December 6, 2019 by Paul Goldsmith
The triumph of Liberalism as an ideology in terms of the policies adopted by Labour and the Conservatives has simply given people less reason to vote for the Liberal Democrats.
Although the last time the Liberal Party (the ancestors of the Liberal Democrats) won an election in the UK (1906) has receded further into history, one reason for that is still relevant today.
The growth of the Labour Party was one thing, but the adoption in 1945 of a significant amount of modern liberal ideas (the welfare state and full employment were both instigated by Liberals in William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes) was the real death knell to Liberal chances of running the country again.
Put simply, Liberals won, so the Liberal Party lost. The post-war consensus between 1945 to 1970 was based upon the modern liberal concept that individuals need help from the state to fulfil their potential and take advantage of opportunities.
As that economic consensus fell apart, the mostly Labour government between 1965 and 1979 instigated a programme of social liberalisation. Homosexuality and abortion were decriminalised, and the Equal Pay Act and related legislation introduced.
The Thatcher years saw the return of classical liberalism, in that the state was removed from the economy as much as possible, allowing businesses and people to succeed, and fail.
The Blair and a Brown years of New Labour saw the return of modern liberalism, with the concept of the state offering a ‘hand up, not a hand out’ being at the centre of their policy programme. The New Deal and massive investment in education and hospitals were part of this.
All of this meant that the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats had very few places to go in order to create a unique political programme. If the voters wanted liberalism they could basically get it, in different measures, from the two mainstream political parties AND not waste a vote on a party unlikely to win a seat.
In scratching around for a unique identity, they shifted to the left in the late 1990s and early 2000s under Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. They were the first to suggest a 50% higher income tax rate for example and much higher state involvement in the economy. However, this was quite disconcerting for some in the party, and the ‘Orange Book’ was written by more classical liberals in 2004 suggesting the Liberal Democrats return to more Liberal policies both in the economic and social sphere.
Fast forward to today, and under Jo Swinson the Liberal Democrats are still searching for a unique political identity. Brexit has allowed them to set themselves apart as the true party of Remain. They are trying to set themselves apart on education so they can re-position as modern liberals.
However, the Conservatives are trying to position themselves as modern liberals as well, although their critics will claim they are more classical liberal. Labour are socially liberal, and to be honest the Conservatives are hardly going to roll that back either. The Liberal Democrats are certainly more internationalist than the other two, but really, apart from Brexit, there really much that sets them apart.
So, even had the Liberal Democrat’s won a lot of seats in this election, that wouldn’t have meant the party itself is going to regain dominance. Because sometimes, when your ideas win, you lose.