Thursday, 29 July 2010

A Tale of Two Parties

No, not those two parties, but the other, more long-running coalition in British politics - that between the Liberals and the SDP. In recent weeks, the polling share of the Liberal Democrats has been subject to scrutiny and usually proclaimed in tones of doom and gloom. Although my trawling of Political Betting has yet to unearth the article I read earlier, some polls are suggesting that the LDs have shed almost 50% of their support. Bad news? In my view, only for 50% of the party.

As I have blogged before, the coalition was always going to be a watershed moment for the Liberal Democrats. They had never been in power - the old Liberal Party that held office during the early decades of the last century was such a different beast that the Liberal Democrats cannot truly be considered much of an ideological successor to it. During long years of opposition elements of the party developed quite a taste for it, and they became the catch-all recipient of 'plague on both houses' protest voting. This broad coalition was far too fractious to survive exposure to responsibility.

Given this, the days after the general election were not only a pivotal moment in British politics, but a critical phase in the internal battle in the heart of the Liberal Democrats. Power has given the party an opportunity to develop a solid base amongst the electorate, which may shape the role and fortunes of the party for a long time to come. This was not lost on either side, which explains why the likes of Vince Cable appeared so desperate to secure what appeared to be a deeply impractical - if not impossible - coalition of every non-conservative party in parliament. However the "Orange-Book" Liberals, including Nick Clegg, were able to seize the initiative and, assisted by the parliamentary arithmetic, took their party into coalition with the Conservatives.

Since then, the Liberal Democrats have lost roughly half their support. Although clearly this is a picture painted in rather broad strokes, nonetheless it does not appear unreasonable to suggest that it is the left-of-centre support of the party that has eroded. Right-0f-centre Liberal Democrat voters can't have been disappointed by the election of a Blue-Gold Coalition. Rather, their seeing the Liberal Democrats taking tough action on the deficit and reigning in the extremist elements of the Conservative party may well have strengthened their support.

On the other hand, left-of-centre support for the party appears to have haemorrhaged. The post-election Labour recovery has hardly been at the expense of the Conservatives. Once stung, twice shy - left-leaning LDs may find it harder to tempt their voters away from Labour in future. This is why the poll rating are suched mixed news for the party. For the right, they represent a possible new dawn - a solid electoral base of their own a governmental record to boot. For the left, on the other hand, it represents potential annihilation. If the Coalition government lasts the full five years, and Osborne's cuts are as tough as expected, the Liberal Democrats may never be able to define themselves as a left-wing party again. Might the party's left-wing members follow their voters back to the Labour Party?

This leads into another common theme in recent dicussions of the Liberal Democrats - could they split? Leftwing social democrats like Vince Cable, Simon Hughes et al could probably find safe Labour seats if they so chose, and it isn't difficult to imagine several left-LD's crossing the floor as the cuts start to bite and their poll rating mines the depths of oblivion. As for the right, David Davis has been heard talking of a possible non-competition agreement between the Conservatives and rightwing Liberals.

The Conservative Party has had similar multi-party arrangements before - right up until the mid-sixties the Conservative parliamentary group was a mess of people who stood variously as Conservative, Unionist, National Liberal, Liberal Unionist and even Progressive. Additionally on three earlier occasions in British history the right wing of the Liberal party has merged with the Conservatives (only once, under Peel, has it been the other way round). If the same thing happens again, with the Cleggite Liberals striking a deal with the Conservatives, the 'new politics' may instead come to resemble the very old, more fluid politics of pre-WWII Britain.


  1. Interestng article to be sure.

    Yet I'd like to add to this. If Holyrood 2011 goes the way we all worry it might, we may see the Scots Tory & Unionists changing name, organisational structure and even ending the 1970s merger.

    This would only add to your argument of a reversal back to more fluid [and politically superior] pre-WW2 politics.

  2. I worry about that. The situation of the pre-merger Conservative aligned parties (Unionist, Progressive, National Liberal) was the unique product of decades of political evolution - it would be impossible to simply bring back by design. I worry that if we cut the Scottish Conservative Party loose it will simply succumb to its worst apologist instincts and there will be no Conservative & Unionist option, by any name, north of the border at all.