Coffee House

What are the Liberal Democrats for?

12 April 2014

10:06 AM

12 April 2014

10:06 AM

Of the three main parties, none is clearer about how they intend to fight the next election than the Liberal Democrats. Their message will be that they’ll make the Tories be fair and Labour economically responsible. Their ground game will fight for every inch in the seats they hold but effectively withdraw from the rest of the country. I suspect that this strategy will yield the Liberal Democrats around 40 seats and, if there’s another hung parliament, the balance of power again.

But this near-term strategic certainty obscures a bigger question, what are the Liberal Democrats for? This is a question that Jeremy Browne, the former Lib Dem minister, is trying to answer in his new book.


Browne is a liberal and he expected to flourish under the leadership of Nick Clegg, who is from the Liberal rather than the Social Democrat wing of the party. But, instead, he got the sack.

Browne has concluded, as he makes clear in his Times interview this morning, that the problem is Clegg feels the need to meet his internal critics half-way. His response: to set out his stall as a full throttle liberal and dare the party to back him. It’s clear that Browne will run in any post-Clegg leadership contest.

Clegg’s confidants think this strategy is simply unrealistic. Their view is that Clegg is as classically liberal as you can be and still win a Lib Dem leadership contest. But Browne is banking on three things. First, he thinks that government has changed the Liberal Democrats. Left-wing members have left the party to be replaced by younger, more classical liberals. Second, that conviction politics is back—that while people might not agree with him there’ll be energised by the prospect of being led by someone who is unapologetic about what they believe. Third, that the fudge and budge middle of the party will have several candidates in a leadership contest, enabling Browne to run round them.

Browne’s approach might well bomb. But it is clear that he intends to be a standard-bearer for liberalism in the party, which is why he won’t defect to the Tories. Expect to hear a lot more from him in the coming months.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • David Booth.

    What are the Lib Dems for? To provide company and companionship for other hypocrites!

  • Matthew

    Browne’s ideas have the merit of consistency, and probably possess a lot of appeal: albeit mainly, one suspects to a southern middle class or London audience. But I cannot see them flourishing in today’s Lib Dem party, which has evolved so far and so irrevocably into what can most politely be described as a social democratic faction, that classical liberalism would simply be damned as ‘right wing’. To gain traction, Browne really need a complete recasting of the party system: probably the splintering of the system into about five major parties, in one of which one could readily imagine him coexisting with the likes of George Osborne, Sajid Javid and Boris Johnson.

  • swatnan

    They area a pain in the backside, just li,ke any other protest groups including UKIP and the Greens and Respect.

  • Alexsandr

    one good thing is many people will vote UKIP in the euros, then will also vote UKIP in the locals while in the polling booth. so we may have the benefit of many limp dump councillors losing their seats. and as James says, a council seat is a useful tool in a GE

  • Redrose82

    What are the Liberal Democrats for? I don’t know and I don’t think they do. What I do know is what they are in for. A virtual wipe out at the EU elections.

  • Graeme S

    To answer the question …… Sod all

  • DaveTheRave

    The are merely one of the false parties set up to lead us into complete Euro integration. They are neither liberal in the true sense – for how could they possibly condone the nation building policy of Brussels spreading as far as places like Ukraine? – nor are they democratic, see for instance how easily they ditched a ‘promise’ of reducing tuition fees in England to gain power. They epitomise, nay encapsulate everything that is beyond disdain in our putrid political culture. What are they for? To make us see the truth, move on and form truly representative political parties.

  • Frank

    I think that Browne should call himself a Liberal, not a Lib-Dem. He will never reform the Lib-Dem party as it is too in hock to the hairy nutters (and any party that cannot bring itself to sack Chris Huhne, Mike Hancock, or Lord Rennard; or which contains Ed Davey, Vince Cable, or Danny Alexander is doomed and a disgrace). In his new party he can gather all the sane liberals and leave the rest to fester under Vince Cable.

  • dado_trunking

    They are . . . enablers. Did we not all clap in our hands when that happened?
    Look at you now!

  • ButcombeMan

    It has never been very clear why Browne was sacked.

    Now we know.

    He is really dangerous to Clegg because for the first time here is a Liberal that has a wider appeal than the nutters that hold the LibDems together and to whom Clegg has to bend his knee.

    A Browne led LibDems could once again, take votes everywhere, not just from the West Country weirdies.

  • Denis_Cooper

    I think we do need the Liberal Democrats to exist, but they should rename themselves as the European Federalist Party and fail to get anybody elected.

    Like the Pro Euro Conservative Party they could then serve a useful purpose by openly proposing what most of us don’t want. Instead it will be recalled that when the Pro Euro Conservative Party bombed its members were advised to hide themselves and their views and intentions away in the Liberal Democrat Party, which behind the public façade is far from being a “moderating centrist party,” and many of them did that including their leader.

    “In December 2001 the Pro-Euro Conservative Party disbanded, expressing disappointment at failing to persuade pro-European “grandees” to leave the Conservative Party and cooperate with the Liberal Democrats. Leader John Stevens called the Conservative Party under their then newly elected leader Iain Duncan Smith “a cancer of extremism and xenophobia”. He was one of approximately 20 supporters who joined the Liberal Democrats and urged the remainder of the party’s claimed 500 members to follow suit.”

    That was a pity, really, as they had served a useful purpose.

  • Tony_E

    I don’t think it is actually possible to be a classical Liberal and also be in favour of the removal of democracy to an unelected elite.

    I rather hope that Jeremy Browne does become the leader of the Liberal Democrats because at least then there would be a distinctive vision for the party and that puts true classical liberal economic thought back into the political mainstream. It isn’t there now.

    The more real choice the electorate have the better.

  • Smithersjones2013

    I would have said cleaning the toilets of various Tory government ministers residencies but it seems they use cheap immigrant labour for that.

    Probably wise, the Libdems screw everything up…….

  • Andy

    Well the Liberal Democrats are most certainly not Liberal and nor are they democrats. So God alone knows what they are for. Far as I can see they are bleedin useless.

  • Raddiy

    The Liberal Democrats are for everything that devalues our sense of nation, they are political prostitutes with their come to bed innocence, a facade hiding a dishonest and morally reprehensible body politic. Individually and as a group, they have been prepared to turn a blind eye to some of the worst possible abuse of our innocent young in the pursuit of power and to protect the party. They are the ulitmate moralises of others , whilst totally devoid of any moral values themselves.

    They are ashamed of our nation, its history and achievements, they seek to destroy us as a self governing entity, and hand over our hard won freedoms based on common law to those who do not have our interests at heart. They are for removing or devaluing our cultural presence, our values, and our achievements from the world. They want to consign us to the dustbin of history.

    They are an anachronism, they have no place in our country today, they have nothing to offer us, their treachery has known no bounds. In our ongoing fight to recover our independence, protect our culture and values, they will be destroyed for their treachery.

    What are the Lib Dems for?

    They are for sharpening our political billhooks and pitchforks on, before we move onto their fellow traveller friends.

    • Colonel Mustard

      I’m really struggling to differentiate your excellent description of the nasty gang in yellow from the nasty gang in red – the Labour party and their fellow travellers.

      • southerner

        ……..or the un-conservatives.

  • david trant

    What are they for? well looking at the polls don’t they are for promoting PR that’s for sure.

  • Colonel Mustard

    To promote Liberalism and Democracy I should think. You know, like ensuring constituency sizes do not create a voting bias for any one party. Oh, hang on though . . .

  • @PhilKean1

    The Liberals are for ………..

    (1) – Stripping the British people of their sacred right to decide which politicians make the laws they live by
    (2) – For working for the EU’s best interests in preference to the British peoples’
    (3) – For surrendering control of the mechanisms that guarantee the British peoples’ ability to remain prosperous and free.
    (4) – For doing their best to penalise British business against foreign competition by loading them with taxes, regulation and awarding excessive employee rights.
    (5) – For imposing THEIR definitions of fairness & morality without a mandate and without consulting the British people.
    (6) – For using taxpayers’ money to buy the votes of the lazy, the politically-ignorant and the unprincipled.

    What good are Liberals? Treason and Capital punishment was made for such people!

    • Ron Todd

      Don’t forget penalise British business against foreign competition by making energy more expensive and less reliable.

  • Wessex Man

    What are the Liberal Democrats for, well going by the Tory Rags front page today, it’s all things not very nice but any opponent of theirs could tell you that!

    I also object to you calling them one of the main three parties, they are in single figures and hopefully will no longer be around after the next General Election!

    • Denis_Cooper

      I expect that they will still be around after the general election because they have entrenched themselves in certain constituencies and will be hard to winkle out. Unlike UKIP, which may get significantly more votes across the country but still get no MPs, they have sufficiently concentrated support in certain places to win seats under FPTP. On the other hand under the vile PR system which is used for the EU Parliament elections there is a fair chance that they will fail to get any of their candidates elected. That would be good because it would deprive them of taxpayer funded public positions which they can use as a platform for spreading their eurofederalist propaganda. On the other hand the more people who vote for the LibDems rather than for Labour then greater the chance that UKIP would get the most MEPs. Either of those outcomes would be desirable, getting both would be excellent.