Who are the Liberal Democrats?
Illustration by Tracy Worrall
Buoyed by a succession of by-election wins, the Liberal Democrats have set their sights on becoming the third largest party in the Commons at the next general election. But as they grow in popularity, the question of what the party really stands for is becoming more pressing. Tali Fraser tries to answer it. Illustration by Tracy Worrall
What does it mean, in 2023, to be a Lib Dem? Lord Dick Newby, chair of the Liberal Democrats manifesto working group, refines the question of what his party stands for to five “massive challenges” that they need to focus on in their pre-manifesto at autumn party conference, and towards the next election.
They are: the economy; public services (especially health and social care); environment and climate change (transitioning to a low-carbon economy); fair international order (the war in Ukraine, and rebuilding Britain’s relationship with Europe); and a fairer democracy (supporting proportional representation).
“We’re not going to be putting much in the pre-manifesto, if anything, that we don’t think is worthy of going in the full manifesto,” he adds. “These themes will, to a greater or lesser extent, be the principal themes in the general election.”
This, in his view, is what makes a Liberal Democrat today.
Internationalism is a theme raised by almost every Liberal Democrat who spoke to The House when asked to name the party’s top three priorities – and, more often than not, it is centred around Europe and the European Union.
Lord William Wallace, who has helped write manifestos for the party in the past, brands the Liberal Democrats’ approach to Europe as “one of the most detailed and coherent policies” the party has developed in the last two years.
“It will surprise no one to know that the Liberal Democrats want this country to be at the heart of Europe again,” Layla Moran, the party’s foreign spokesperson and MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, says, “but we aren’t naive about it. We know we’re going to have to actively make the case.”
As Lord Newby argues, the party’s position on the EU provides “a very distinctive area for us”. In the Lib Dems’ most recently passed policy paper on rebuilding trade and co-operation with Europe, it reads: “Looking forward, we will always believe that Britain is most likely to thrive at the heart of Europe … we advocate to build up to an application to join the single market, which we believe is the best option for the British economy short of full EU membership.”
Former Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable feels that, on the specific issue of Europe, there is clear direction from the leadership over what the party stands for: “The views from the top are crucial and Europe is the most obvious one because we were the party of Europe and people quite naturally want to know where we stand.”
Cable says that while it was once the anti-Brexit party, “so you didn’t have to drill down very deep”, he considers the party’s position now as, “obviously a bit more complex”.
Lord Tom McNally, former leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords and former Liberal Democrat minister, emphasises that the party must maintain its credibility; focusing on building the relationship “with our biggest market and our nearest neighbours” and “not becoming remoaners”.
But while there is unity in the party about its international priorities, there are early signs of differing opinions on the Lib Dem approach elsewhere.
Heavily reliant on their members and constituents, potentially creating a lack of clear policy direction from party figures themselves, it leaves the question of what the Liberal Democrats stand for today open to interpretation.
Tiverton and Honiton MP Richard Foord, the party’s defence spokesperson and an army veteran himself, adds his angle on internationalism and claims that, going into the election, the Liberal Democrats will pledge to increase the size of the army, as continual cuts from the government are set to take it to its smallest size since Napoleonic times.
Foord says: “I am certain we are going to put in our manifesto the restoration of the size of the army, back to 82,000.”
But beyond this specific, he provides a somewhat nebulous statement when asked what the Liberal Democrats stand for: “That nobody should be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or fear.
“Probably a little bit philosophical,” he concedes.
If you have got 10 Lib Dems in the room, you’ll find 11 opinions
Moran sees the party’s purpose in a slightly less grandiose way. To her, being a Lib Dem means putting constituents at the centre of the party’s policies by listening to their ideas – and “not assuming we have got all the answers straight away”.
She adds: “At the national level it is … getting the basics right.”
Moran, who sits on the party’s Federal Policy Committee, overseeing its policy-making process, puts a real emphasis on policy emerging not from politicians but the public, and claims the Liberal Democrats are “completely reliant on our members to help us make policy”.
“If you have got 10 Lib Dems in the room, you’ll find 11 opinions,” she jokes, “so it is impossible to say in advance what policy will be, and it changes over time.”
With so many differing policy views, seemingly based on thoughts from constituents and party members rather than politicians’ national outlooks, are there any political minds leading the charge? It is something that has crossed the mind of Lord Wallace who, while branding the policy debate within the party “well charged”, laments that “we suffer from a very small number of MPs and, sadly, a smaller staff than we would like”.
He adds: “If there were one or two friendly think tanks to do the work for us, life would be … easier.”
Cable, likewise, is reticent to dig deeper into the party’s policies and what they stand for today instead of their electoral ambitions: “It would be nice to talk about how we can save the world but until we get that significant base in Parliament it isn’t going to take us very far.”
Lord Oates, former director of policy and communications for the Liberal Democrats during the Coalition years, sees the party’s policies differently. “Always informed by real-life experience” but still flowing from the party’s three fundamental political principles: freedom of the individual; importance of the community; and stewardship, especially with responsibility to the planet.
The Liberal Democrats’ green recovery plan to tackle the latter makes five statement pledges involving restoring waterways, insulating all homes by 2030, creating a £20bn clean air fund, investing £40bn in electric vehicles and public transport, as well as securing 80 per cent of British energy from green sources by 2030. It is an area that Foord points to as a sign of the Liberal Democrats’ long-term vision.
Part of being a Liberal today, Tim Farron, former Liberal Democrat leader, adds, is “pushing back” against those who think the environment is “some kind of idiosyncratic, esoteric, middle-class obsession”. He says: “That’s nonsense. It applies to everybody.
“If you give a monkey’s about your grandchildren, you should be absolutely distraught at what climate change is likely to do to their lives, and you should want action to be taken.”
Another theme not mentioned by Lord Newby as one of the five key areas for Liberal Democrat policy but destined to be a central issue at the next election – and one Farron is especially keen on tackling – is housing.
“Housing is the issue,” he says, and even decides to mark out his own target for the party. “There is a need to build – I’m not sure we’ve picked a particular target, but I will – to build something in the region of a million council houses is vitally important.”
This is an area where there is debate among the party’s politicians. Layla Moran sees the issue as being less about targets, adding that “if you want to build loads of houses, the way you do that is you engage with the local community”. She says: “Liberalism means that we put our communities first and that actually it isn’t just one policy for every community.”
It’s a nice soundbite – but as with other policies, it covers a range of divergent views. On this and other policies, what it really means to be a Lib Dem is still hard to pin down.
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