Credit: Liberal Democrats.

Big issues in brief

What is the point of the Liberal Democrats?

The party might have gained support at this election, if it hadn’t instead chosen to shoot itself in the foot

Following last week’s Labour vs. Conservative manifesto summary, I take a look at the main aims of the Liberal Democrats and give my verdict.

Liberal Democrats

Click here for the manifesto

Brief history

The party known today as the Liberal Democrats was formed in 1988 via a merger between the Liberal Party (founded in 1859) and the Social Democratic Party (which was formed by four MPs in 1981 after a split from the Labour Party). For the seven years prior to the merger, the two parties worked together as the SDP–Liberal Alliance. The preceding Liberal Party had been the main opposition party to the Conservatives throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, having itself been formed by a merger between the Peelites (a pro-free trade Conservative breakaway faction), the Whigs and the Radicals.

“Unusually, the party has ruled out forming a coalition with either Labour or Conservatives, which raises the question, why do the Lib Dems even exist if they don’t want to be in government?”
How the parties compare on social issues that are often influenced by religion. Credit: Humanists UK.

Positive policies

  • Referendum on final Brexit deal
  • £6 billion spending increase on the NHS and social care
  • Scrap 1% cap on public sector pay rises, increase wages in line with inflation
  • Stamp out abuse of zero hours contracts by creating a formal right to request a fixed contract
  • Strengthen enforcement of employment rights, including scrapping employment tribunal fees
  • £100 billion infrastructure investment package, including: building 300,000 homes a year by 2022; installing hyper-fast, fibre optic broadband; and investment in schools and hospitals to support capacity increases and modernisation
  • Protect the science budget in line with inflation
  • £7 billion investment in education and scrapping planned expansion of grammar schools
  • Liberal social policies (see graphic) which are strong in terms of promotion of equality, immigration (including asylum) and human rights
  • Pro-proportional representation

Potentially positive policies

  • “Establish an independent review to consult on how to set a genuine Living Wage across all sectors; we will pay this Living Wage in all central government departments and their agencies, and encourage other public sector employers to do likewise” — does not go far enough to guarantee a nationwide Living Wage as minimum wage
  • “Protecting” the education budget — requires additional funding, rather than a vague commitment to not cut it
  • “Aim in the long-term and as resources allow to raise the employee National Insurance threshold to the Income Tax threshold” — would help low earners but this is a very vaguely-worded pledge, not a solid policy
  • Vague references to “tough action against corporate tax evasion and avoidance” — this is simply a list of ideas about looking into taking action, rather than commitments to actually close tax loopholes
  • Vague references to pro-environment principles, with weak language that suggests they will take little tangible action
Proportion of gross salary going towards income tax and national insurance (combined). Each band represents 10% of the population, except the right two bands — the left of which represents the top 90.1–99% highest earners and the right of which represents part of the top 1%. Liberal Democrats would put up all incomes tax rates by 1%, affecting everyone earning over £11,500. Please feel free to share this infographic at no cost. Acknowledgement of www.medium.com/FuturePolitics is mandatory under the licensing rules.

Negative policies

  • 1% increase on all income tax rates, hitting the bottom 90% of workers the hardest (except those below the lowest tax threshold) and having little impact on the richest 5%
  • “Programme of capital investment aimed at stimulating growth across the UK” places too much emphasis on public investment into private businesses, rather than into public services
  • Private investment into renewable energy, rather than state investment and nationalisation
  • Extend transparency requirements on larger employers to include publishing the number of people paid less than the Living Wage and the ratio between top and median pay — transparency does not solve anything, actual implementation of a Living Wage and maximum pay ratio is required

Verdict

The Liberal Democrats lost much of their support from younger voters that had been gained prior to joining the 2010–2015 coalition with the Conservatives. Whilst in government, they were forced to renege on their key pre-election promise of scrapping tuition fees, but instead became complicit in the introduction of £9,000 per year university fees. They did play an important role in limiting the damage the Conservative Party was able to do in government, but where opinion diverged too far, were not vocal enough. Perhaps the Lib Dems should have taken a similar path to that of Finland’s Green Party, which formed the last coalition government with a party that it was ideologically opposed to, but left when the gulf became too wide, destabilising the government.

This year, the Lib Dems have attempted to paint themselves as the only pro-EU party for the 48% of remain voters. However, this is not actually true, as the Green Party has also pledged to give the public a say on the final deal after Brexit negotiations have taken place.

The Lib Dems have managed to retain liberal social values within their manifesto, though their reputation on this front has taken a hit because of their leader Tim Farron’s beliefs on abortion and gay sex, which he says are informed by his Christianity. Although he has claimed that his opinions have since changed — which may or may not be genuinely true — his voting record on LGBTQI+ issues leaves a lot to be desired.

Lib Dems cynically tried to implement electoral reform through a referendum on switching from First-Past-the-Post to the Alternative Vote when they were in power — a system which is also extremely flawed and benefits large and mid-sized parties like the Lib Dems, but is disadvantageous to smaller parties. They have since changed their stance to being advocates of Proportional Representation.

However, the Lib Dems are absolutely not a progressive party when it comes to economic issues, favouring the right-wing, crumbling model of free market capitalism. The programme of capital investment that they refer to in their manifesto is unlikely to benefit the average citizen, instead putting money into the hands of big business. Although they score fairly well on environmental policies, they refer to private investment into renewables, rather than a progressive nationalisation programme that would benefit the public.

Unusually, the party has ruled out forming a coalition with either Labour or Conservatives following the 2017 general election, which raises the question, why do the Lib Dems even exist if they don’t want to be in government? Farron has stated that he wants to lead the opposition, but it’s clear that he won’t be in a position to do so.

Should I vote Lib Dem?

I have voted Lib Dem previously in 2005. At the time, I considered myself to be left-of-centre and had wanted to vote Green, but thought the party was too small to vote for. These days, I would normally advocate for voting for the party whose policies you most agree with, rather than voting tactically. However, due to the complexity of this election and the high likelihood of Conservatives getting back into power, I am backing the Progressive Alliance. This means voting tactically for whichever party might keep the Conservatives out of power in your constituency. Although I no longer consider Lib Dems to be particularly progressive on most issues, and I see them as being regressive on economic policy, I would rather have them in coalition with Labour than see the Conservatives running the country. Therefore, I suggest that you only vote for the Lib Dems if they are either:

  • Currently in power in your constituency, with no chance of Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru or Greens taking power from them, or
  • Normally — and particularly recently — the second largest party in your constituency, after the Conservatives.

I would advise against voting Lib Dem if:

  • Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru or Greens are either in power, or are the second largest party in your constituency.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the Liberal Democrats, their manifesto and whether you plan to vote for them, either as your first choice or as a tactical vote!
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