Economic liberals or social liberals? Pragmatists or ideologues? How Lib Dem members describe their own political identity

by Stephen Tall on October 18, 2014

Lib Dem Voice has polled our members-only forum  to discover what Lib Dem members think of various political issues, the Coalition, and the performance of key party figures. Almost 600 party members responded to this set of questions – thank you – in a supplementary poll ran just before the party conference.

How do Lib Dem members think of their own political identity? I asked this question in April 2011, when the Coalition was less than a year old. With less than a year of the Coalition left, I thought it was time to revisit it.

60% social liberals, 29% economic liberals; 64% pragmatists, 16% ideologues

We asked… Please tick any or all of the descriptions below that you would be happy for someone else to use to describe you: (Comparisons with April 2011 in brackets.)

    90% (+3) – Liberal
    73% (+13) – Internationalist
    72% (+7) – Progressive
    64% (+9) – Pragmatic
    60% (-4) – Social liberal
    59% (+7) – Reformer
    49% (+4) – Centre-left
    45% (+1) – Civil libertarian
    47% (+3) – Radical
    47% (+6) – Green
    34% (=) – Social democrat
    33% (=) – Moderate
    33% (+3) – Moderniser
    30% (+5) – Keynesian
    29% (-6) – Economic liberal
    25% (-2) – Centrist
    16% (-4) – Ideological
    15% (-6) – Libertarian
    13% (-1) – Free marketeer
    10% (+1) – Centre-right
    9% (-7) – Mainstream
    1% – None of these
    0% – Don’t know

This is the kind of debate which can to easily become bogged-down in semantics, with some phrases (eg, economic liberalism, social democrat) loaded with historical baggage not always inferred by those using the descriptors of themselves. Nonetheless, there are some interesting findings here.

First, let’s look at the two terms with greatest currency at the moment to describe the different ‘left/right’ wings of the party. Six-in-10 Lib Dem members identify themselves as ‘social liberals’ (‘left’), twice as many as the 29% who self-identify as ‘economic liberals’ (‘right’) — though, interestingly, both labels have declined a little in popularity since 2011. However, centre-left (49%) is a much more popular self-descriptor than centre-right (10%).

What there’s no evidence for in this survey is the party membership ‘lurching to the right’, as is sometimes commonly assumed must have happened during the course of this parliament as Lib Dem membership declined by one-third. As we didn’t ask the question before the Coalition was formed, it’s impossible to know what an equivalent survey in 2009 would have shown (and of course our surveys are self-selecting, not a random sample). But it’s certainly not obvious looking at this data that the notion all those members who’ve left in the past four years were from the party’s liberal-left is sustainable. If that had been the case then you’d expect to see the proportions swing away from ‘social liberal’ towards ‘economic liberal’, but they don’t.

The biggest increase in self-identification is with being ‘internationalist’, up from 60% in 2011 to 73% today. That’s not surprising, and presumably is a reaction against the rise of Ukip and the prominence attached to anti-European / anti-immigration views in particular in the right-wing newspapers (ie, almost all mass market newspapers). Also increased significantly is identification with being ‘pragmatic’ — up from 55% to 64% — a sign perhaps that members are increasingly comfortable with the modus operandi of being in coalition.

And (as I mused in 2011) interesting to ponder what such a survey of the party 27 years ago, when we were the SDP/Liberal Alliance, would have shown: my guess is fewer than 90% of party members would have been happy to call themselves ‘liberal’, and more than 34% would have self-identified as ‘social democrat’. That latter descriptor appears to have more or less replaced by the term, ‘progressive’, which 72% of members willingly ascribe to themselves.

We then asked: How would you describe your own politics?

Almost 500 of you responded with your own free text description. Here’s the collective Wordle of how Lib Dem members describe ourselves:

ldv wordle identity

  • 1,500+ Lib Dem paid-up party members are registered with LibDemVoice.org. 586 completed the latest survey, which was conducted on 2nd and 3rd October.
  • Please note: we make no claims that the survey is fully representative of the Lib Dem membership as a whole. However, LibDemVoice.org’s surveys are the largest independent samples of the views of Lib Dem members across the country, and have in the past offered accurate guides to what party members think.
  • For further information on the reliability/credibility of our surveys, please refer to FAQs: Are the Liberal Democrat Voice surveys of party members accurate? and polling expert Anthony Wells’ verdict, On that poll of Lib Dem members.
  • The full archive of our members’ surveys can be viewed at www.libdemvoice.org/category/ldv-members-poll
  • * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.