Anyone born after about 1995 will probably know the Lib Dems mainly from their five years in coalition with the Conservatives (2010-15). From there, it’s an easy leap to think of the Lib Dems as an offshoot of the right. This would badly misjudge the party.
The Liberal Democrats were created out of a fusion in 1987-88 of two parties: the Liberal Party that went back to 1859 (and even earlier when you count liberal traditions that went under other party names) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which had existed as a party since 1981.
The SDP was originally a breakaway from Labour, but went on to attract many people who at that point felt politically homeless. It was founded by four Labour cabinet ministers who felt the leftwards direction the party was taking under Michael Foot after Labour’s defeat at the 1979 election made it impossible for them to stay. So the SDP’s link with the progressive left was always very strong.
The Liberal tradition is a little harder to pinpoint in left/right terms. Liberalism was originally a rebellion against power structures, at first against the church and inherited privilege, and then against conservative forces. Until the 1920s, the Liberals were this country’s main opposition to the Conservatives, and the New Liberalism philosophy that underpinned the Liberal governments of 1908-22 laid the foundations for the welfare state. There’s no question traditional liberalism also belongs on the progressive left.
The difference with Labour is that, while Labour is generally a communitarian party celebrating the power of togetherness – originally industrial workers, but today in all walks of life – the Liberal tradition celebrates the individual. Not in an “I’m all right, Jack, so sod the rest” sense (that’s libertarianism), but in the sense that everyone should be able to flourish, as long as individual freedom stops at the point where it restricts the freedom of others.
That’s why many Liberals used to refer to the Conservatives as the opposition and Labour as the competition – Liberals and Labour both belong on the compassionate wing of British politics, but with different emphases. And if Liberalism is described as ‘centrist’, it warrants that tag only because Liberals are as sceptical of the reach of the big state as they are of the clout of big business.
The 2010 election result made no parliamentary arrangement viable except a Blue-Yellow deal, but while it’s legitimate to challenge some of the Lib Dems’ decisions in government, it’s clear they acted as a brake on the Conservatives, restraining their obsession with cutting public spending, and securing policies such as the pupil premium, same-sex marriage, greatly expanded renewable energy, and taking the lowest earners out of income tax – many successes the Tories tried to claim as their own.
But there are more examples of Labour-Lib Dem cooperation than of the Lib Dems working with the Tories: the Gladstone-Macdonald electoral pact of 1903, Liberal support for Labour minority governments in 1924 and 1929-31, the Lib-Lab Pact 1977-78, and Labour-LD coalition governments in Scotland 1999-2007 and Wales 2001-03 and 2016-21. So, for one to judge the Lib Dems solely by the 2010-15 coalition would be frankly absurd.
Ultimately, if progressives want a fair voting system to usher in a new era of cooperation in British politics, we have to be prepared for cooperation in government. That will involve numerous combinations of parties, as governments in mainland Europe constantly demonstrate. So while the majority of Lib Dem members were uncomfortable in coalition with the Tories, the Blue-Yellow alliance cannot be used to justify the pejorative term ‘Yellow Tories’ with which some on the left love to dismiss Lib Dems.
Ed Davey has said his party won’t support a Conservative government, a position that’s likely to hold under successor leaders, at least until we get a proportional voting system (from then all bets are off, as the whole political culture will change). His staff have clearly been in tacit communication with Labour, as the two parties’ targeting of different seats in recent parliamentary by-elections shows. And most Lib Dem members are much more comfortable in the company of Labour and Green members than with Conservatives.
Perhaps one of the problems with the Lib Dems is that they haven’t always been forthcoming about the values and policies they espouse. The current leadership seems to be particularly cautious about not saying anything that might alienate wavering voters in the party’s target seats, but it’s noteworthy that a group of Liberals keen to establish a more distinctive identity for the Lib Dems are bringing the respected pollster John Curtice to a fringe meeting at their annual conference, where he’s expected to say the Lib Dems would do better if they were clearer about what they stand for.
In any alliance, one group can be seen as being on a certain wing, but even then it would be incomplete to say the Lib Dems are on the ‘right-wing’ (an increasingly outdated and unhelpful term) of the progressive centre-left movement. In some policy areas, the Lib Dems have been to the ‘left’ of Labour, for example over civil liberties, immigration, and opposition to the war in Iraq. Having said that, if the Lib Dems are perceived to be more centrist than Labour, they can play a useful role in peeling disaffected Tories away from the Conservatives. And after all, the Greens don’t have to be on the left – the German Greens, for example, have formed coalitions with the conservatives in several Länder (federal states).
Yes, there are some Lib Dems who might count as “Tories with a conscience”, but the majority of Lib Dems are committed to a pluralistic future requiring cooperation under a fair voting system. For that reason alone, the Liberal Democrats are fully fledged members of the UK’s informal progressive movement.
Chris Bowers is the lead author of the New Liberal Manifesto.