The Liberal Democrats is a UK political party, founded in 1988 and currently led by Vince Cable MP. The party has 12 MPs in the House of Commons, along with thousands of local government representatives around the country, 100,000 members and representatives in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, London Assembly and House of Lords.
On its formation in 1988, the party was formally called the Social and Liberal Democrats, but subsequently adopted the name Liberal Democrats.
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 and it is a quote which works brilliantly as a one-sentence summary of Liberal Democrat beliefs.
The 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’.
In addition to being pro-European, the party is particularly associated with political reform, education, the environment and civil liberties.
For a more detailed explanation, 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.
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
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.
The party’s policy-making process is very democratic, with grassroots members having significant power to decide what happens. The Lib Dem policy process is explained in Jeremy Hargreave’s guide.
Liberal Democrat party 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, and there have been five further leaders since:
- David Steel and Bob Maclennan (1988 initial joint leaders)
- Paddy Ashdown (1988-1999)
- Charles Kennedy (1999-2006)
- Ming Campbell (2006-2007)
- Nick Clegg (2007-2015)
- Tim Farron (2015-2017)
- Vince Cable (2017-)
Party leaders have to be a Member of Parliament and nominated by fellow MPs. The choice between candidates to be leader is then made by a ballot of all party members in which each person has one vote (‘one member, one vote’, or OMOV).
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.
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 back above 100,000. (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.
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:
- Lib Dem Newbies group on Facebook
- /r/libdem on Reddit
- @LibDemNewswire on Twitter
- Lib Dem Voice on the web
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:
- The jobs section on the party’s federal (UK-wide) website.
- Working for an MP (W4MP) – a website used widely across all political parties to advertise jobs working with Parliamentarians. It also carries other jobs suitable for people with an interest in and knowledge of politics.
Liberal Democrat reading list
The best comprehensive history of the party is Peace, Reform and Liberation. SDP 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 still also an excellent explanation of the party’s beliefs is Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism.