History

The Liberal Democrats: the first 25 years

A piece from Duncan Brack and I for the latest Journal of Liberal History:

On 3 March 2013, the Liberal Democrats marked their twenty-fifth birthday. The story of the party since 1988 has been a dramatic one, from near-extinction, through a failed realignment of the left, a period of rapidly changing leaders, and then into government, for the first time for a third party for sixty years. The latest issue of theJournal of Liberal History (issue 83, summer 2014) is a special edition looking at the key factors contributing to the party’s survival and success, up until entry into coalition.

The party’s campaigning ability is obviously key. From 1997 onwards the Liberal Democrats have managed to win significantly greater numbers of seats than their predecessor parties, often on smaller proportions of the national vote – the outcome of a combination of intensive local campaigning and an increasing targeting of resources on winnable seats, together with a steadily more professional party organisation. In the first article in the issue, Mark Pack examines the evolution of the party’s campaigning techniques and structures.

Local government elections have been critical, giving Liberal Democrats a focus for their efforts and, in most areas, a taste of electoral success and a demonstration of the way in which effective campaigning and organisation can lead to results. Matt Cole’s article looks at the party’s record in local government elections and its impact.

As a party based more on ideology than class or sectoral support, policy-making has been important internally, as one of the ways to define what being a Liberal Democrat means. The party’s retention of a democratic policy-making process is no accident; and when leaders have decided to ignore it, as over university tuition fees, the result has not been a happy one. David Howarth examines the functions of policy for the Liberal Democrats.

The role of the party leader has often been crucial. Overall, the party has been well served by its leaders, particularly during election campaigns, which is when most electors see and hear them; Ashdown, Kennedy and Clegg all performed creditably in the general elections in which they led the party. This in turn, of course, places a greater premium on their effectiveness, which is why Kennedy’s and Campbell’s perceived shortcomings caused such concern. Duncan Brack’s article describes the key characteristics necessary in a Liberal Democrat leader, and analyses the extent to which the four leaders to date have possessed them.

The Liberal Party both benefited and suffered from being primarily a repository for protest votes. To a certain extent the Liberal Democrats have strengthened their social bases of support, appealing most strongly to the educated middle classes, particularly those working in the professions and the public sector. The impact of coalition, however, and the party’s actions in government, has been substantial, severely testing the electorate’s support for the party. In the fifth article in this issue, Andrew Russell considers who votes for the Liberal Democrats.

The Liberal Democrats were of course in power in two nations of the UK before entering government in Westminster. Caron Lindsay analyses the record of the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ two periods in coalition, 1999–2003 and 2003–07, and draws parallels with the later UK experience. Russell Deacon looks at the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ period in coalition in 2000–03, and reflects on the experience of working with the Labour Party.

The impact of the current coalition government on the Liberal Democrats is of course of huge significance, and we will consider it properly in the Journal after the 2015 election. Douglas Oliver’s write-up of the History Group’s meeting in January 2013, however, provides a chance to look a different coalition that never happened, when Paddy Ashdown, Roger Liddle and Pat McFadden discussed ‘the Project’ – and draw lessons for the aftermath of the 2015 election.

This issue of the Journal of Liberal History is available to non-subscribers for £9.00, either from the Liberal Democrat History Group stand at the Glasgow conference or from LDHG, 54 Midmoor Road, London SW12 0EN (cheques payable to ‘Liberal Democrat History Group’, postage and packing included; payment via our website coming in a few weeks’ time). An annual subscription costs only £20 (£12.50 unwaged); see http://www.liberalhistory.org.uk.

* Duncan Brack is the Editor of the Journal of Liberal History and co-edited this special issue with guest editor Mark Pack.

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