In less than a decade the Liberal Democrats had overtaken the Tories in local government, became part of Scotland’s first government for 300 years and returned its largest contingent of Westminster MPs since 1929.
What were the causes of this remarkable turnaround?
The historic Liberal planks of free trade and social reform were effectively snatched by the Labour Party by the late 1920s. For some decades the Liberals languished both ideologically and electorally, their two intellectual stars were Beveridge and Keynes who saw their ideas implemented by Labour governments.
The modest revival of the 1960s’ brought the opportunity to once again develop a profile, though ironically it was mainly in relation to the Tories rather then Labour. Suez produced what as probably the first significant defection of both support and membership from the Conservatives in a generation. In the 1960’s the party was able to develop a distinct line on issues such as civil liberties, Europe and business/union relations. The Liberals provided an avenue for non-socialists who were to the left on social issues. Grimmond proved an able leader, "who was gradually to fashion the idea of the Liberal Party of the radical non-socialist left of centre, the position it has persistently claimed for itself ever since." (Stevenson, 40) Despite this it remained a shaky base as the 1970 General Election proved. (Stevenson, 41)
The most important development of the 1970’s was the development of ‘community politics’, concentration by local activists on very local issues indeed, and a willingness to work both within and without formal political structures. This was passed as official policy at the 1970 Party Conference at Eastbourne. (Behrens, 84) As noted by Anthony Stevenson (42), this was to lead to cadres of dedicated Liberal activists giving the established parties a rough ride on many local councils. More importantly it would give the party the base to survive the storms of both Thorpe, the Lib-Lab pact and the birth pangs of the Liberal Democrats.
In the 1970s, a general disillusionment with politics and in particular the huge clashes between government and big business, to which the two big parties respectively were perceived as being tied led to an upsurge in Liberal support in the 1974 elections. Although this was to ebb away in 1979 after the Lib/Lab pact, at this ‘low’ point still recorded the Liberals recorder a larger share of the vote than at any election between the war and February 1974. The Liberals had become an established part of the electoral scene.
The formation of the SDP and its Alliance with the Liberals at one point really did threaten to "break the mould" of British politics, with poll ratings of over 50% at one point. Thatcherism had taken over the Conservative Party, and the very existence of the SDP was a testimony to the dominance of the far-left in the Labour Party. This proved fertile space for the Alliance parties, but the very creation of the Alliance had not been guaranteed. (Ingle, 94) As Ingle comments, "the SDP posed a greater threat to the Liberals than had either of the major parties for more that a decade.", and Cyril Smith wanted to "strangle the party at birth". (Ingle, 96) However, by the 1983 elections the wave had receded, and the Liberals were left with a meagre 23 seats for over 25% of the vote. (Stevenson, 44) The Alliance ultimately proved unstable, Owen’s ego an occasions proving too much for SDP colleagues, let alone the Liberals. Splits both between the Liberals and Owen and within the Liberal Party, notably on defence not only saw a further disappointing result in the 1987 election, and calls for merger. After a torturous merger process, the new SLD was launched in January 1988, with Yeovil MP Paddy Ashdown as its leader.
The new Party suffered considerable birth pangs, barely hovering above the Owenite SDP in many opinion polls, and beaten into 4th place by the Greens in the 1989 Euro Elections. Here again the party’s base of local councillors helped the party emerge from these struggles, with local election performances considerably stronger than their national poll rating would suggest.
The campaigning skills developed through community politics were to prove crucial to the revival of the party. The LibDems won the Eastbourne by-election on a massive swing in 1990, re-establishing the Party’s credibility with the media and giving the first sign that John Major’s popularity was going the same way as Margaret Thatcher. A series of by-election gains led the LibDems into the 1992 election campaign, and Paddy Ashdown managed to turn a sex scandal almost into an electoral asset through his openness on the matter, and his military expertise gained him credibility during the Gulf War. (Ingle, 104) David Sanders noted how Paddy Ashdown has remained major asset for the LibDems, as noted by David Sanders in relation to the 1997 election (King et al, 229) and it will be interesting to see how they survive his departure.
Despite this the 1992 General Election proved to be a disappointment. Major had successfully painted the LibDems as a Labour Trojan horse (Ingle, 105) and the LibDems, as always, missed a string of seats by a small number of votes. In addition, the LibDems tried to sell constitutional reform as ‘the big issue’. Important as it is, particularly to LibDem activists, it was never a big issue on the doorsteps. (loc cit)
During the period after the 1992 Election, LibDem poll ratings once again climber into the high twenties, boosted on the one hand by an increasingly discredited Tory government and on the other by a Labour Party which, while divested of its more extreme elements, had a distinctly lacklustre sheen about it. However, after the arrival of Blair as Labour leader, the Party’s position in the polls again dropped down to barely over 10%. However, during the election campaign it successfully exploited Labour’s drift to the right; it concentrated on what its own polling evidence suggested were the key issues for voters - health, education and crime, rather than concentrating on constitutional reform and PR; and it ruthlessly targeted on key seats. While its share of the vote dropped, albeit by only 0.7%, it was able to pick up 26 gains on 1992.
Since 1997 the Party has been split between those who wish to move closer to Blair and those who wish to keep a distance. The LibDems’ local activist network is now formidable, with a local election projected national share in 1999 which was 13% above opinion poll ratings. The party also saw its share of the vote increase by 2% in both Scotland and Wales on 1997, and it recorded one constituency gain (Aberdeen South and Cardiff Central) in both countries. The European elections will be the first elections on a truly national basis for 2 years, and it will be these tell to which extent Ashdown’s strategy in his final years as leader has paid off.
The Party’s future as a credible third force now looks secure with PR for Europe, Scotland and Wales as well as its large ranks of local councillors. However the Party still faces many of the same obstacle which it has for almost 80 years, in that "the place of government and opposition is enshrined in the procedures of Parliament and reinforced in the attitudes of the media" (Stevenson, 48)
Policy, Philosophy And Outlook
The Liberal Democrats’ most fundamental belief, as Ingle notes, is the creation of a participatory society. (Ingle, 97)
Liberals have never been happy with the term ‘centrist’. However, Liberal economic policy during the post-war era was essentially centrist, for example supporting coal nationalisation but not steel, or being opposed to too much power being given to either Trade Unions or business. At the same time Liberal ideas in the realm of decision making were hardly centrist, their views on the extension of democracy and its being brought down to grass-roots level was much more radical than that of any other party. (Ingle, 97)
This Liberal belief continues to be a major tenet of modern LibDem thinking. As the preamble to the Liberal Democrat Constitution says, "The Liberal Democrats seek to balance the values of liberty, equality and community to create a society where none shall be enslaved by poverty, conformity or ignorance." The LibDems replace the traditional French Revolutionary term fraternity with community, reflecting the party’s more individualist outlook.
Budge et al (375) correctly note the main division in the party: viz that between those on the left committed to radical social and often environmental reform - the radicals - and those in the centrist ‘mainstream’. There are also a few Whiggish remnants left, particularly in Scotland. The left of the party is the wing more opposed to rapprochement with Labour, seeing Blair’s rightward drift as not only inimcal to their political interests but also as presenting a real tactical opportunity. However, Behrens (86) misanalyses the split between what historically were the mainstream faction and the radicals. Many of the mainstream of the party were to the right of many of the community politics wing on economics. Many of what Behrens terms the ‘libertarian’ wing were avowed believers in the welfare state, and the community politics wing as a whole believed in a radical level of employee decision making at work.
Despite this, the Party is much less prone to factionalism than the other two, with a solid core of issues like civil rights, open government, equality, freedom of information, Europe and community democracy which unites the party. Moreover, many of the party’s new élite - Lembit Öpik, Don Foster, Jackie Ballard, Simon Hughes and to an extent even Paddy Ashdown came up through the ranks of community politics. To an extent a process called the ‘dodo’ process by LibDem Councillors Association has operated. Those who have adopted the community politics approach have got elected. Those who haven’t, haven’t and have lost influence within the party.
While the roots of the Liberal party are in a broad coalition of Whig, Peelites and Radicals, which was largely dominated by laissez-faire doctrine, by the end of the nineteenth century both Peelites and Radicals had peeled off to the Conservative Party for various reasons, and the backbone of the Liberal Party was dominated by the ‘New Liberals’. The New Liberals reached the apex of their power after the 1906 General Election, introducing legislation laying down the foundations of the welfare state, curbing the power of the House of Lords, paving the way for Home Rule in Ireland. Although this was the movement’s apogee, the centre-left and reforming tradition has largely dominated the party ever since.
Robert Behrens notes a number of key planks of post-War Liberal thought. Liberals were critical of state welfarism believing in a greater rôle for both private provision and means testing where appropriate. (Behrens, 83-4) They were opposed to the growing domination of the executive in the political system, and supported greater openness, freedom of information and internationalism. Behrens notes how this pre-empted later mainstream political practice. (Behrens, 84)
In the Alliance period the themes of co-operation and opposition to class politics arose, and the Alliance parties managed to ‘buy into’ the wave of environmental concern early on, with the SDP seeing it as a key issue right from its beginnings in 1981. (Behrens, 86-87)
Liberal Democrat policy has been broadly similar to Alliance policy, but Labour’s rightward drift has given different policies a different focus. The LibDems willingness to raise direct taxation to fund public services now stands in stark relief not only to the Tories but also to Labour. The party’s environmental record is also strong, with their 1997 Westminster manifesto endorsed by Friends of the Earth. However the declining position of environmental issues on the news agenda has given the party less scope for profiling in this area.
The Party’s community democracy ideas have been given more space than ever through the massive LibDem local government gains in the 1990s. Concepts such as local government decentralisation are not only accepted by other parties in many cases, but have been enshrined in law in Scotland. The LibDems’ traditional support for issues such as civil liberties, devolution, PR and freedom of information have not diminished, on some issues Labour have implemented some of their agenda, on some the retain the ability to profile themselves against both the Government and the Conservatives.
Finally on Europe, the LibDems again appear to be on the opposite side of Labour than the Tories, with them pushing for the soonest possible British entry into EMU, and strengthening of the powers of the European Parliament (admittedly at the expense of the Commission.
As Sanders notes (King et al, 240), there is now a trend towards convergence between Tory and Labour policies than between Labour and LibDem policies. This is not the result of any serious drift to the left by the LibDems, but rather the reverse by Labour.
"Internal party structures both in the Alliance partners and the new SLD have set new standards for participatory democracy in British political parties" (Seldon, 49) Nuff said really!
Relationship to Labour
Many commentators disparage the LibDems as Labour’s perpetual bridesmaid. For most of the period since the first Liberal revival, the LibDems and predecessors have been programmatically closer to Labour than the Tories. Ingle (107) argues that without the emergence of the Alliance, the Labour Party would not have embarked on such radical reforms.
The emergence of Tony Blair as an impeccably centrist leader of the Labour Party posed a number of important questions for the LibDems. Soon after he was elected as leader in 1994, the Liberal Democrats abandoned the long standing commitment that they and predecessors had had to ‘equidistance’ and expressed a clear coalition preference for Labour in the event of a hung parliament. Joint initiatives on issues such as the banning of combat knives and sleaze were undertaken, and the Maclennan-Cook commission produced a limited, but significant, measure of agreement on constitutional reform. (Peele, 108) After the election the relationships were deepened, with Paddy Ashdown sitting on a cabinet committee, the first opposition MP ever to do so, and joint campaigns in the Scottish and Welsh devolution referendums. This has not been welcomed by all, even within senior ranks, on wither side, with John Presoctt and Jack Straw known to be implacably opposed.
Within the Liberal Democrats there is considerable division over the extent to which the relationship with Blair should be allowed to develop. One section of the party, led by Menzies Campbell, sees a closer relationship with Labour as bringing gains to both parties, while some, centred on the ‘Chard Group’ believe in eventual merger.
On the other hand LibDem activists in Labour dominated areas in the North and major cities are much less sanguine about the relationship. Donald Gorrie a LibDem MSP and MP who was opposed to the coalition in Scotland commented on 14 May, ‘I would never believe anything the Labour Party told us about anything. They are the biggest bunch of liars you could meet.’
Although, the Blair government has implemented a number of key LibDem policies, such as making the Bank of England independent, it is still the case that Ashdown has produced little for Liberal Democrats through the rapprochement with Blair. The form of electoral reform proposed by the Jenkins Commission can barely be called PR. It would still leave the LibDems significantly underrepresented. Other key issues for the LibDems, for example, education funding, have seen little action. The Freedom of Information proposals released in late May have been slated even by The Economist, hardly a bastion of radical libertarianism.
The leverage which the Liberal Democrats could enjoy in a Lib-Lab coalition is already being demonstrated by the Scottish experience. Although it is still very early days, it is clear that the Scottish coalition agreement bears many Liberal Democrat hallmarks. Guaranteed nursery places for 3 and 4 year olds, ‘Individual Learning Accounts’ for adult education and PR for local government are all straight copies of LibDem policy.
Perhaps more psychologically important, the first paragraph of specific policy states that "The Liberal Democrats stood on a manifesto commitment to abolish tuition fees. The Liberal Democrats have maintained their position on it." No mention of Labour’s position on for the Liberal Democrats is clear. If they play their cards right, the LibDems could yet prove to the dominant party, in policy terms, in the Scottish government.
David Sanders (King et al, 230) noted, soon after the General Election, that the Liberal Democrats would have a key choice to make between moving closer to Labour to help secure PR or using the space to Labour’s left and the disarray among Tories to function as the effective opposition. It is now increasingly clear, particularly after Labour’s Welsh experience, that PR will not be introduced this side of a General Election. Therefore, the future direction for the LibDems is clear. During the marathon 1997 General Election campaign, the Conservative share of the vote stayed the same, while the polls a slow but consistent drift from Labour to the LibDems which amounted to 5% by the end of the campaign. This coincided with consistent LibDem savaging of Labour’s unwillingness to raise direct taxation to pay for public service improvements. Constitutional reform and Europe, important issues though they are, consistently come near the bottom of the list in terms of importance to voters. Beyond a general appearance of competence, elections are decided on the economy, crime and public services. The last has consistently been at the top of voters’ concerns in issue surveys for most of the ‘90s, and it is here that the LibDems have clear blue water between themselves and Labour, and here that they, according to issue surveys, are more in tune with the public mood.
Co-operation with Labour may well be a laudable aim on certain issues.
However, if the Liberal Democrats are to prosper in the next election they
must learn the lessons of their activists in Liverpool and Sheffield and
attack Labour without mercy where there is disagreement.