Politics: UK Liberal Party and the LIberal Democrats

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Is the Liberal Party an alternative to the Liberal Democrats ?

With a fall in support for the Liberal Democrats, the continuing presence of the Liberal Party in U.K. party politics gains significance.

The fall in Liberal Democrat support

The Liberal Democrats gained 23% of the vote at the May 2010 general election. At the end of 2010, they are under 10% in the opinion polls. In the parliamentary constituency of Thirsk and Malton, the Liberal Democrats polled 23.3% whereas the Liberal Party polled 3.7%. If this poll had been held in late 2010, the gap between the two parties could have been narrower.

Background to the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Party has a pedigree dating back to the 19th Century. In the General Election of February 1974 its share of the vote was 19%. In 1988, it merged with the Social Democratic Party to form the Liberal Democrats. Some members of the old Liberal Party did not want to join the Liberal Democrats so they re-established the Liberal Party. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was re-established too, as SDP members also chose not to join the merged party.

The Liberal Democrats have 57 MP’s. The Liberal Party currently have no MP’s having contested 5 parliamentary constituencies in the 2010 general election.

Recent Developments: since the general election

Party politics, since the 2010 general election, has been dominated by the coalition agreement signed between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats. The coalition can be justified on the basis that the country needs to reduce spending and to reduce government debt. The leader of the Liberal Democrats has suggested that you have to be realistic in politics. However, the coalition has led to the Liberal Democrats supporting a Conservative policy to increase tuition fees for university students. This has been particularly controversial as before the election the Liberal Democrats pledged to oppose any increase in fees. In contrast, the Liberal Party claim that “Student Loans and Top-up fees should be abolished immediately”. They believe that university teaching should be funded out of general taxation. Perhaps this would mean an increase in income tax. If this was the case, then it would be similar to a previous Liberal Democrat commitment, from the 1990’s, to put “a penny on income tax to fund improvements in education”.

Another policy difference is that the Liberals want a simpler income tax system with no tax paid on earnings under £10,000. In contrast, the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition agreed to increase the personal allowance, for income tax, to £7,475 in April 2011. This makes the Liberal Party more socially progressive than the Liberal Democrat coalition.

Is the Liberal Party an alternative to the Liberal Democrats?

Policy differences, between the Liberals and the Liberal Democrats, could increase the likelihood of the two parties contesting elections against each other. The Liberal Party has appealed to activists in the Liberal Democrats to join their party. However, prominent Liberal Democrat members, such as councillors, have joined the Labour Party rather than join the Liberal Party. Therefore, the Liberal Party’s influence remains limited and confined to local areas where they have support. They may continue to win council seats but are unlikely to win any parliamentary seats in this parliament. This is the case, while they do not put up parliamentary candidates such as in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election in 2011.

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