of constitutional reform (British Politics, 2006, 176). Labour’s new leader Tony Blair talked of reviving the progressive consensus (of the early 20th century) and held talks with Ashdown, holding out the prospect of a Labour/Lib Dem coalition government. Blair may have been sincere, yet what killed any prospect of coalition was the size of the Labour landslide. In those circumstances Blair would have had immense difficulties in selling a coalition to his own party. As it was, the Liberal Democrats continued to thrive as an independent centre-left party under first Ashdown, and then Kennedy.

The Iraq War, the 2005 General Election and its aftermath

The Iraq war had been initially backed by the both the Labour government and by the official Conservative opposition, despite massive public demonstrations against it. Kennedy and his party were united in their condemnation of the war. They now had a popular cause that decisively marked them off from Blair and New Labour. Up until then their advance had been at the expense of the Conservatives. Now they could target Labour seats, exploiting the mood of disillusion with the government. Some optimists among the Liberal Democrats hoped for a decisive breakthrough in the following 2005 General Election.

The 2005 election result was by historical standards excellent for the Liberal Democrats, although it did not match these high expectations. The Liberal Democrats did manage to win some Labour seats (almost certainly because of opposition to the Iraq war) and came close in others. Their total of 62 seats was higher than had been achieved by the old Liberals since 1923. Their share of the vote (22%) was the highest the merged party had ever achieved, although still lower than the old Liberal/SDP Alliance had managed in 1983 (25%) and 1987 (23%). Some critics thought Kennedy had not made the most of his opportunity. Although he remained popular with the party rank and file and the public generally, increased internal criticism of his ‘drink problem’ led to resignation in early 2006 (British Politics, 2006, Box 7.6) and the ensuing messy election of a new leader (Box 7.6 and second web update), Menzies (Ming) Campbell.

The Liberal Democrats second leadership election in less than two years.

Campbell had earned the respect of all parties in the Commons as his party’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson and Deputy Party Leader. He seemed the obvious choice as Kennedy’s successor, with all the qualities necessary, bar one, youth. He was 64, not old by the standard of many former party leaders and Prime Ministers. However, the Liberals and Liberal Democrats had boasted a series of young or at least young looking leaders (Grimond, Thorpe, Steel, Ashdown, Kennedy). Campbell unfortunately looked rather older than he was. He was mercilessly portrayed by the media as a bumbling old gaffer. Thus a man who had long been universally respected in the House of Commons became almost a figure of fun on the national stage.

He might have survived for longer had the fates been kinder. Had there been an election in the autumn of 2007, as many expected, Campbell would have led his party into the contest - there would have been no time for a challenge and a new leadership election. Who know what would have happened then? He may have proved an effective campaigner, and his party might have performed better than expected, perhaps well enough to hold the balance of power. A triumphant Campbell might have brought his leading colleagues into government, with the Foreign Office his own political prize. As it was, Campbell was the first and biggest victim of Gordon Brown’s ‘election that never was’. With a General Election seemingly postponed to 2009 or even 2010, there was now time for the Liberal Democrats to organise another leadership election.

The Liberal Democrat leadership election of 2007

The new leadership contest attracted much less media and public interest than its predecessor. There were no salacious stories to interest the popular press. Some serious political commentators had effectively written off the Liberal Democrats as an irrelevance. The two candidates, Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg, were both relatively youthful, and from a similar social and educational background. Nor were there significant policy differences between them. Clegg was the frontrunner, although Huhne had polled better than expected when he had stood against Campbell in 2006. He campaigned more vigorously, and in the end ran Clegg very close, with only 511 votes (just above 1% of the total vote) separating the two candidates. The narrowness of the victory will only matter if Nick Clegg subsequently runs into trouble as leader. His major problem is that most voters still cannot identify him.


With a new Labour Prime Minister less personally associated with the Iraq war and the Bush alliance, there is less political mileage in these issues. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats face a re-energised Conservative party under David Cameron, who has made a strong pitch over green issues that the Lib Dems had sought to make their own. It will be difficult for the party to carve out a distinctive political space for itself. The dominant strand British Liberalism from the early 20th century onwards has what is sometimes described as social liberalism rather than the free market liberalism of the 19th century still favoured by many liberals around the world. More recently, market liberalism has been actively promoted by a group within the party, including David Laws, Vincent Cable and new leader Nick Clegg, although this involves more a shift in emphasis rather than a fundamental ideological repositioning (British Politics, 2006, 92-4). In his first few weeks as leader Clegg has attacked what he describes as the ‘surveillance state’, which relates to familiar liberal themes of individual freedom, but it remains to be seen whether this resonates with the wider public.

Opinion polls continue to be discouraging, suggesting that the Liberal Democrats will do well to match their 2005 performance when an election is finally called. Yet the party has often benefited from the publicity of an election campaign and may do better than some are predicting. Yet even if they lose votes and seats, they could still end up holding the balance of power in the next Parliament.

Holding the balance of power could involve risks as well as opportunities. If they join a coalition government they will upset some erstwhile supporters, depending on which of the two major parties they put into power, and compromise their independence. Moreover, experience of the Lab-Lib Dem coalition in Scotland (1999-2007) suggests that junior coalition partners are blamed for unpopular decisions without receiving much credit for any government success. Yet if the Liberal Democrats decline to join a coalition, and prefer to judge a minority government on individual issues, they risk accusations of cowardice and irrelevance. However, they might be able to extract electoral reform as a condition for support, which, more than anything else, would help to consolidate their position as a significant third force in British politics.