Liberal Democrats

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This article is about the British political party. For similarly named parties in other countries, see Liberal Democratic Party. For the system of government, see Liberal democracy.
Liberal Democrats
Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol
Libearal Deamocratach
Leader Tim Farron MP
Deputy Leader TBD
President The Baroness Brinton
Lords Leader The Lord Wallace
Founded 3 March 1988[1]
Merger of Liberal Party
Social Democratic Party
Headquarters 8–10 Great George Street,
London, SW1P 3AE[2]
Youth wing Liberal Youth
Membership  (3 June 2015) Increase 61,456[3]
Ideology Liberalism[4]
Social liberalism[4][5]
Political position Centre[6][7]
International affiliation Liberal International
European affiliation Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
European Parliament group Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
Colours      Yellow/Orange
House of Commons[8]
8 / 650
House of Lords[9]
101 / 773
London Assembly
2 / 25
European Parliament[10]
1 / 73
Local government[11]
1,809 / 20,252
Scottish Parliament
5 / 129
National Assembly for Wales
5 / 60
Politics of the United Kingdom
Political parties

The Liberal Democrats (often referred to as the Lib Dems) are a liberal political party in the United Kingdom.

The Liberal Democrats were formed in 1988 by a merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The two parties had formed the electoral SDP–Liberal Alliance for seven years prior. The Liberal Party had been in existence for 129 years and in power under leaders such as Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George. Liberal Reforms led to the creation of the British welfare state. In the 1920s, the Labour Party replaced the Liberals as the largest opponent of the Conservative Party. The SDP split from Labour in 1981 because of the latter's move to the left.[12][13]

Nick Clegg was elected leader in 2007. At the 2010 general election, the Liberal Democrats won 57 seats, making them the third-largest party in the House of Commons behind the Conservatives with 307 and Labour with 258.[14] No party having an overall majority, the Liberal Democrats joined a coalition government with the Conservative Party, with Clegg becoming Deputy Prime Minister and other Liberal Democrats taking up ministerial positions.[15] At the 2015 general election, the party was reduced to eight Members of Parliament and Clegg resigned as leader.[16] Tim Farron won the subsequent leadership election.[17]



Interim logo of the Social and Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats were formed on 3 March 1988 by a merger between the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party, which had formed a pact nearly seven years earlier as the SDP–Liberal Alliance.[1] The Liberal Party, founded in 1859, were descended from the Whigs, Radicals and Peelites, while the SDP were a party created in 1982 by former Labour members, MPs and cabinet ministers, but also gained defections from Conservatives.[18]

Having declined to third party status after the rise of the Labour Party from 1918 and especially during the 1920s, the Liberals were challenged for this position in the 1980s when a group of Labour MPs broke away and established the Social Democratic Party (SDP).[18] The SDP and the Liberals realised that there was no space for four political parties and entered into the SDP–Liberal Alliance so that they would not stand against each other in elections. The Alliance was led by David Steel (Liberal) and Roy Jenkins (SDP); Jenkins was replaced by David Owen.[18] The two parties had their own policies and emphases, but produced a joint manifesto for the 1983 and 1987 general elections.

Following disappointing results in the 1987 election, Steel proposed to merge the two parties. Although opposed by Owen, it was supported by a majority of members of both parties, and they formally merged in March 1988, with Steel and Robert Maclennan (who had become SDP leader in August 1987) as joint interim leaders. The new party was initially named Social and Liberal Democrats (SLD) with the unofficial short form The Democrats being used from September 1988.[19] The name was subsequently changed to Liberal Democrats in October 1989, which is frequently shortened to Lib Dems.[18] The new party logo, the Bird of Liberty, was adopted in 1989.

The minority of the SDP who rejected the merger remained under Owen's leadership in a rump SDP; the minority of the Liberal Party divided, with some retiring from politics immediately and others (led by former Liberal MP Michael Meadowcroft) creating a new 'Liberal Party' that claimed to be the continuation of the Liberal Party which had just dissolved itself. Michael Meadowcroft eventually joined the Liberal Democrats in 2007 but some of his former followers continue still as the Liberal Party, most notably in a couple of electoral wards of the City of Liverpool.[18]

Post-1988 history[edit]

Ashdown (1988–99)[edit]

Paddy Ashdown: Leader from 1988 to 1999

The then-serving Liberal MP Paddy Ashdown was elected leader in July 1988. At the 1989 European Elections, the party received only 6% of the vote, putting them in fourth place after the Green Party.[18] They failed to gain a single Member of the European Parliament at this election.[20]

Over the next three years, the party recovered under Ashdown's leadership. They performed better at the 1990 local elections and in by-elections—including at Eastbourne in 1990, Ribble Valley in 1991 and Kincardine & Deeside in 1991.

The Lib Dems did not reach the share of national votes in the 1990s that the Alliance had achieved in the 1980s. At their first election in 1992 (which ended in a fourth successive Conservative win), they won 17.8% of the vote and twenty seats.[21] They more than doubled their representation at the 1997 general election, when they gained 46 seats[21]—through tactical voting and concentrating resources in winnable seats.[22]

In the 1994 European Elections, the party gained its first two Members of European Parliament.[23]

Following the election of Tony Blair as Labour leader in July 1994 after the death of his predecessor John Smith, Ashdown pursued co-operation between the two parties because he wanted to form a coalition government should the next general election end without any party having an overall majority.[24] This Lib-Lab pact failed to form because Labour's massive majority after the 1997 general election made it an irrelevance for Labour, and because Labour were not prepared to consider the introduction of proportional representation and other Lib Dem conditions.[24] The election was, however, something of a turning point for the Liberal Democrats. They took a smaller share of the vote than at the previous election, but they managed to more than double their representation in parliament.[25]

Kennedy (1999–2006)[edit]

Charles Kennedy: Leader from 1999–2006

Ashdown retired as leader in 1999[26] and the party elected Charles Kennedy as his replacement. The party improved on their 1997 results at the 2001 general election, increasing their number of seats to 52 and their share of the vote to 18.3%.[27] Liberal Democrat candidates won support from former Labour and Conservative voters due to the Lib Dems' position on issues that appealed to those on the left and the right: opposition to the war in Iraq[28] and support for civil liberties, electoral reform, and open government. Charles Kennedy expressed his goal to replace the Conservatives as the official opposition;[29] The Spectator awarded him the 'Parliamentarian of the Year' award in November 2004 for his position on the war.[30] The party won seats from Labour in by-elections in Brent East in 2003 and Leicester South in 2004, and narrowly missed taking others in Birmingham Hodge Hill and Hartlepool.[31]

Under Kennedy's leadership the majority of Pro-Euro Conservatives, a group of former members of the Conservatives, joined the Liberal Democrats on 10 December 2001.[32]

At the 2005 general election, the Lib Dems gained their highest share of the vote since the SDP–Liberal Alliance (22%) and won 62 seats.[33] Many had anticipated that this election would be the Lib Dem's breakthrough at Westminster; party activists hoped to better the 25% support of the 1983 election, or to reach 100 MPs.[34] Much of the apparent lack of success resulted from the first-past-the-post electoral system: the party got 22% of the votes nationally but only 10% of the seats in the Commons.[33] Controversy became associated with the campaign when it became known that Michael Brown had donated £2.4 million to the Liberal Democrats. Brown, who lived in Majorca, Spain at the time, was charged in June 2008 with fraud and money laundering and subsequently jumped bail and fled the country.[35] In November 2008 he was convicted in his absence of thefts amounting to £36 million and sentenced to seven years imprisonment.[36]

The 2005 election figures revealed a trend of the Lib Dems replaced the Conservatives as Labour's main opponents in urban areas. Many gains came in previously Labour-held urban constituencies (e.g., Manchester Withington, Cardiff Central, Birmingham Yardley), many of which the Conservatives had held in the 1980s, and Lib Dem aspirants had over 100 second-place finishes behind Labour candidates.[33] The British electoral system makes it hard for the Conservatives to form a government without winning some city seats outside of its rural heartlands, such as the Lib Dem Bristol West constituency, where the Conservatives came third in 2005 after holding the seat until 1997.[37]

In a statement on 5 January 2006, Charles Kennedy admitted to a long battle with alcoholism and announced a leadership election in which he intended to stand for re-election, while Sir Menzies Campbell took over as acting leader.[38]

For several years rumours had alleged that Kennedy had problems with alcohol—the BBC's Nick Robinson called it "Westminster's worst-kept secret".[39] Kennedy had on previous occasions denied these rumours, and some suggested that he had deliberately misled the public and his party.[39]

Campbell (2006–07)[edit]

Menzies Campbell: Leader from 2006–07

Kennedy had planned to stand as a candidate, but he withdrew from the election citing a lack of support among Lib Dem MPs.[40] Sir Menzies Campbell subsequently won the contest, defeating Chris Huhne and Simon Hughes, among others, in a very controversial race. Mark Oaten withdrew from the contest because of revelations about visits to male prostitutes. Simon Hughes came under attack regarding his sexuality while Chris Huhne was accused live on The Daily Politics of attempting to rig polls.[40]

Despite the negative press over Kennedy's departure, the leaderless party won the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election over Labour in February 2006. This result was viewed as a particular blow for Gordon Brown, who lives in the constituency, represents the adjacent seat and featured in Labour's campaign.[41] The party also came second place by 633 votes in the Bromley and Chislehurst by-election, threatening the safe Conservative seat and pushing Labour into fourth place behind the UK Independence Party.[42] In July 2007, Sir Menzies announced that the party wished to cut the basic rate of income tax from 20 to 16p per pound—the lowest rate since 1916—and wanted to finance the cut using green taxes and other revenues, including making gains from UK properties owned by non-UK residents eligible for capital gains tax.[43]

Opinion poll trends during Campbell's leadership showed support for the Lib Dems decline to less than 20%.[44] Campbell resigned on 15 October 2007, and Vince Cable became acting leader until a leadership election could be held.[45] Cable was praised during his tenure for his performances at Prime minister's questions over the Northern Rock crisis, HMRC's loss of child benefit data, and the 2007 Labour party donation scandal.[46]

Clegg (2007–15)[edit]

Nick Clegg: Leader from 2007 to 2015, and Deputy Prime Minister from 2010 to 2015.

On 18 December 2007, Nick Clegg won the leadership election, becoming the party's fourth leader. Clegg won the leadership with a majority of 511 votes (1.2%) over his opponent Chris Huhne, in a poll of party members.[47] Clegg is the Member of Parliament for Sheffield Hallam, and was an MEP for the East Midlands from 1999 to 2004.[48]

In his acceptance speech, Clegg declared that he was "a liberal by temperament, by instinct and by upbringing" and that he believes "Britain [is] a place of tolerance and pluralism". He claimed that his priorities were defending civil liberties; devolving the running of public services to parents, pupils and patients; and protecting the environment,[49] and that he wanted to forge a "liberal alternative to the discredited policies of big government".[48] He also proposed a target to double the number of Lib Dem MPs within two elections, and before the 2008 local elections confirmed that he was pleased with their performance in the polls.[50]

Shortly after election, Clegg reshuffled the party's frontbench team, making Chris Huhne the replacement Home Affairs spokesperson, Ed Davey the Foreign Affairs spokesperson, and keeping Vince Cable as Shadow Chancellor.[51] His predecessors were also given roles: Campbell joined the all-party Commons foreign affairs select committee, and Kennedy campaigned nationwide on European issues, as president of the European Movement UK.[51]

Clegg became deputy prime minister to David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, in a 2010 coalition agreement that placed a centre-right government at the helm of the United Kingdom.[52][53] Political commentators identified Clegg's leadership as promoting a shift to the radical centre in the Liberal Democrats, bringing more emphasis to the economically liberal side of social liberalism.[54][55]

Despite- or perhaps because of- Clegg's efforts at triangulation,[56][57] the Liberal Democrats experienced its worst-ever showing in the 7 May 2015 election, losing 48 seats in the House of Commons and gaining none.[58] Prominent Liberal Democrat MPs who lost their seats included former leader Charles Kennedy, former deputy leaders Vince Cable and Simon Hughes, and several cabinet ministers. The party held onto just eight constituencies in Great Britain, with only one in Scotland, one in Wales and six in England.[59] The Liberal Democrats' erstwhile coalition partner, Cameron's Conservatives, won an outright majority, negating the need for them to accommodate the smaller party in government.[60] On 8 May 2015, Clegg announced his resignation as party leader.[59]

In coalition government (2010–15)[edit]

After the first of three general election debates on 15 April 2010, a ComRes poll put the Liberal Democrats on 24%.[61] On 20 April, a YouGov poll put the Liberal Democrats on 34%, the Conservatives on 33% and Labour on 28%.[62]

In the general election held on 6 May 2010, the Liberal Democrats won 23% of the vote and 57 seats in the House of Commons. The election returned a hung parliament with no party having an absolute majority. Negotiations between the Lib Dems and the two main parties occurred in the following days. David Cameron became Prime Minister on 11 May after Gordon Brown's resignation and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government with the Conservative Party, with Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister and other Liberal Democrats in the cabinet.[15] Three quarters of the Liberal Democrat's manifesto pledges went into the Programme for Government.[63]

After joining the coalition poll ratings for the party have fallen,[64] particularly following the government's support for raising the cap on tuition fees with Liberal Democrat MPs voting 27 for, 21 against and 8 abstaining.[65]

On 8 December 2010, the eve of a vote on the raising of the cap on tuition fees in the United Kingdom to £9,000, an opinion poll conducted by YouGov recorded voting intention figures of Conservatives 41%, Labour 41%, Other Parties 11% and Liberal Democrats 8%.[66] the lowest level of support recorded for the Liberal Democrats in any opinion poll since September 1990.[67] In the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, 2011 held on 13 January 2011, the Liberal Democrats gained 31.9% of the vote, a 0.3% increase despite losing to Labour. In a by-election in the South Yorkshire constituency of Barnsley in March 2011, the Liberal Democrats fell from second place at the general election to sixth.[68]

In council elections held on 5 May 2011, the Liberal Democrats suffered heavy defeats in the Midlands, North and Scotland. They also lost heavily in the Welsh assembly and Scottish Parliament, where several candidates lost their deposits.[69] According to The Guardian, "they lost control of Sheffield council – the city of Clegg's constituency – were ousted from Liverpool, Hull and Stockport, and lost every Manchester seat they stood in. Overall, they got their lowest share of the vote in three decades".

Clegg admitted that the party had taken "big knocks" due to a perception that the coalition government had returned to the Thatcherism of the 1980s.[70]

As part of the deal that formed the coalition, it was agreed to hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote, in which the Conservatives would campaign for First Past the Post and the Liberal Democrats for Alternative Vote. The referendum, held on 5 May 2011, resulted in First Past the Post being chosen over Alternative Vote by approximately two-thirds of voters.[71]

In May 2011, Nick Clegg revealed plans to make the House of Lords a mainly elected chamber, limiting the number of peers to 300, 80% of whom would be elected with a third of that 80% being elected every 5 years by Single transferable vote.[72] In August 2012, Clegg announced that attempts to reform the House of Lords would be abandoned due to opposition for the proposals by backbench Conservative MPs. Claiming the coalition agreement had been broken, Clegg stated that Liberal Democrat MPs would no longer support changes to the House of Commons boundaries for the 2015 general election.[73]

The Lib Dem Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne in 2011 announced plans for halving UK carbon emissions by 2025 as part of the "Green Deal" which was in the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto.[74]

In council elections held on 3 May 2012, the Lib Dems lost more than three hundred councillors, leaving them with fewer than three thousand for the first time in the party's history.[75] In June 2012 it was reported that membership of the party had fallen by around 20% along with falling poll numbers since joining the coalition.[76] On 20 September 2012 Clegg personally apologised for breaking his pledge not to raise university tuition fees.[77]

On 28 February 2013, the party won a by-election in Eastleigh, the Hampshire constituency that had previously been held by the former minister, Chris Huhne. The party's candidate, Mike Thornton, had been a local councillor for the party, and held the seat.[78] In eighteen other by-elections held throughout the 2010–15 Parliament, the party lost its deposit in 11;[79] in the Rochester and Strood by-election held on 20 November 2014, it came fifth polling 349 votes or 0.9% of the total votes cast. This was both the worst result in the history of the party, and of any governing party.[80]

In local elections held on 22 May 2014, the Liberal Democrats lost another 307 council seats[81] and ten of their eleven seats in the European Parliament in the 2014 European elections.[82]

In the 8 May 2015 general elections, the Liberal Democrats lost 48 seats in the House of Commons, retaining only 8 MPs.[83]

Members of the Cabinet prior to 2015 dissolution[edit]

Other Ministers prior to 2015 dissolution[edit]


Commons Whips[edit]
  • TBD
Lords Whips[edit]

2015 UK general election[edit]

On 8 May 2015, the party turned in its worst performance for a Liberal political party at a general election since the Liberal Party returned six seats in 1970, with eight Lib Dem MPs elected, down from 57 in 2010. Its share of the popular vote fell from 23% in 2010 to 8%. Five former cabinet ministers—David Laws, Ed Davey, Vince Cable, Michael Moore and Danny Alexander—lost their seats; the first three to Conservative Party candidates, and the other two to the Scottish National Party. Former leader Charles Kennedy also lost his seat. Nick Clegg retained his Sheffield Hallam seat by 2353 votes, although he immediately resigned as party leader.[85]

Farron (2015–present)[edit]

Tim Farron was elected on 16 July 2015.

In the 2015 party leadership ballot, held on 16 July 2015, Tim Farron was elected to the leadership of the party with 56.5% of the vote, beating opponent Norman Lamb. On 29 July 2015 Farron unveiled his frontbench team, with Tom Brake MP taking on Foreign Affairs, Alistair Carmichael MP Home Affairs, Baroness Kramer Economics and Baroness Jolly representing Defence.[86]


Opening line from the preamble to the constitution of the Liberal Democrats

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.[87]

The two main ideological strands within the Liberal Democrats are social liberals and the classical liberals, the latter supporting economic liberalism.[88][89][90] The principal difference between the two is that the classical liberals tend to support greater choice and competition and aim to increase social mobility through economic deregulation and creation of opportunity, whereas the social liberals were more commonly associated with directly aiming to increase equality of outcome through state intervention.[88] Correspondingly, classical liberals tended to favour cutting taxes for the poorest in order to increase opportunity, contrasting with social liberals, who would rather see higher spending on public services and the disadvantaged in order to reduce income inequality.[91]

The strand of social liberalism in the party is influenced by William Beveridge, who is credited with drafting further advancements of the welfare state, and economist John Maynard Keynes.[90] In February 2009, many social liberals founded the Social Liberal Forum, an internal party pressure group, to pursue social liberal policies within the party.[citation needed] Notable social liberals in the Liberal Democrats include David Steel, Paddy Ashdown, Menzies Campbell, Charles Kennedy and Simon Hughes.[91]

In 2004 members of the classical and economic liberal faction contributed to The Orange Book, which contained free-market economic and social policies and seen as an attempt to move the party towards the centre-right.[88][89] Individuals from that faction include Nick Clegg, David Laws and Vince Cable,[91] a group which has been referred to as the Orange Book Liberals.[90]


The party supports constitutional and electoral reform,[92] progressive taxation,[93] environmentalism,[94] human rights laws,[95] banking reform[96] and civil liberties.[97]


  • Pupil premium of £2.5bn given to head teachers, aimed at disadvantaged children, which could allow average primary school to cut class size to 20 pupils. — £488 per child on free school meals, is given to schools on top of their main funding. Total pupil premium funding for 2011–12 is £625m and is due to rise to £2.5bn a year by 2014–15.[98]
  • Introduce shared parental leave from work, extended to 18 months over time, and right for fathers to attend ante-natal appointments. Right for grandparents to request flexible working. — From April 2011 fathers will be able to take any unused maternity leave themselves if their partners go back to work early. Plans also announced to consult on further reforms to the current system of parental leave.[99]
  • Workplace scheme for 800,000 pupils to give them the opportunity to gain skills and experience. — £1bn of new funding will provide opportunities including job subsidies, apprenticeships and work experience placements for 500,000 unemployed people. The government will subsidise 160,000 work places by providing £2,275 to any private sector business willing to hire an unemployed person aged 18 to 24 years old.[100]


  • Cut size of the Department of Health by half, abolishing or cutting budgets of quangos, scrapping Strategic Health Authorities and seeking to limit pay of top NHS managers to below level of prime minister. Three quarters of health quangos have already been axed, and plans have been announced to scrap Strategic Health Authorities.[101][102]
  • Scrap Labour's personal care at home and divert cash to give one week's respite for one million carers. — Over £400million available in additional funding over coalition period to the hundreds of thousands of carers who work over 50 hours a week.[103]


  • Bill announced which will regulate CCTV, end the collection of DNA from innocent citizens, scrap ID cards and the children's contact database, end control orders, reduce the maximum pre-charge detention period under that Act from 28 to 14 days, outlaw wheel-clamping on private land, enable those with convictions for consensual sexual relations between men aged 16 or over (which have since been decriminalised) to apply to have them disregarded, and an amnesty with British citizenship for all illegal immigrants.[104]

Foreign policy[edit]

  • A full judicial inquiry into allegations of British complicity in torture and state kidnapping.[105]
  • A "strong and positive" commitment to the European Union.[106][107]
  • The Liberal Democrats have also successfully accomplished prohibiting British companies from selling chemicals abroad where it is known that they may be used in carrying out the death penalty.[108]
  • Like their predecessors in the SDP–Liberal Alliance,[109] the Liberal Democrats are opposed to the Trident replacement programme, and believe that "a step down the nuclear ladder towards a minimal yet credible deterrent offers the best balance of deterrence coupled with a clear commitment to disarmament."[110]

Electoral reform[edit]

  • The Liberal Democrats have been described by the New Statesman as "unsparing in their criticism of the unfairness of first-past-the-post," and are fully committed to electoral reform, including Alternative Vote and proportional representation. It is one of their most popular policies, and described by the New Statesman as "one policy with which the Liberal Democrats are identified in the minds of the public."[111]

Electoral results[edit]

Devolved Seats
London Assembly
2 / 25
Scottish Parliament
5 / 129
Welsh Assembly
5 / 60
Lib Dem vote and seat share 1983–2015

In 1992 General Election, the Lib Dems succeeded the SDP–Liberal Alliance as the third most popular party, behind Labour and the Conservatives. Their popularity declined from the levels attained by the Alliance, but their seat count rose, a feat that has been credited to more intelligent targeting of vulnerable seats.[22] The vote percentage for the Alliance in 1987 and the Lib Dems in 2005 is similar, yet the Lib Dems won 62 seats to the Alliance's 22.[33]

The first-past-the-post electoral system used in UK General Elections is not suited to parties whose vote is evenly divided across the country, resulting in those parties achieving a lower proportion of seats in the Commons than their proportion of the popular vote (see table and graph). The Lib Dems and their Liberal and SDP predecessors have suffered especially,[112] particularly in the 1980s when their electoral support was greatest while the disparity between the votes and the number of MPs returned to parliament was significantly large. The increase in their number of seats in 1997, 2001 and 2005 was attributed to the weakness of the Conservatives and the success of their election strategist Lord Rennard.[22] Lib Dems state that they want 'three-party politics' in the Commons;[113][114] the most realistic chance of power with first past the post is for the party to be the kingmakers in a hung parliament.[115] Party leaders often set out their terms for forming a coalition in such an event—Nick Clegg stated in 2008 that the policy for the 2010 General Election was to reform elections, parties and Parliament in a "constitutional convention".[116]

General election Name Share of votes Seats Share of seats Source
1983 SDP–Liberal Alliance 25.4%
23 / 650
3.5% [117]
1987 SDP–Liberal Alliance 22.6%
22 / 650
3.4% [117]
1992 Liberal Democrats 17.8%
20 / 651
3% [21]
1997 Liberal Democrats 16.8%
46 / 659
7% [21]
2001 Liberal Democrats 18.3%
52 / 659
8% [27]
2005 Liberal Democrats 22.0%
62 / 646
10% [33]
2010 Liberal Democrats 23.0%
57 / 650
9% [14]
2015 Liberal Democrats 7.8%
8 / 650
1.2% [118]

The party had control of 31 councils in 2008, having held 29 councils prior to the 2008 election.[119] In the 2008 local elections, they gained 25% of the vote, placing them ahead of Labour and increasing their control by 34 to more than 4,200 council seats—21% of the total number of seats. In council elections held in May 2011, the Liberal Democrats suffered heavy defeats in the Midlands, North and Scotland. They also lost heavily in the Welsh assembly and Scottish Parliament.[69] In local elections held in May 2012, the Lib Dems lost more than 300 councillors, leaving them with fewer than 3000 for the first time in the party's history.[75] In the 2013 local elections, they lost more councillors. In the 2014 local elections they lost over 300 councillors and the control of two local governments.[120]

European elections[edit]

Graham Watson: Former leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe was the Liberal Democrat MEP for South West England and the first Lib Dem to be elected to the European parliament

The party has generally not performed as well in elections to the European Parliament. In the 2004 local elections, their share of the vote was 29% (placing them second, ahead of Labour)[114] and 14.9% in the simultaneous European Parliament elections (putting them in fourth place behind UK Independence Party).[121] The results of the 2009 European elections were similar with the party achieving a vote of 28% in the county council elections yet achieving only 13.7% in the Europeans despite the elections taking place on the same day. The 2009 elections did however see the party gain one seat from UKIP in the East Midlands region taking the number of representatives in the parliament up to 11.[122] In 2014, the party lost ten seats, leaving them with one MEP.[123]

In Europe, the party sits with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) political group, which favours further strengthening the EU.[124] The group's leader for seven and a half years was the South West England MEP Graham Watson, who was also the first Liberal Democrat to be elected to the European Parliament when he won the old Somerset and North Devon constituency in 1994.[125] The group's current leader is the former Prime Minister of Belgium Guy Verhofstadt.[126]

European election (UK) Name Share of votes Seats Share of seats Source
1984 SDP–Liberal Alliance 19%
0 / 81
0% [127]
1989 Social and Liberal Democrats 6%
0 / 81
0% [128]
1994 Liberal Democrats 16%
2 / 87
2% [129]
1999 Liberal Democrats 13%
10 / 87
12% [130]
2004 Liberal Democrats 15%
12 / 78
15% [121]
2009 Liberal Democrats 14%
11 / 72
15% [131]
2014 Liberal Democrats 6%
1 / 73
1% [123]

Scottish Parliament elections[edit]

Willie Rennie: Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats

The first elections for the Scottish parliament were held in 1999 and resulted in the Liberal Democrats forming a coalition government with Labour from its establishment until 2007.[132] The Liberal Democrat leader Jim Wallace became Deputy First Minister, a role he continued until his retirement as party leader in 2005. The new leader of the party, Nicol Stephen, then took on the role of Deputy First Minister until the election of 2007.[133]

For the first three Scottish Parliament elections, the Lib Dems maintained a consistent number of MSPs. From the 17 elected in 1999, they retained this number in 2003 and went down one to 16 in 2007.[134] However, this fell to only five seats after the 2011 election as a result of the widespread unpopularity of their coalition with the Conservative party at the UK level.

The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats is the MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, Willie Rennie, who took up his role in 2011.[135]

Election Constituency votes Regional votes Total seats Share of seats
Share Seats Share Seats
1999 14% 12 12% 5
17 / 129
2003 15% 13 12% 4
17 / 129
2007 16% 11 11% 5
16 / 129
2011 8% 2 5% 3
5 / 129

Welsh Assembly elections[edit]

Kirsty Williams: Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats

Elections to the newly created National Assembly for Wales also took place for the first time in 1999 and saw the Liberal Democrats take six seats in the inaugural Assembly, with Welsh Labour winning a plurality of seats in the assembly, but not enough to win an outright majority. In October 2000, following a series of close votes, the parties formed a coalition that saw the Liberal Democrat leader in the assembly, Michael German, become the Deputy First Minister.[136] The deal lasted until the election of 2003, when Labour won enough seats to be able to govern outright.[137]

The party has polled consistently in all four elections to the National Assembly, returning six representatives in the first three elections and five in the 2011 Election, thereby establishing itself as the fourth party in Wales behind Labour, the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru. The leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats is Kirsty Williams, the assembly member for Brecon & Radnorshire, the Assembly's first female leader.[138]

Election Constituency votes Seats Regional votes Seats Total Seats Share of Seats
1999 14% 3 13% 3
6 / 60
2003 14% 3 13% 3
6 / 60
2007 15% 3 12% 3
6 / 60
2011 11% 1 8% 4
5 / 60


The Liberal Democrats are a federal party of the parties of England, Scotland and Wales. The English and Scottish parties are further split into regions. The parliamentary parties of the House of Commons, the House of Lords, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly form semi-autonomous units within the party. The leaders in the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament are the leaders of the federal party and the Scottish Party; the leaders in the other two chambers, and the officers of all parliamentary parties, are elected from their own number. Co-ordination of all party activities across all federated groups is undertaken through the Federal Executive. Chaired by the party leader, its 30+ members includes representatives from each of the groups and democratically elected representatives.[139]

The Lib Dems had 65,038 members at the end of 2010[140] and in the first quarter of 2008, the party received £1.1 million in donations and have total borrowings and unused credit facilities of £1.1 million (the "total debt" figure reported by the Electoral Commission includes, for example, unused overdraft facilities). This compares to Labour's £3.1 million in donations and £17.8 million of borrowing/credit facilities, and the Conservatives' £5.7 million in donations and £12.1 million of borrowing/credit facilities.[141]

Specified Associated Organisations (SAOs) review and input policies, representing groups including: ethnic minorities (EMLD),[142] women (WLD),[143] the LGBT community (LGBT+ Liberal Democrats),[144] youth and students (Liberal Youth), engineers and scientists (ALDES),[145] parliamentary candidates (PCA)[146] and local councillors (ALDC).[147] Others can become Associated Organisations (AOs) as pressure groups in the party, such as the Green Liberal Democrats,[148] Liberal Democrats Online,[149] the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG)[150] and the Liberal Democrat Disability Association.[151] The National Union of Liberal Clubs (NULC) represents Liberal Social Clubs which encourages recreational institutions where the promotion of the party can take place.

Like the Conservatives, the Lib Dems organise in Northern Ireland, though they do not contest elections in the province: they work with the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, de facto agreeing to support the Alliance in elections.[152] There is a separate local party operating in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Liberal Democrats.[153] Several individuals, including Alliance Party leader David Ford, hold membership of both parties. Alliance members of the House of Lords take the Lib Dem whip on non-Northern Ireland issues, and the Alliance Party used to have a stall at Lib Dem party conferences.

It is also a 'sister party' of the Liberal Party of Gibraltar and contests the South-West England constituency at European Parliamentary elections on a joint ticket with them taking place six on the party list.[154][155]

The party is a member of Liberal International and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party, and their 1 MEP sits in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Group in the European Parliament.

Membership figures[edit]

Year Membership (as of 31 December)
2001 73,276[156]
2002 71,636[156]
2003 73,305[157]
2004 72,721[158]
2005 72,031[159]
2006 68,743[160]
2007 65,400[161]
2008 59,810[162]
2009 58,768[163]
2010 65,038[140]
2011 48,934[164]
2012 42,501[165]
2013 43,451[166]
2015 61,456[167] ^



Entered office Left office Date of Birth Date of Death
David Steel 1 7 July 1987 16 July 1988 31 March 1938
Robert Maclennan 2 6 August 1987 16 July 1988 26 June 1936
Paddy Ashdown 16 July 1988 9 August 1999 27 February 1941
Charles Kennedy 9 August 1999 7 January 2006 25 November 1959 1 June 2015
Sir Menzies Campbell 3 2 March 2006 15 October 2007 22 May 1941
Vince Cable 4 15 October 2007 18 December 2007 9 May 1943
Nick Clegg 18 December 2007 16 July 2015 7 January 1967
Tim Farron 16 July 2015 Incumbent 27 May 1970
  • 1 Joint interim leader, as leader of the Liberal Party before the merger.
  • 2 Joint interim leader, as leader of the Social Democratic Party before the merger.
  • 3 Interim leader between the resignation of Charles Kennedy on 7 January 2006 and his own election on 2 March 2006.
  • 4 Interim leader between the resignation of Menzies Campbell on 15 October 2007 and the election of Nick Clegg on 18 December 2007.

Deputy Leaders[edit]

Party Presidents[edit]

Presidents chair the Federal Executive Committee. They are elected for a two-year term, starting on 1 January and ending on 31 December. They may serve a maximum of two terms.

Leaders in the House of Lords[edit]

Leader Entered office Left office
1 Roy Jenkins, Baron Jenkins of Hillhead (1920–2003) 16 July 1988 4 May 1997
2 William Rodgers, Baron Rodgers of Quarry Bank (b. 1928) 4 May 1997 13 June 2001
3 Shirley Williams, Baroness Williams of Crosby (b. 1930) 13 June 2001 22 June 2004
4 Tom McNally, Baron McNally (b. 1943) 22 June 2004 October 2013
5 Jim Wallace, Baron Wallace of Tankerness (b. 1954) October 2013 present

Leaders in the European Parliament[edit]

The Liberal Democrats did not have representation in the European Parliament prior to 1994.

Chairs of the English Liberal Democrats[edit]

Leaders of the Scottish Liberal Democrats[edit]

Leaders of the Welsh Liberal Democrats[edit]

Current elected MPs[edit]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]

Federal Liberal Democrats[edit]

State parties[edit]

Party sub-organisations[edit]

Historical information[edit]