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Just who are the Liberal Democrats?

This article is over 13 years, 10 months old
The leaders’ television debates have thrown the election into chaos.
Issue 2199

The leaders’ television debates have thrown the election into chaos.

The Liberal Democrats, long the “third party” of British politics, have been suddenly catapulted into first place in some polls.

It seems that millions of people switched their support to the Lib Dems overnight. And the polls also say Lib Dem head Nick Clegg has become the most popular party leader for 60 years.

Since the first debate, a Facebook group backing the Lib Dems has attracted more than 130,000 members.

Some­ – especially sections of young people – are starting to believe the party offers a fresh, new alternative to tired old Gordon Brown and Tory toff David Cameron.

At the first debate, Nick Clegg said, “We can do something new; we can do something different this time. That’s what I’m about – that’s what the Liberal Democrats offer.”

But that is a lie.

The roots of today’s Liberal Democrats can be traced back to the 19th century Liberal Party – then one of Britain’s two main establishment parties.

It was a party of the new capitalist industrialists. Its main policy platform was the expansion of free trade. The Tories were then the party of the landed aristocracy.

This ruling class party presided over many of history’s great outrages, from the First World War to the partition of Ireland.


It is sometimes given the credit for “creating the welfare state” – but in reality it only made steps towards reform under pressure after the creation of the Labour Party.

And as history shows, the Liberals are no friends of trade unions and the workers’ movement.

In 1911, during the “Great Unrest”, Liberal chancellor Lloyd George ordered troops to gun down railway strikers in Wales.

And later, under Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s, the party backed the Tories and bosses on their anti-union laws and vicious attacks on the Miners’ Strike.

The modern Liberal Democrats were formed in 1988, when the remnants of the old Liberal Party merged with the new Social Democratic Party (SDP).

The SDP was a split from the Labour Party – by a clique who believed Labour had become too left wing, railing against a supposed “drift towards extremism” and the “growth of Leninism” in the Labour Party.

Their aim was to destroy Labour and replace it with a party with no links to the troublesome trade unions. Today the Lib Dems continue this tradition by calling for strike bans in “essential public services”.

During last year’s three-month bin workers’ strike in Leeds, Lib Dem council leader Richard Brett spent day after day attacking the workers.

He accused them of deliberately going sick to get more overtime, and threatened to privatise the service.

Nick Clegg is part of the most free market right wing faction within the Lib Dems.

He is an opportunist, taking advantage of the “anti-politics” mood in the country by blasting both of the “big two” parties.

He is exploiting the lack of a mainstream alternative in the election.

A leaked Lib Dem campaign handbook tells candidates, “You can secure support from voters who normally vote Tory by being effectively anti-Labour and similarly in a Tory area secure Labour votes by being anti-Tory.”

So nationally the party tries to play to the left and the right at the same time.

They talk about their opposition to the war in Iraq – but then “forget” to mention that they backed it once it started.

They call for cuts to the Trident nuclear weapons – but only the most minimal reductions.

Meanwhile the party’s manifesto says they are “critical supporters of the Afghan mission”.

The Lib Dems are pro-boss politicians – they just keep a bit quieter about it.

Their manifesto calls for public sector cuts focusing on “pay and public sector pensions”.

They slam “corrupt MPs dependent on money from the unions”.

Yet Clegg lives in a £1.3 million mansion in south London – and an expenses-funded second home in Sheffield. He is a private-schooled, Cambridge-educated son of a banker.

Gordon Brown is playing up the idea of an “anti-Tory alliance” with the Lib Dems. But the Lib Dems’ policy of “equidistance” means a Liberal-Tory coalition is just as likely.

On the biggest issue of the election, cuts, the Lib Dems offer no alternative.

Clegg said at the party’s conference last year, “I have said there will need to be cuts – cuts that are savage and bold.”

Socialists should savage him in return.


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