Liberal Democrat HQ - Great George Street - preamble to party constitution

Last updated 1 August 2023

The Liberal Democrats is a UK political party, founded in 1988 through the merger of the Liberal Party and the SDP (Social Democratic Party).

Between 2010 and 2015 the party was part of a coalition government in Westminster, and the party has also been part of coalition governments in the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd Cymru.

The Liberal Democrats have 15 MPs in the House of Commons, along with thousands of local government representatives around the country and representatives in the Scottish Parliament, Senedd Cymru, London Assembly and House of Lords.

The party’s name

On its formation in 1988, the party was formally called the Social and Liberal Democrats, but subsequently adopted the name Liberal Democrats. It is frequently abbreviated to Lib Dem, and sometimes styled LibDem or Lib-Dem.

Occasionally some, especially political opponents, use ‘Liberal’ instead; this usage almost always indicates that someone is hostile to the party.

What the Liberal Democrats stand for

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

So starts the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution. It is a quote which works brilliantly as a one-sentence summary of Liberal Democrat beliefs.

In addition to being pro-European, the party is particularly associated with political reform (including more widespread use of proportional representation for public elections), education, the environment and civil liberties.

For a more detailed explanation of Liberal Democrat beliefs, see What do the Liberal Democrats believe?

You can sign up for free to a 14-part weekly email course on Liberal Democrat philosophy here.

Are the Lib Dems left or right wing?

The Liberal Democrat party is usually described as centre-left, although many in the party dislike the left-right spectrum as they see liberal versus authoritarian as a key political distinction, one which left versus right does not capture.

This matters because issues such as civil liberties and the environment are high priorities for Liberal Democrats but do not easily sit in the left-right political spectrum. Similarly, the dominant issue for the party in the wake of the 2016 European referendum, Brexit, is one that does not fit neatly into questions of left or right.

For these sorts of reasons, one of the slogans used in the 1980s by the SDP was ‘neither left nor right but forward’. That tradition of disliking the premise of the question ‘are the Lib Dems left or right wing?’ has continued in the party.

In particular, many current Liberal Democrats prefer to think of politics as not about left versus right but about open versus closed, where open captures values such as tolerant, welcoming of immigration, pro-European and so on and closed is the opposite.

Get news about the Liberal Democrats

You can sign up for a variety of email lists, from daily bulletins through to a monthly newsletter, Liberal Democrats Newswire, here.

Liberal Democrat policies and manifesto

The party’s policy-making process is very democratic, with grassroots members having significant power to decide what happens. The Liberal Democrat policy-making process is explained in Jeremy Hargreaves’s guide.

General election manifestos provide a comprehensive overview of the party’s policies every few years. The last one was for the 2017 general election, which you can read in full here. You can also find out more about the party’s policies in the Demand Better policy round-up published in autumn 2018.

Key elements of the Demand Better paper include:

  • Pro-European
  • Tackling inequality
  • Improving public services
  • Caring for the environment
  • Strengthening civil liberties

The party is also in favour of the legalisation of cannabis. Although the policy is not usually given great prominence by the party in official statements, market research at the 2017 general election showed that it was one of the party’s best-known policy stances.

Liberal Democrat Leaders

When the party was created, the then leaders of the Liberal Party and the SDP, David Steel and Bob Maclennan, were appointed initial joint leaders until a ballot of party members could be carried out to elect a new leader.

That first ballot was won by Paddy Ashdown, defeating Alan Beith, and there have been five further leaders since:

The current leader is Ed Davey MP, elected in summer 2020 after beating Layla Moran.

Party leaders have to be a Member of Parliament and nominated by fellow MPs, although in 2017 Vince Cable proposed opening up leadership contests to non-MPs.

The choice between candidates to be the leader is then made by a ballot of all party members in which each person has one vote (‘one member, one vote’, or OMOV).

The party also has a Scottish leader, Willie Rennie, and a Welsh leader, Jane Dodds.

Liberal Democrat Deputy Leaders

Strictly speaking, the party does not have a deputy leader. However, the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons (i.e. the MPs) elect a deputy leader, who is commonly referred to as the party’s deputy leader.

Daisy Cooper is the current deputy leader, taking up the post in 2020. Her predecessors were:

  • Russell Johnston (1988-1992)
  • Alan Beith (1992-2003)
  • Menzies Campbell (2003-2006)
  • Vince Cable (2006-2010)
  • Simon Hughes (2010-2014)
  • Malcolm Bruce (2014-2015)
  • (There was no-one elected to this role 2015-17)
  • Jo Swinson (2017-2019)
  • Ed Davey (2019-2020)

Liberal Democrat Party Presidents

The President of the party is elected by party members, initially for a two-year term but this was later changed to three years. There is a two-term limit which means incumbents are not allowed to run for a third term.

The Presidents have been:

  • Ian Wrigglesworth (1988-1990)
  • Charles Kennedy (1991-1994)
  • Robert Maclennan (1995-1998)
  • Diana Maddock (1999-2000)
  • Navnit Dholakia (2001-2004)
  • Simon Hughes (2005-2008)
  • Ros Scott (2009-2010)
  • Tim Farron (2011-2014)
  • Sal Brinton (2015-2019) (first three-year term)
  • Mark Pack (2020-)

Who started the Liberal Democrats?

The Liberal Democrat Party was created in 1988, out of the merger of the Liberal Party and the SDP. It followed several years of the two parties in close cooperation, with candidates from each party only very rarely standing against each other.

History of the Lib Dems

This video from 2015 gives a brief history of the Liberal Democrats since 1988:

A short history of the Liberal Democrats, including the Liberal Party and SDP which preceded it, is available here.

For more about the history of the party, see the Liberal Democrat History Group. Its website contains a wealth of information about the party and also information about how to subscribe to the Journal of Liberal History.

Membership of the Lib Dems

Membership of the Liberal Democrats is open to anyone who shares the party’s values. On formation, the party had under 100,000 members and then peaked at just over 100,000 in the 1990s. This fell as low as under 43,000 during the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition but since then has risen. (Full set of data here.)

You do not have to be on the electoral register to join the party. So, for example, people under 18 and overseas nationals living in the UK can both join the party. Find out more about how to join the Liberal Democrats here and tips on how to get involved in the party here.

Structure of the Lib Dems

Internally, the Liberal Democrats are structured along federal lines, with a significant devolution of powers away from the national party, matching the party’s belief in how government is best structured.

The UK-wide level of the party is called the ‘federal party’, and the leader of the Liberal Democrats is the leader of the federal party. Elements such as the party conferences in spring and autumn are federal conferences and the national policy committee, for example, is the Federal Policy Committee (FPC). The federal level of the party had its structure changed following a major governance review, with the changes coming into effect from late 2016.

In addition, there are English, Scottish and Welsh ‘state parties’ within the federal structure, with the Scottish and Welsh parties also holding their own conferences. Within England, there are also regional parties.

Below this, there are local parties, usually covering a Parliamentary constituency or a council area. Some local parties also then have branches (often based on council wards) within them.

Online Lib Dem communities

There are hundreds of different places Liberal Democrat members and supporters congregate online to discuss the party and politics.

Some of the main ones are:

Working for the Liberal Democrats

If you are interested in getting a job with the Liberal Democrats, there are two main places to look for job advertisements:

If you are interested in volunteering to help the Liberal Democrats, check out the volunteer section on the party website.

Liberal Democrat reading list

The best comprehensive history of the party is Peace, Reform and LiberationSDP is the classic history of one of the parties that merged to form the Liberal Democrats. For the Liberal Party, the other predecessor to the Liberal Democrats, good overall histories are The Rise and Fall of British Liberalism 1776–1988 and A History of the Liberal Party since 1900. For the history of the party’s campaigning specifically, see the article The Liberal Democrat approach to campaigning.

The classic statement of liberal philosophy, which still underpins the Liberal Democrat approach, is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Hard to buy now but often available from libraries and still also an excellent explanation of the party’s beliefs is Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism.

One response to “An introduction to the Liberal Democrats”

  1. Thanks, Mark, for this. I used to give a pamphlet to our new members, and one of the sections I think is important is ways in which members can get involved… at local party level, not just campaigning, but helping in a myriad of ways to keep the LibDem flag flying, such as writing to the local papers (bit old hat now), helping with social events; there is also a huge benefit for members in getting involved in Party interest groups, which connects you with members across the UK – and of course is one of the things you discover at Conference. Regional conferences are worth talking up a bit, too, as they are more accessible and less daunting for new members… and cheaper!! Access to Federal Conference is made much easier, too, if you volunteer as a steward.
    Just a few thoughts,
    Keep up the good work,
    Yours, Faith

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *