The Lib Dems’ demise–and what might have been

I have long been something of a fan of the Liberal Democrats (and their immediate predecessors in the Alliance). So the result of the election saddens me to an extent. While (ex-)party leader and Deputy PM Nick Clegg held his seat, several of their best MPs, like Vince Cable and Simon Hughes, were dumped. This is a loss for British politics.

It is obvious that the party was punished by many of its previous voters for choosing to go into coalition with the Tories when many of their supporters would have expected them to partner with Labour if the opportunity ever came up. However, let’s put the strategic choice in context and ponder the alternatives the party’s leaders faced.

I suspect they would have fared worse from a coalition with Labour given that (1) Labour had clearly lost the 2010 election going from a majority to second place, and (2) It would have been a minority coalition dependent for survival on the SNP (and others).

The more interesting question is what would have happened if they had just agreed to back a minority Tory government, which was what I expected at the time.

The reason for not doing that was probably the fear that the Tories would call an early election and win a majority. The coalition, and the passage of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, prevented that. However, the political situation, as it turned out over the five-year term, meant that an early election was never in the Tories’ interests anyway, and in the end the Tories still won a majority. Would the LibDems have benefitted in this election from not being in power, and making the case that only liberalism could save the union? Yes, I think they would have. Maybe we’d be looking today at a real chance of a Lab-Lib coalition, which would have 4-5 seats in Scotland and an ambitious program of political reform.

Hindsight…

On the (minimally) bright side: The LibDems retain seats in England, Scotland, and Wales. Liberal ideas, still bridging divides. I hope the party will recover from this setback. It is too long and significant a fixture of the UK scene to whither away.

And I still agree with Nick.

Coalition vs. minority

The next UK general election is just over a year away, and the three biggest (as of now) parties are clearly positioning themselves for the likelihood that there will be no party with a majority of seats.

In such a situation, there would be two basic options: a single-party minority government of either Labour or the Conservatives, or a coalition of one of the big parties and a smaller one, which in this case means the Liberal Democrats.* The usual pattern in the UK, and also Canada, has been the former: a minority government that serves until it either is defeated by the combined opposition, or calls an early election (which results in either its defeat or its becoming a majority government). Until 2010, that is, when Conservative leader David Cameron opted to bring in the LibDems as a formal governing partner.

Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite, a large union with deep influence within the Labour Party, left no doubt as to where he stands. He said that, in the event Labour is the largest party but short of a majority, it should be “bold enough to form a minority government, set out its programme and dare MPs from the failed coalition parties to vote it down”.

That is, of course, the classic adversarial strategy expected in a fundamentally majoritarian system: treat the minority as an aberration, a temporary inconvenience that will be overcome as soon as swing voters see that the opposition is “obstructing” the largest party’s “right” to put its policies in place. It also is a majoritarian attitude in the sense of saying it is better to have absolute power for a while than to have shared power for a potentially longer time.

But what if minority situations are no longer an aberration? If voters do not trust either party with full power, McCluskey’s preferred strategy could be a dead end–ensuring frequent elections and alternating minorities. Or at least increased uncertainty about whether an early election would result in a majority. Not surprisingly, Nick Clegg, LibDem leader and Deputy PM, offers an alternative norm in a video interview. In it, he decries the “preposterous assertion” that each of the two big parties–including his current coalition partner, the Conservatives–feels it has a right to govern alone, even if it does not win a majority. He further calls the attitude of the big parties so “tribal” that they’d deprive the British people of the more “stable government” of a coalition.

Is Britain ready for this norm shift? Clegg’s message seems like the right one in light of ongoing trends in British politics–away from the near-certainty of single-party majorities. But Clegg may no longer be the right messenger for this alternative norm to the majoritarian, adversarial one.

Partly, the answer may come down to how the upcoming campaign shapes the voters’ verdict on how this first experience with coalition government has worked. A recent example of framing from the Labour side is offered by Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor. He argues, essentially, that coalition government has failed because the smaller party has not been a an important enough player in the cabinet.

I look at what the Liberal Democrats have done the last two or three years – these guys have not restrained the Conservatives; they have in many ways amplified and encouraged the Conservatives in things that they’ve done.

None of us want to be in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, partly because it’s hard to know what’s more unpopular at the moment – the Liberal Democrats or the idea of a coalition government.

Will the 2010-15 experience prove to have set back the development of a coalition-friendly norm of how British politics works, or will it prove to be just growing pains of a new model?

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* This does not exhaust the options. For example, a minority coalition is also possible. This is what the mooted Labour-LibDem coalition after the last election would have been. These two parties did not have a majority combined, and would have needed support from the Green MP, Scottish Nationalists, a Northern Ireland party or two, etc. None of these smaller parties was, to my knowledge, proposed to obtain ministerial portfolios, so they would not have been partners in the cabinet coalition.