In February 1988 Social Democratic Party delegates voted 273 to 28 to merge with the nearly twice as large Liberal Party. The two centrist groups had been partners under the Alliance banner since 1981, and began talking merger when their candidates won only 22 of 650 seats in 1987's parliamentary elections. While their formal merger was intended to strengthen future showings, it sealed a bitter feud between the Social Democrats and former Leader David Owen, who co-founded the party in 1981. Arguing that the Social Democrats would be swallowed up by the Liberals, Owen bolted with a clutch of followers. Social Democratic President Shirley Williams angrily accused Owen, a former Labor Foreign Minister, of "acting with impetuosity at the moment of crisis" and warned that "all of us will be losers" if the proposed union did not pass.
The Liberal Democrats distinguished themselves from the UK Conservative and Labour parties by being prepared to state clearly their views on sensitive issues such as the environment and monetary union. Party leader Paddy Ashdown portrayed himself as honest and brave enough to challenge widely-held assumptions about voters' views.
In 1992 Leader of the Social Democrats Paddy Ashdown made it absolutely clear that his non-negotiable requirement to enter into a coalition government is that the other party agrees to introduce legislation for proportional representation as quickly as possible. He felt most of the UK's problems over the last 40 years have been due to the ruling party being able to inflict its wishes on the people. In 1993 a Middle Alliance, led by the Liberal Democrats, was gaining popularity as the British public tires of both the political left and right. It may be more than a typical cycle as Conservatives feared the loss of seats. Leader Paddy Ashdown announced his goal was to take over the government.
Following the decisive victory of the Labour party in the 1997 general election the UK Liberal Democrats did not intend to form a coalition or merge with the Labour party. The two parties remained totally separate, and continued to oppose each other on some issues. The Liberal Democrats sought to negotiate strictly controlled areas on which cooperation with the Labour party would be possible. The party wished to ensure that politics in the UK was dominated by a progressive-liberal force and that it was at the center of this movement.
The popularity of the UK Liberal Democrats greatly increased under the leadership of Paddy Ashdown since 1988. Furthermore, the party was able to gain significant concessions from the Labour government. However, by 1998 it still faced a serious dilemma in that if it was too active in its constructive opposition to the government, then it risked gaining no further concessions. If it cooperated too closely with the government, then it risked losing its distinctiveness. Ashdown must deal with many differing views about the Labour party within his own party.
Paddy Ashdown, who stepped down as leader of the UK Liberal Democrats in 1999, had done much to revive the party's fortunes. However, it was uncertain whether his vision of healing the divisions between Labourism and Liberalism and bringing about constitutional change in the UK would be fulfilled now that he is taking a lower profile. His departure at the very least prompted both the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats to take time to reassess how they are benefiting from their cooperation. There were many arguments in favor of the Liberal Democrats retaining their distinctiveness and independence.
The question of who replaced Paddy Ashdown as leader of the UK Liberal Democrats may determine the future of Prime Minister Tony Blair's efforts to transform the political scene, create closer links between the Labour and Liberal traditions and introduce a new radical element into politics. Ashdown was clearly very important to Blair, as reflected in Blair's recent decision to send Ashdown to the Balkans as his envoy. The main contender to replace Ashdown was Charles Kennedy, but he is facing strong competition from Menzies Campbell.
In 1999 the new UK Liberal Democrats leader, Charles Kennedy, discussed the challenges he faced. His desire that his party supports the poor, the dispossessed and the powerless is emphasized, and his commitment to environmental issues is also highlighted. The need to continue exerting pressure for a shift towards proportional representation is detailed. The Liberal Democrats will both cooperate with the Labour party and continue to criticize Labour when necessary.
Liberal Democrats recognize that many of their seats were gained because Labour supporters voted Liberal Democrat tactically because they wanted to oust the Conservatives. The UK Labour party and the Liberal Democrats placed strong emphasis at the national level on cooperation. However, at local level there was much less harmony between the two parties. At the national level, the two parties were motivated to cooperate to remove the Conservatives from power, but at local level the Conservatives had not necessarily been very successful, thus making cooperation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats unnecessary. Local politicians remained unwilling to consider inter-party cooperation at any price.
The Liberal Democrat platform states that "Britain's reputation has been damaged by dodgy arms deals with dictators, allegations of involvement in torture, and of course the disastrous and illegal invasion of Iraq.... Time is running out for the mission in Afghanistan. Unless we change direction, failure is inevitable. We should be encouraging a regional peace process working towards a ceasefire and ultimately a political and constitutional settlement within Afghanistan. A strategy of political reconciliation is now necessary....
"Britain needs to move away from a Cold War-style posture towards a more relevant armed forces structure. If we are to continue to have the capability to be a force for good in the world we need far greater cooperation with our NATO and EU partners. Liberal Democrats do not believe that the UK can afford the billions of pounds the Government wants to spend on a like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system. Full-scale Trident is a cold war system that we no longer need nor can afford. We believe that less expensive alternatives should be considered.
By 2010 Nick Clegg was Leader of the Liberal Democrats. In 1999 hes was elected Member of the European Parliament for the East Midlands - the first liberal Parliamentarian in the whole region since the 1930s. Clegg was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats in December 2007 after a leadership campaign in which I focused on reaching out beyond the party to new voters.
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