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

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 was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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    38 Comments

    • 60% social liberals yet your party is led by economic liberals. There’s either a dearth of democracy in the Lib Dems or members are in complete denial about what’s happening to the party.

    • Well there’s absolututely nothing progressive about George Galloway…

    • @Tim Oliver:

      ” twice as many voters described Jeremy Clarkson as “progressive” as George Galloway”

      despite them both having ‘interesting'(sic) attitudes to women, I am surprised that anyone would ever describe Jeremy Clarkson as George Galloway. 😉

    • Stuart Wheatcroft 18th Oct '14 - 12:03pm

      Any chance of some analysis of the correlations? I realise it’d be a huge undertaking, unless there’s some handy software available to the LDV team, but I think it would be quite interesting.

      For example, I identify as both an economic liberal and a social liberal. Many other economic liberals feel similarly (though my sense is that this identification has diminished somewhat thanks to the increasing identification of social liberalism with the Social Liberal Forum). I’d be interested in seeing this, and other overlaps, quantified.

      It might also cast some light on some other results. For example, the score for “civil libertarian” seems a bit low for a party that puts such emphasis on civil liberties. Is it the word “libertarian” which is causing the issue? Do we just not consider it a useful label? Or is this something we care about that doesn’t always express itself in an identity? (I’m discounting the possibility that half of members just aren’t that bothered, though perhaps I shouldn’t!)

      It’s always nice to see that “liberal” is doing well.

    • Looks like the Jeremy Browne fan club is never that big after all.

      16% (-4) – Ideological

      13% (-1) – Free marketeer

    • Conor McGovern 18th Oct '14 - 1:02pm

      Would go for:
      – Liberal
      – Green
      – Civil libertarian
      – Radical
      – Moderniser
      – Pragmatic
      – Libertarian
      – Social liberal
      – Economic liberal
      – Reformer

    • The ditching of “democratic” is compatible with support for remaining in the undemocratic EU.

    • Max Wilkinson 18th Oct '14 - 3:30pm

      Do these results suggest that at least 10% are in the wrong party?

    • War is peace
      Freedom is slavery
      Ignorance is strength
      Economic liberalism is social liberalism

    • jedibeeftrix 18th Oct '14 - 4:56pm

      @ Max – I presume you refer to the: “10% (+1) – Centre-right”

      Let me play turnaround: are the Centre-left the people with problems?

      “49% (+4) – Centre-left”

      😉

    • Conor McGovern 18th Oct '14 - 5:34pm

      Or the 10% who don’t call themselves liberal? 😉

    • Max Wilkinson 18th Oct ’14 – 3:30pm
      Do these results suggest that at least 10% are in the wrong party?

      Not sure, but it certainly seems to show that the hardline disciples of Orange Bookery are a small minority —
      90% (+3) – Liberal
      73% (+13) – Internationalist
      72% (+7) – Progressive
      60% (-4) – Social liberal
      59% (+7) – Reformer
      49% (+4) – Centre-left
      45% (+1) – Civil libertarian
      47% (+3) – Radical
      47% (+6) – Green
      34% (=) – Social democrat

      13% (-1) – Free marketeer

    • Paul In Wokingham 18th Oct '14 - 6:21pm

      Well I did this poll and frankly don’t recall exactly what set of buttons I selected although I’m pretty sure I didn’t say I was a libertarian or centre-right. It seemed to me that there were just too many things from which you could select. I can easily imagine that 10% of people simply failed to see the “Liberal” field.

      But assuming (as seems fair) that this self selecting sample of 600 includes a higher than average number of committed activists then it is abundantly clear is that the current party leadership does not reflect the political views of the grassroots.

      As if we needed to be reminded of that…

    • jedibeeftrix 18th Oct '14 - 6:26pm

      @ Conor – ah, quite right.

    • Max Wilkinson 18th Oct '14 - 7:11pm

      Yes. What Conor said.

    • Stiofan Hinde 18th Oct '14 - 7:39pm

      The libertarian category should be split into libertarian left and libertarian right. If you’re a libertarian Lib Dem, is it informed by Murray Bookchin or Murray Rothbard?

    • Stephen Hesketh 18th Oct '14 - 9:40pm

      It has to be green, egalitarian Liberal for me.

      Also happy with preamble, radical, communitarian, internationalist and pro-free trade Liberal.

      Guess this makes me a fairly typical left of centre, mainstream, pragmatic, Social Liberal.

      I have my fingers crossed that my friend Simon Shaw does not descend on me for writing ‘left of centre’ but for additional clarification I mean that I am a pro-fairness, anti-envy, radical egalitarian Liberal who sees no need to reference this to the Labour Party, its alleged belief in, or insincere pursuit of such democratic left of centre beliefs).

      I am unable to use the term ‘economic liberal’ while there is ANY confusion with this term also being associated with small state ideologs and corporate monopolies riding roughshod over individuals, communities and states.

    • Eddie Sammon 18th Oct '14 - 10:08pm

      Stephen Hesketh, I have been hoping to bump into you, you seem to represent the pragmatic centre-left and have always been welcoming to others. Logically I have no problems with the party being centre-left, the problem is I don’t seem to agree with centre-left policies very much. I can understand the philosophy, but then I think of the likes of the Guardian, the New Statesman and some of the more controversial politicians and move away from it.

      Basically I want to say I don’t think there is a big difference between centrists like me and centre-leftists like you. I sometimes sound hostile, but I don’t mean to be hostile to the entire centre-left.

    • Stephen Hesketh 18th Oct '14 - 10:14pm

      Simon Shaw 18th Oct ’14 – 10:09pm

      Good evening Simon 🙂

    • Graham Evans 18th Oct '14 - 10:36pm

      The problem which many of these terms is that there is no consensus as to their meaning. I saw no contradiction in defining myself as both a social liberal and an economic liberal because my perception of economic liberalism is rather different to, for instance, that of John Tilley. Indeed it is interesting that John Tilley pejoratively ascribes the term idiological to Jeremy Browne, whereas it is my perception that it is John Tilley who is the ideologe. Similarly I am happy to describe myself as a libertarian, because I reject the idea that being a libertarian automatically involves pursuing a policy to its extreme, and sometimes ultimately nonsensical, conclusion. For me it instead provides a useful jumping off point in considering an issue, as I imagine being green does for others.

    • Surely a basis for Liberalism is liberty and the fact that all are equal in the eyes of the Law? A basis of English Law is that one is free to do anything unless a law forbids it. I would suggest a basis for a democratic society is that every person is responsible for their actions and accountable for them and none are except from criticism. All votes must be of equal worth so constituencies must be of equal size. No person or organisation can reduce the liberty of others .

      I would suggest that much Liberal thought until the 1960s was about in the pursuit of small government for the simple reason is that a larger the government becomes the more difficult it is to hold politicians and state employees accountable for their actions. If one looks at the size of the state before 1914 and the massive increase in size and secrecy since there are now two classes, the governing an governed. The fact that vast numbers of state employees were protected by Crown Immunity and even today cannot be fired without great cost means there is little accountability. The deaths at Mid Staffs Hospital and many others , means that with nobody being prosecuted , shows there is no accountability. The fact that Police can tazer a blind man or some one in diabetic coma on bus and not be prosecuted shows how many state employees are not held to account for their actions.

      I would ask how close is the present LD to the Liberal /Whig Party of the 18 and 19C ?

    • Tony Greaves 18th Oct '14 - 10:57pm

      One of the eternal problems of Liberals is their stubborn refusal to accept the meaning of many common political words as they are understood by most people! Hence some of the discussion here.

    • Peter Watson 18th Oct '14 - 10:59pm

      I’m sure that David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Boris Johnson and even Nigel Farage would use the top half-dozen to describe themselves, along with some of the other popular adjectives, so I am not convinced they are useful or distinctive for Lib Dems.
      For me, the most interesting point is centre-left out scoring centrist and centre-right.
      I’m a little disappointed that Green did not score higher
      I’m also surprised that Keynesian scored so highly: what does that mean, exactly?

    • “I’m also surprised that Keynesian scored so highly: what does that mean, exactly?”

      Those who quite like Milton Keynes.

      Where exactly is this centre that you can be left or right of? Do you have to be consistently to the left of the dividing line on every issue to identify as centre left or can you sometimes stray over into the centre right? Doesn’t the centre line continually move as society becomes generally more progressive. And with each issue. Mainstream Tories mostly support gay marriage so on that issue where is the centre line? On immigration the average view has hardened, moved right, so again the centre line has moved. The labels are nonsense. I am generally to the left of most Tory positions, though not all, and generally to the right of most Labour positions though not all. I detest PFI and outsourcing of most public services as simply adding managerial layers and private profit that could be stripped out to lower costs. That’s left of Labour who promoted both in power. But I also believe strongly in a balanced budget as left by Ken Clarke, that you should not spend what you don’t earn and should avoid borrowing wherever possible. That’s to the right, mainstream Tory. So where do I sit in the spectrum?

      I would like more state run and/or cooperative enterprises not less, so left. But no problem with them being in competition with private companies, so right. Manchester Airport is highly profitable and owner of Stansted, a highly successful commercial enterprise, yet 64.5% owned by the mostly Labour boroughs of Gtr Manchester so the profits come home. It is a fantastic model and God help the Government that tries to force privatise it. But is it left or right to back that model. I don’t know.

    • Tony Greaves’ point about what the various terms mean is spot on.
      The only one I know with some certainty is ‘Liberal’. I imagine ‘social liberal’ to mean someone who believes that society or the state have no rights to interfere in how individuals live their lives. I am at a complete loss however to
      imagine how ‘social democrat’ could be taken to be a synonym for
      ‘progressive’!

    • Graham Evans 18th Oct ’14 – 10:36pm

      Graham, my memory is not what it was but I cannot remember ever defining “economic liberalism”. Your perception of the term may be different from mine. I use the accepted meanings of common political descriptions, what do you use?

      Like Tony Greaves I am frustrated when people refuse to accept the meaning of many common political words as they are understood by most people.

      Left and Right are political terms which are understood throughout the world and have been since 1789. Refusing to use these words as they are understood worldwide is like discussing football whilst refusing to use the word “goal”.

      Of course there can be innovations, English is a living language. I do not pretend to know what the recently coined “360 degree Liberalism” means. Does anybody? Does it mean anything or was it just a gimmick by someone whose “race is now run”? Does it indicate that he was just running round in circles, chasing his own tail?

    • Matt (Bristol) 19th Oct '14 - 9:50am

      Egalitarian, communitarian, devolutionist, internationalist, constitutionalist democrat.

      Might answer to Liberal as a summary of the above, but suspicious of its potential to become in the usage of some an ideological strait-jacket.

      I might therefore be also termed ‘pragmatist’.

      Probably a lot more left-of-centre than right-of-centre, but when the centre keeps shifting about, why try to define it?

    • Interesting poll results and discussion.

      I’m surprised that the poll doesn’t evidence more of a ‘lurch to the right’ as anecdotally many social liberal / centre left people have left the Party while a larger proportion of new members are economic liberal / centre right. I can think of a couple of questions that might offer explanations for this.

      Firstly, how many new members have found the LDV members’ area and respond to the polls? I think year joined is one of the questions, so it would be interesting to know how well new members since 2011 are represented compared to the Party’s membership as a whole. Certainly the LDV comments are dominated by longterm members (and Labour trolls).

      Secondly, there is clearly still some confusion over the use of these terms. Given the amount of discussion about different viewpoints within the Party, have the remaining social liberals hardened in our likelihood to describe ourselves in that way?

    • A Social Liberal 19th Oct '14 - 6:33pm

      johnmc

      Here is a definition of Social Liberalism

      http://www.socialliberal.net/2009/02/12/what-is-social-liberalism/

    • Alan Marshall 23rd Oct '14 - 9:47am

      There are clear trends or messages from the poll, although I agree that there are some terms that are vaguer than others. The top 4 don’t really say much about people’s views within the internal debate about party direction. I would expect these to apply to all sides and most members anyway. Although I don’t think “progressive” has ever really been attributed to the right wing of politics. It tends to be used to indicate reform and social justice. But we can pass it by as this can be disputed.

      The next two identities that fit into the debates are Social Liberal (60%) and Centre-Left (49%). Reformer could mean almost anything. I agree that the term Social Liberal can be misunderstood by some, but I’m pretty sure that the bulk of those responding will be aware of the Social Liberal v Economic Liberal debate in the party and would know which side, if any, they tend towards. Either way, half the responders chose centre left. I would guess that virtually all of those also voted for Social Liberal. The remaining 10% being some who see the term as meaning something else or who think that Social Liberalism is more a centrist belief.

      It’s interesting that 49% is also about the same number who in a past poll were unhappy with Nick’s leadership of the party.

      The next significant term is Social Democrat, with a third of people identifying with it. Another centre left term.

      Economic Liberal, Centrist and centre-right are all way down in the rankings. This suggests that the party is largely full of people with centre-left beliefs, with a more centrist or centre right sections of about half the size. The conclusion? We are generally a centrist party with a strong centre left pull. Centre, centre left?

    • As a centre left social liberal, green and civil libertarian I very much welcome the results of this survey.
      It is always the case that there is an element of subjectivity when we choose these labels for ourselves. We may well attach different meanings to them and this is something that will never be fully resolved.
      What pleases me about this survey is that given the general election results we clearly need to change as a party. If the new leader of the party wants the party to shift to a more centre left position, this survey shows that he will not need to worry about fighting the party in order to do that.

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