In the Guardian last week, Timothy Garton-Ash argued that the Liberal Democrats’ distinctive identity is being lost both by coalition with the Conservatives and by other parties’ appropriation of the “liberal” label:
The Liberal Democrats should change their name to the Liberals. Here’s why. First of all, Liberal Democrats is a pretty meaningless name. That’s liberal democrats as opposed to illiberal democrats, is it? Or as opposed to liberal anti-democrats?
Lib Dems, to which they are usually abridged, is even emptier. The name sounds like the product of an awkward compromise, which is exactly what it is. When the Liberal party, an old party with a grand tradition, merged in 1988 with the recently formed Social Democratic party, a breakaway from the then not so liberal Labour party, the new entity was called the Social and Liberal Democrats. The press rapidly reduced this to the “Slids” or the “Salads”.
“We all agreed we needed a single, short name,” notes the then party leader, Paddy Ashdown, in a footnote to the published version of his diary for September 1988. He wanted “the Democrats”. More than a year later, in his diary entry for 16 October 1989, he exulted: “The results of the ballot on the name were announced today. Overwhelmingly in favour of Liberal Democrats. That problem, at least, is behind us. Huge relief.”
When I recently put to Ashdown my suggestion that his party should now adopt a genuinely single, short and meaningful name, he said he thought the idea would not face strong internal opposition, but party members would ask: “Why bother? Is that really so important?”
The Lib Dems are the only ones who are almost all actually liberals. The story they need to tell – and their political survival may depend on it – is not only about how they represent the great tradition of liberalism as best adapted to 21st-century Britain. It is also about how they alone can keep the other two parties, if not honest (too much to ask of any politician), then at least more liberal.
That is their task in this coalition with the Conservatives, and that would be their task in a future coalition with Labour. That’s why they’re still worth having. And that’s the final reason why, at their next party conference, the Liberal Democrats should change their name to the Liberals.
[You can read the full piece here.]
Five political parties registered in the UK have “Liberal” titles; besides the Liberal Democrats, we have Liberal Party [The], Liberators, Local Liberals People Before Politics Party, and the National Liberal Party, The Third Way.
Twenty seven political parties have “democrat” in their title or description, including the 21st Century Conservative Democrats and even the Apolitical Democrats.
So is the “Liberal” and “Democratic” ground becoming too crowded? It’s common for organisations to rebrand, including changing their corporate colours, as the Liberal Democrats did in 2009. Some organisations find (or coin) a single word that sums up their purpose – though it’s hard to see how the words ‘Labour’ or ‘Conservatives’ capture the image those parties would now like to project.
I don’t think “Liberal” is sufficient, as Garton-Ash proposes.
Bearing in mind the coming referendum campaign, with the emphasis on people’s votes being counted and reflected, I’d suggest it’s more important than ever that we stress both halves of our double-barrelled name.