Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Who are the Liberal Democrats?

Paul Whiteley delves inside the party to identify the four types of Liberal Democrat coexisting within it, and considers how they may bond, or clash, with their Tory partners.

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The willingness of Liberal Democrat ministers, particularly Vince Cable, to reveal their innermost thoughts about the government in public can be put down to their lack of experience of office, and this is something they can learn to deal with over time. However, this episode is not likely to threaten the coalition government. There are other, more ideologically based, divisions between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that could destabilise the coalition in the long run, and these are far more important than gossip in politicians’ surgeries.

The ideological views of the Liberal Democrats have been formed from two strands of political thought, one social democratic and the other more traditionally liberal. The social democratic strand has its origins in the writings of Labour revisionists like Anthony Crosland and Hugh Gaitskell and emphasises the importance of equality and redistribution. The liberal strand has its origins in 19th century Gladstonian Liberalism and emphasises individual freedom and free markets. The Orange Book manifesto, published in 2004 by Paul Marshall and David Laws, recast the latter in a modern setting.

In Third Force Politics: Liberal Democrats At The Grassroots by myself and Patrick Seyd, we reported the results of a large-scale survey of party members, which included many questions designed to identify contemporary Liberal Democrat ideological beliefs. We found four dimensions or clusters of attitudes in the data and described them as: Lifestyle Liberalism; Equality and Redistribution; Free-market Liberalism; and Attitudes to Europe. The future stability of the coalition will rely on the extent to which these attitudes can coexist with the beliefs of Conservatives.

Lifestyle Liberalism represents a strand of thought which focuses on tolerance towards different lifestyles. In our survey Liberal Democrats who were strongly opposed to censorship tended to be tolerant of gay rights, in favour of abortion on demand, and also the legalisation of cannabis. The latter is not supported by Conservatives, but many of these ideas have much in common with libertarian thinking, which is an influential strand of ideology within the Conservative party. Libertarians tend to oppose state regulation of lifestyles and behaviour as much as they do state regulation of the economy. So there is common ground between the ideological views of some Conservatives and some Liberal Democrats on these issues. For this reason these ideas are unlikely to be a source of ideological conflict within the coalition, and they may even provide political support for Ken Clarke’s new approach to penal policy.

The same argument cannot be made about the Equality and Redistribution dimension of Liberal Democrat ideology. Grassroots Liberal Democrats are very likely to agree with the statement that ‘the government should spend more money to get rid of poverty’, and, similarly, they overwhelmingly support the proposition that ‘the government should increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits’. There is a strong egalitarian and redistributive dimension to Liberal Democrat ideology which is simply not present in the modern Conservative party. These ideas sit very uneasily with the strand of modern Conservatism which wants to reduce the size of the state and cut taxes. The country as a whole has accepted the idea of public expenditure cuts as a means of dealing with the current economic crisis and this is why Liberal Democrats support the cuts. But once this crisis is over, the tax-cutting instincts of many Conservatives are going to run headlong into the egalitarian instincts of Liberal Democrats.

Free-market Liberalism is still alive and well among the Liberal Democrats. A large majority of party members think that ‘individuals should take responsibility for providing for themselves’, and they oppose the idea of removing private choice in education and health. Again, this means that Liberal Democrats have a lot in common with the Conservatives. However, there are limits to this common ground, largely set by the strong egalitarian instincts within the party. Only a relatively small minority of party members favour a policy of encouraging the growth of private healthcare, for example. They can be persuaded of the merits of private intervention in the public sector on efficiency grounds, but they strongly oppose the mantra of some Conservatives that ‘private provision is good and state provision is bad’.

The third policy which is also likely to create friction within the coalition relates to the European Union. There is only a small minority of EU supporters within the Conservative party and most Conservatives are viscerally anti-EU. The Liberal Democrats are very much a pro-EU party with a significant majority of them favouring British membership of the euro providing the conditions are right. In fact, membership of the eurozone has been parked in the long grass by recent events, so this is not likely to be a source of friction. But attempts by the Conservatives to fundamentally renegotiate the terms of UK membership, or to pick fights with Brussels for partisan reasons, are likely to put the coalition under severe strain.

This means that the fissiparous tendencies within the coalition are likely to be held at bay during the economic crisis, which is likely to rumble on for some time. The rather dramatic loss in support for the Liberal Democrats since the last election suggests that the party is trapped in the coalition and must accept whatever is served up, since provoking an early election would be political suicide. However, this argument can be flipped on its head. If Conservative support starts to crumble as the cuts begin to bite, then conflicts over policies will become a ‘game of chicken’ between the two partners – breaking up the coalition will bring electoral disaster to both. If this happens then both parties will be equally powerful in exercising a veto over policies which are unacceptable to their supporters. Liberal Democrats will veto tax reductions purchased at the cost of public expenditure cuts, and the Conservative right, which is already becoming very rebellious in the new parliament, is likely to press strongly for such reductions. This situation is a recipe for policy gridlock as the next election approaches.


Photo: Jon Tandy

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Paul Whiteley

is a professor at the Department of Government, University of Essex


  • Are these really “four types of Liberal Democrat”? That to me implies a partitioning of the universe of Lib Dems. But aren’t there in fact massive overlaps here, especially between the pro-European tendency and the rest? I ask because a robust classification we could all hold on to would be really, really useful.

  • I read this article as what Labour need to do to make a Lab-Lib coalition more likely than a Lib-Con one, and of course to attract LD voters and even Tory voters. If we’ve accepted that, within limits, markets and the EU have an important role to play, that mainly leaves ‘Lifestyle Liberalism’ for Labour to work on. Instead, Labour is trying to out-flank the Coalition on the right! It needs to reverse the trend towards Daily Mail moralising. Drugs policy is an example from the article. Labour should base its policies in evidence and give serious thought to decriminalisation (i.e. no *criminal* penalties for personal possession, with more emphasis on treatment) rather than “anyone who uses any drug – other than the currently legal ones, of course – is criminal scum and should be punished (rather than either left alone or treated medically)”. Go for what works, not what just sounds tough. Strict legal regulation of cannabis should be a left-wing rather than right-wing idea. There’s no need to oppose everything the Coalition say just for the sake of it, such as on 28-day detention. Labour should spend more effort and money on ‘Equality and Redistribution’ and less on wars and weapons and locking up the public. In short, the Tories may be ‘the nasty party’ when it comes to cuts, but Labour needs to stop fighting to retain that title when it comes to crime, justice, liberties and war. Majority support and a bright future for Britain would be the reward.

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