How Lib Dem members describe their political identity: ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’ and ‘social liberal’ top the bill

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. Over 530 party members have responded, and we’re currently publishing the full results.

LDV asked: Please tick any or all of the descriptions below that you would be happy for someone else to use to describe you:

    87% – Liberal
    65% – Progressive
    64% – Social liberal
    60% – Internationalist
    55% – Pragmatic
    52% – Reformer
    45% – Centre-left
    44% – Civil libertarian
    44% – Radical
    41% – Green
    35% – Economic liberal
    34% – Social democrat
    33% – Moderate
    30% – Moderniser
    27% – Centrist
    25% – Keynesian
    21% – Libertarian
    20% – Ideological
    16% – Mainstream
    14% – Free marketeer
    9% – Centre-right
    4% – Other (please specify)

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.

Amost two-thirds of members (64%) identify themselves as ‘Social liberal’, compared with 35% happily self-identifying with ‘Economic liberal’: given these are the two terms with greatest currency at the moment to describe the different ‘left/right’ wings of the party, it’s interesting that social liberals outnumber economic liberals 2:1, according to our survey.

Interesting, too, to ponder what such a survey of the party 25 years ago, when we were the SDP/Liberal Alliance, would have shown: my guess is fewer than 87% 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 65% of members willingly ascribe to themselves.

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

Over 400 of your responded with your own free text description. Here’s the collective Wordle of how Lib Dem members describe ourselves:

Liberal Identity Wordle

  • Almost 1,300 Lib Dem paid-up party members are registered with Over 530 responded to the latest survey, which was conducted between 18th and 24th April.
  • Please note: we make no claims that the survey is fully representative of the Lib Dem membership as a whole. However,’s surveys are the largest independent samples of the views of Lib Dem members across the country, and have in the past accurately predicted the winners of the contest for Party President, and the result of the conference decision to approve the Coalition agreement.
  • The full archive of our members’ surveys can be viewed at
  • Read more by .
    This entry was posted in LDV Members poll.


    • ^ Mark:

      You have to sign up for them, I think. If you sign up for a forums account you’ll have the option of being included, and LDV’ll email you when one’s out. That’s how they keep it members only.

    • Socially liberal can also mean liberal on social (non economic) matters e.g. attitudes to homosexuality, abortion, drugs. Was the phrase defined?

    • I think I ticked about a third of the boxes including some slightly contradictory ones because I felt affinities with both. Meh.

      Looking at the word cloud does prompt the idea of renaming the party the “Social Liberal” party.

    • @Richard

      Socially liberal can also mean liberal on social (non economic) matters e.g. attitudes to homosexuality, abortion, drugs. Was the phrase defined?

      Yes, that’s actually what I’ve always assumed the definition of ‘social liberal’ is – it’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve heard it used otherwise (though maybe I just didn’t notice before).

      If ‘social liberal’ is now coming to mean ‘centre-left’ or something similar, then what is the difference between ‘social liberal’ and ‘social democrat’?

    • Free Social Democrat 1st May '11 - 2:43am

      @Catherine: Social liberalism is different to social democracy. Social liberalism is liberalism with the economic liberalism pared down, and replaced with support for the welfare state and a mixed economy. Compared to classical liberalism, soclib is similar on social issues, but much more progressive on economic and welfarist issues.

      Generally, in Britain, when we say ‘liberal’ we almost always mean ‘social liberal’. On the other hand, in mainland Europe, liberalism without the social prefix means an ideology closer to classical liberalism, liberal on economic issues, pro-business and anti-welfarist.

      Social democracy is to the left of soclib, supports public spending and the welfare state, collectivism, equality and trade unionism far more strongly and explicitly. Social democracy is a centre-left ideology whilst social liberalism is closer to the centre of the political spectrum.

    • Nick (not Clegg) 1st May '11 - 1:54pm


      I defined my political position as Liberal and left of centre (I’m not sure about (centre-left) long before the SDP was formed and before the words “social democrat” were commonly used, or clearly defined, within the context of British politics.

      I recall a Liberal Party public meeting, circa 1970, during the course of which a member of the audience described himself as a “social democrat”. After the meeting several Liberal Party members gathered around him to enquire what he meant and where he was coming from. Very much in the spirit of liberalism, rather than shout down hecklers, as is the wont of the other two parties, they were eager to engage with others and explore different points of view (contrast some current contributors to LDV who deride as “trolls”, etc. those who have the temerity to disagree with them.)

      If one accepts FSD’s definitions of Social Liberalism and Social Democracy, i would be very happy to be a member of a party which resulted from a marriage between the two: is that not what tthe Liberal Democrats were conceived to be?

      For the past year, I have been feeling less and less “at home” as a member of the Liberal Democrats. The results of this poll and the activities of the Social Liberal Forum encourage me to to hope that all is not lost and that I should presevere as a member and continue to fight my corner from within the party. Much as I deplore the current government, leaving the LibDems is not an attractive option since I have no other “political home” to go to.

    • Liberal? Progressive? Moderate? So why are you propping up Cameron’s reactionary gang then?

    • Joe Donnelly 1st May '11 - 4:26pm

      I’m quite impressed it took 14 comments before someone like MacK turned up

    • @Joe Donnelly

      Well, it is the Bank Holiday.

    • Simon McGrath 1st May '11 - 6:29pm

      @geoffrey “liberals were very much a Green party in those days, even going as far as supporting a policy of no-Growth economics in the tradition of JS Mill”

      Not my recollection of the old liberal party but surely we should all be glad Mill was wrong on this one. Not sure many of us would be happy with a mid Victorian standard f living

    • @FSD, Nick and Geoffrey – thanks, that’s an interesting summary of where the two traditions come from and how they differ. I guess I’d define myself as mostly a social liberal but probably closer to social democrat on a few issues (such as localism).

    • David Allen 2nd May '11 - 12:22am

      “Maybe Mr Clegg is a bit busy to respond to open letters with running the country and everything”

      Maybe Mr Clegg should spend a few minutes doing what all governing politicians should do, which is to engage in a proper dialogue with their own parties and supporters, and make sure that there is a broad consensus in favour of what their government is doing. Maybe, when Mr Clegg has made a great virtue of his ability to pause and listen, he should engage with people like Geoffrey Payne, rather than just waiting for the local elections to be over before moving ahead with health privatisation.

      All we hear from Clegg at the moment is how hard it all is, and how he just wants to be recognised as a human being. Reminds me of John Major.

    • Free Social Democrat 2nd May '11 - 2:01am

      @Stuart Wheatcroft, the political ideology known as social liberalism is a different concept to being socially liberal. Although obvious both overlap!

    • Kevin Colwill 2nd May '11 - 9:09am

      Guys…lovey little academic debate but ever wonder how Lib Dem voters define themselves? Where you stand as the only party that can beat Labour they define themselves as anti-Labour and where, as in the rural South West, you are the only party that can beat the Tories they define themselves as anti-Tory.

      BTW…Orange bookers seem to me no more than economic right wingers who think gay marriage is a good thing…think most of the Tory front bench. If by “Social liberals” we mean the old radical left of centre, 1p on income tax, support for a prualist ecomony – they seem to me, well, defeated. Sad, I liked them.

    • Kevin Colwill 2nd May '11 - 12:18pm

      @ Niklas Smith…and those who share his views. So, there are no real differences between you and the Cameron Tory party? If there aren’t, or none that you can explain simply on the back on an envlope to a rather dim ordinary voter like myself, what is the point of you being in the Lib Dem’s – like the logo better, Orange a your favourite colour?

      I can understand how a civil libertarian however economic right wing would not be able to back the old gay hating, hang ’em and flog ’em Tories but the Tory party has genuinely changed accross a broad civil liberty of issues.

      The Tories also gave up on the corn laws a long time ago. If free market, cut the state down to a minimium, cut taxes/ limit benefits, get private companies running as many services as possible, etc is your thing then you’re 99% of the way to being a Tory…just start taking the Daily Mail and you’re there!

    • @Kevin

      The Tories also gave up on the corn laws a long time ago. If free market, cut the state down to a minimium, cut taxes/ limit benefits, get private companies running as many services as possible, etc is your thing then you’re 99% of the way to being a Tory…just start taking the Daily Mail and you’re there!

      The day I can read the Daily Mail without retching will be… let’s not go there! But apart from that, I don’t recognise much of that policy list as being Lib Dem, not even of the Orange Book variety.

      Free market? Yes, absolutely – but the Tories aren’t economically liberal free marketeers, they’re capitalists which is a very different thing (IIRC Vince Cable wrote an article a while back with a nice definition of the difference).

      Cut the state down to a minimum? No – and I’d be surprised if you can find even one Lib Dem MP (or member) who advocates that. But that doesn’t mean the state is automatically the answer to every social problem either – there are some things the state does well and some things that volunteers or the private sector can usually do better. Personally, I’m probably not too far from Blair’s ‘third way’ when it comes to state vs private.

      Cut taxes / limit benefits? Not by default, but I’m very much in favour of ensuring that someone in work is better off than someone on benefits – with the obvious exception of disability benefits (which I think are being cut too much at the moment). I do not believe that anyone but the tiniest minority of people would really choose a life on benefits, because there is a dignity in working and earning a living and to just throw cash at people and leave them on benefits for their entire life is to deny them a chance of a (hopefully) satisfying career and the self-esteem that tends to go with that.

      Regardless of the reason for someone being out of work, studies show that it leads to feeling of low self-worth (even if it’s due to circumstances out of their control, which it usually is). But if they’re financially better-off on benefits then it doesn’t make rational sense for them to work, so anything the government can do to avoid that kind of disincentive is a good thing in my book.

      As a side note – even on social matters I think you paint a very optimistic picture of how far the Conservative party has come. I don’t doubt that Cameron and many (most?) of his front-bench have given up on homophobia, sexism (well, overt sexism anyway) and many other historic prejudices. But they still lean strongly towards interfering in people’s private lives and relationships in order to make them live the way they think is ‘best’. I only need to listen to Cameron’s thoughts on marriage for confirmation that I could never support his party. And of course, the less said about many of his backbenchers the better…

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